In Greece when we talk about the “holidays” we are referring to the holiday period of Christmas, New Year and Epiphany. There are many traditional Greek customs associated with the “twelve day of Christmas,” some very old like the decoration of the boat, carol singing, Agios Basil the Greek Sante Claus, the cutting of the vasilopita, smashing of the pomegranate and others relatively recent, like the decorated tree and the turkey on the Christmas-day table. Many of the traditions that continue to be honored today root back to generations upon generations ago of Greeks from islands, villages and cities alike. I hope you enjoy reading all the information as much as I loved writing down “the most wonderful time of the Year “ in Greece for you!
The decoration of the traditional fishing boat at Christmas time
The tradition of decorating a small wooden boat during Christmas time goes back for many years as Greece being a ancient maritime country where most of the men would work as fisherman. During the Christmas time the family would decorate a small wooden boat to symbolize their thankful spirit for the safe return of the father and his sons against the odds of nature and the harsh winter sea. The children of the family used to build a paper or a wooden little boat that would be decorated and wandered from home to home singing the traditional Greek carols usually accompanied by the instruments traditional to the area. In their boat the children would collect their Christmas pastries, cross buns and treats from the residents they sung for.
Saint Nicholas, Patron Saint of Sailors is also playing a part in the origin of this wonderful, Greek Christmas tradition. Boats are decorated, in Saint Nicholas’s honor. As the feast Day of Saint Nicholas takes place on 6th December, this is the day boats are decorated, and are displayed until 6th January, Epiphany.
Agios Nikolaos is the patron saint of sailors as many of his miracles are related to the sea. As he was travelling to the Holy Land of Jerusalem to pray a huge storm erupted and one of the sailors fell from the mast and died. Legend says that the Saint prayed to God, the sea calmed and the sailor was resurrected. This therefore is the reason for building the little chapel next to the fishing harbor as locals believe that he is protecting the boats and their crew.
The first known Christmas tree in Greece was introduced in 1833 by King Otto and was set-up next to a large decorated boat.
On December 24th, you will be woken up early in the morning by groups of children coming over to your place to sing the carols! Τhe children go from house to house singing about the birth of Jesus Christ holding their small metal triangles and hitting them with short metal bars! Some children used to build a paper or a wooden little boat that would be decorated and wandered from home to home singing the traditional Greek carols. Saint Nicholas, Patron Saint of Sailors is also playing a part in the origin of this wonderful, Greek Christmas traditions.
When we open the door to the children, it is believed to bring good luck into your home. The children will ask us ‘Να τα πούμε;’ (‘Na ta poume?’, literally ‘Shall we say them?’, meaning ‘Shall we sing the carols?’) and we are supposed to reply ‘Να τα πείτε!’ (‘Na ta peite!’, literally ‘Say them!’). In return the carolers get coins or goodies, such as traditional holiday sweets including Christmas honey cookies (melomakarona) or Christmas buttered cookies topped with powdered sugar (kourabiedes), pomegranate (in Greek mythology, the pomegranate is considered the symbol of fertility and rebirth, and it was associated with the worship of three major goddesses: Hera, Zeus’ wife; Aphrodite, the goddess of love; and Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and nature’s rebirth) and Greek Christmas breads, known as Christopsoma. They are made the day before Christmas and there is a lot of care put into their baking.
The word Carol comes from a Greek dance called a choraulein, which was accompanied by flute music. The dance later spread throughout Europe and became especially popular with the French, who replaced the flute music with singing. People originally performed carols on several occasions during the year. By the 1600’s, carols involved singing only, and Christmas had become the main holiday for these songs. The Greek Christmas carols date back to the Byzantine times and the word “kalanta” derives from the latin “calenda”, which is defined as the start of the month.
Much like every Greek folk song, the lyrics and music of the kalanta vary depending on the region, and this is evident not only in the musical instruments accompanying the carolers but also the rhythm and the wishes. In some regions, the musical accompaniment includes guitars, clarinet, the tabor drum, harmonica, or accordion.
