The Holiday Season In Greece: Christmas And New Year’s Traditions You Should Know
- CHRISTMAS IN GREECE
- Decorate the Christmas Tree or a Karavaki?
- Traditional Christmas Treats: Put your Chef's Hat On!
- Singing Time: Christmas Carols
- When Do Kids receive their Gifts: December 25th or January 1st?
- Who is the Greek Santa? Agios Nikolaos or Agios Vasilios?
- Get Ready for The Christmas Feast
- Christopsomo (Bread of Christ): Treat Yourself
- NEW YEAR'S IN GREECE
- Kalikatzaroi - The Naughty Greek Goblins
- Caroling (again) in New Year’s Eve
- New Year's Feast
- Search for the Lucky Coin in Vasilopita
- Smash the Pomegranate
- The Onion On The Front Door
- The Tradition of Podariko
- THEOPHANY (FOTA OR THEOFANIA) IN GREECE
- Take a Dive during Epithany on January 6th
Celebrations for the Holiday Season start in Greece on December 25, when Jesus Christ was born, and end on January 6 on Epiphany Day, when Jesus Chris was bapted. The whole period is called Dodekaimero (12 days) as it lasts 12 days.
Most of these Holiday Traditions are based on Greek Orthodox religion, although over the years, new multicultural ideas have been adopted making various old school traditions fade.
CHRISTMAS IN GREECE
Christmas is now up and running in almost all countries of the world, including Greece. The festive spirit is everywhere you go and the streets are all lighted up. Are you ready to dig a bit deeper into the Greek tradition?
The main difference that visitors notice when in Greece during the holiday period, is that Christmas seems to be a much more low-key event than in other parts of the world, and certainly the United States. However, Greece and especially Athens is getting more and more into celebrating Christmas and you will see Christmas trees everywhere as well as many Christmas lights and decorations on the streets.
Naturally, you’re likely to come across many variations, or entirely different traditions and customs in various parts of Greece. Most of them, however, are increasingly departing from their past religious focus, and, now, their main focus is on the family and the gathering of loved ones.
Decorate the Christmas Tree or a Karavaki?
As in the rest of the world, a Christmas tree is a must in every house but did you know that until the 19th century the norm was to decorate a miniature boat called ‘karavaki’ rather than a Christmas tree? Don’t forget that Greece is a country surrounded by sea and its history and culture is strongly related to it. If you get lucky, you might still find the Christmas ‘karavaki’ in certain places.
Traditional Christmas Treats: Put your Chef’s Hat On!
Another difference between Christmas in Greece and in other parts of the world is in the Christmas treats.
Homemade melomakarona and kourambiedes are two examples of traditional Christmas sweets, and you can find them literally everywhere, and are offered plentifully as a gesture of hospitality over the Holiday period. They look nice, don’t they?!
Singing Time: Christmas Carols
Whilst in the main cities such as Athens you may see Christmas Carol singers on the streets on the week leading up to Christmas Day, it’s Christmas Eve, on December 24th, which is the big day for carol singers.
There’s a whole tradition behind it, which sees kids visit houses in their neighborhoods, ring a triangle, and sing the traditional Christmas carols.
As they go from house to house, they will collect sweets and other treats as a reward for their efforts. What types of songs do they sing? Take a look at the video below which gives a great taste of Christmas in Greece.
When Do Kids receive their Gifts: December 25th or January 1st?
Perhaps the biggest difference between Christmas in Greece and in other parts of the world though is the day on which Christmas gifts are exchanged. For many people all over the world, this is on the 25th of December (Christmas Day).
In Greece though, children receive their Christmas presents on New Year’s Day and not on Christmas Day. The Greek Santa Claus is called Saint (Agios) Vasilis. We celebrate his name day on January 1, so he brings presents on that day.
As with many things though, traditions change over time, and so some Greeks may give presents on Christmas day instead.
Really lucky kids might receive gifts on both Christmas and New Year’s Day!
What is the difference between Saint Nikolaos and Saint Vasilios and who is the Greek Santa after all?
Agios Nikolaos has a different story from Agios Vasilios. To understand the difference, we must look at each character separately.
Saint Nikolaos was a bishop in Myra in Lycia (Turkey) in the 3rd century. He was famous for his good deeds. The legend says that St. Nikolaos helped three children with his prayers to escape from a butcher who wanted to kill them. That is why he is the protector of children. He died on December 6, so this is the day we celebrate his memory.
After that, he traveled all over Europe to give gifts to children. Despite Lykia, St. Nikolaos became the protector of Georgia, Russia, Germany, and other countries. The name Claus is the diminutive of Nikolaos in German. Later, in the 18th century, Europeans transferred the legend of Santa Claus from Lapland to the United States and Canada.
Saint Vasilis (aka Greek Santa)
Saint Vasilios was one of the three Hierarchs, who lived in Caesarea of Cappadocia (Turkey), in the 4th century. He dedicated his life and possessions to the poor. He always took care of the needy. He built hospitals, nursing homes, and orphanages and his memory is honored by the Church on January 1.
In Greece, children wait for Saint Vasilios on January 1 rather than December 25. Greeks also celebrate the name “Vasilis” or “Vasiliki” on January 1. On this day they also eat the “Vasilopita”, a cake with a hidden coin inside. The name “Vasilopita” comes from the name of Saint Vasilios.
Get Ready for The Christmas Feast
Of course, you should not forget we are in Greece, where people love good food. The Christmas table on the day of the 25th will be absolutely filled with delicious food.
Whilst turkey is starting to feature on some tables during Christmas in Greece, chicken, pork or lamb are still firm favorites accompanied by a seemingly endless selection of side dishes which include potatoes, salads, and pies.
Christmas dinner in Greece is a family celebration. On the table are delicious dishes such as turkey or chicken, yiaprakia (stuffed cabbage leaves), and Christopsomo ( Christ’s bread).
Many Orthodox Christians who may have been fasting are now free to eat anything they want, and the entire family enjoys their Christmas Day meal together.
Christopsomo (Bread of Christ): Treat Yourself
In the end, everybody is served a piece of Christopsomo (bread of Christ), a special type of sweet, aromatic homemade bread. The father of the family blesses the bread before it is shared with everyone at the table.
Kalikatzaroi – The Naughty Greek Goblins
Kalikantzaroi, according to Greek tradition, are mischievous goblins who can do no harm to people. They are very ugly, small hairy creatures with long black tails and usually blind.
All of them have a drawback, some have only one eye, others can speak, etc. They feed on worms, frogs, snails, and other small creatures and only come out at night because they are afraid of the sun.
These goblins live in the center of the earth where they try to cut down the Tree of Life that holds the world together. They use a big saw and saw the tree all year round. But for 12 days a year, they can come to the surface of the earth, from Christmas Day (12/25) to Theofania (12/6). They always try to hurt people, even though they can’t, but while they are trying to do that, they cause lots of trouble.
They enter homes through windows, chimneys, keyholes, or even through cracks in doors. To protect themselves from them, according to legend, housewives always keep the fireplace burning and close the windows and doors when night falls.
On January 6, the Kalikantzaroi are frightened because the Greek priests bless the houses with holy water. When the goblins return to the center of the earth, they find that the Tree of Life is fully grown again, and they start to chop it down again with their huge and sharp saw, until the next Christmas.
NEW YEAR’S IN GREECE
Caroling (again) on New Year’s Eve
Meanwhile, the town is still lighted up as New Year’s Day is approaching. Children won’t miss another chance for a little extra pocket money, so the previous morning they’ll go caroling again, keeping up the festive spirit.
New Year’s Feast
On New Year’s Eve, the most common main dish is pork. There are many different recipes with pork that Greeks make all over Greece, such as lemon pork or stew.
Another very popular dish is avgolemono (egg and lemon chicken soup).
Search for the Lucky Coin in Vassilopita
‘The cutting of Vassilopita’ on the 1st of January is a Greek custom not to be missed.
‘Vasilopita’ is a sweet bread or cake (depending on the variation) in which people hide a coin (flouri) before baking it. The Vassilopita is ‘blessed’ by the householder and a piece is given to every member of the larger family and guests.
The one who wins the coin hidden in its slice is the lucky one for the coming year and a small prize or money is offered to him by the host.
Smash the Pomegranate
After the countdown to New Year’s, a pomegranate is smashed at the entry of the house, and the seeds that spread on the floor symbolize the number of children that the family is to be blessed with during the year.
The already existing ones though, are soon to be sent off to bed! For grown-ups, on the other hand, the fun is just getting started…
The Onion On The Front Door
On New Year’s Eve, one onion is placed on the front door. The onion is the symbol of rebirth and growth because of its different layers and ability to produce new life after being taken from the Soil.
Some people cover it in foil to ward off evil spirits and make hanging easier. It is removed from the doorway on New Year’s morning by the parents. The onion is being kept as it is believed that it brings good health and longevity.
The Tradition of Podariko
Podariko is another exciting New Year’s tradition. The word podariko comes from the Greek word “podi”, which means foot. But why foot on New Year’s Day?
The reason for this tradition is that the Greeks believed that it was very important who was the first person to pass the door on New Year’s Day. That person would bring good or bad luck, so the homeowners ask the person to step with the right leg first. The right leg brings prosperity and happy moments because, according to tradition, it is the lucky foot.
THEOPHANY (FOTA OR THEOFANIA) IN GREECE
We Dare You: Take a Dive during Epiphathy on the 6th of January
The holidays gradually come to an end on the day of Theophania, the 6th of January (Epiphany), which holds a tradition reserved for the brave: during a holy ceremony, a priest blesses a cross and then throws it into the water. Anyone, that is brave enough to dive in the cold winter water, can try to catch it.
The one who finds the cross and brings it back onto the surface is supposed to have good luck for the rest of the year. The winner will then go from door to door, people will kiss the cross as a sign of worship, and give money to its holder as a gesture of admiration.
Best season to visit
Find out the where to go and what to do in Greece with the family. Book with us for amazing family memories.
Get inspired by our top ideas for vacation in Greece. Discover our blog full of ideas, insights about Greek destinations, reviews for kid friendly activities, hotels, beaches, museums and so much more!