Zakynthian Christmas Eve
A very old custom that has lost its touch in many other parts of Greece is still celebrated by many every Christmas Eve on Zakynthos.
The tradition would be that from the early morning of Christmas Eve the preparations of the Kouloura (sweet bread) is made – but with exceptions of kitchen pricesses like myself, they buy it at the bakeries of zante 😉
The Kouloura also symbolizes the star of Bethlehem. The kouloura on Zakynthos is something between a cake and a bread usually made with 15 ingredients including lots of aromatic spices like cinnamon, clove and anise, olive oil, red wine, zakynthian raisins, pine nuts and walnuts, orange juice and mandarin zest. The bread is elaborately decorated with dough and hidden inside is a silver or golden coin called “ηύρεμα”, or evrema (finding). Before cutting, the tray with the bun is transferred over the fire to the lit fireplace, cross it three times and pour a mix of olive oil and wine on top of it while singing religious psalms.
The bun returns to the table and there the head of the family begins to cut the pieces. The first belongs to Christ, the second to the poor, the third to the home and then to the members of the family, to whom it is distributed in order of age. All of whom are eagerly waiting to see if they’ll find the coin – which brings good luck – in their slice.
On a traditional Zakynthian Christmas Eve table also a soup of broccoli and boiled broccoli will be served. Do you read that right… Yes indeed broccoli. This we have to trace back to the lent period of 40 days before Christmas, tradition calls for them to fast in order to receive communion at church the next morning.
12 days traditions in Greece
The Greek twelve days of Christmas begins at Christmas and continues until January 6th, which is known as the Feast of Epiphany. During these twelve days of Christmas, people keep their fires in their houses burning throughout this period.
This starts with the ceremony of the Kouloura as the pouring of the mix of olive oil and wine, is a sign of goodwill and this is to keep evil spirits away from their homes and through their chimneys. As specially in the old
Days the believe of the kalikantzari was real. Kallikantzaroi (goblins) live underground, sawing the world tree so it will fall and destroy the Earth, but when they are about to do so, it’s Christmas day which means they can come to the surface and cause trouble to humans. On the Epiphany (6 January), the sun starts moving again, and they have to go back and continue sawing. Whilst they were away the world tree has healed itself, because of the magic of Christmas, so they must start working all over again. This happens every year.
Not without a reason that on this day the sanctification of the home takes place with prayer and the sprinkling of holy water. The priest, at this annual visit, asks God to have mercy on the house, to rid it of every evil and to fill if with every blessing.
Greek Santa Claus
Santa Claus in Greece is a different person than in the rest of the world. The Greek Santa Claus is Agios Vasilis or St. Basil and he brings presents on New Year’s Eve. Agios Vassilis was a kind-hearted and helpful man, who was aiding the poor and needy ones. In 362 AD, Agios Vasilios was ordained as a deacon. Agios Vasilios would eventually be elected to become Bishop of Caesarea (now turkey). As Bishop, he made helping the poor and suffering a priority. He gave away his inheritance and started a soup kitchen to help those in need. In addition, he founded charities that would aid the ill, poor, and even travelers. Agios Vassilios was far from chubby though; he was a tall, thin man with a black beard and black penetrating eyes. He died on January 1st 379 AD. therefore the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates his memory on January 1st. This is why in Greece Agios Vassilis brings presents on New Year’s Eve and not on Christmas.
The morning of the 31 December comes alive as children go from door to door singing carols (kalanta) and they are rewarded with a coin in return. One of the traditions on New Year’s morning is the belief that the first person to enter the house in the New Year brings either good luck or bad luck. To have a lucky and good year, the person that enters the house first must be a loving and lucky one. The best one for the “podariko” would be a little child, since they are considered to be the best omen, with their innocence, pure hearts and honesty. The first step should be with the right foot and not left. As the left foot would bring you bad luck…
New Year’s Eve
Many things have changed over the years but one thing has never changed. Whether it’s the rosy-cheeked, hair-cropped kiddies of yesteryear, or the modern-era mobile phone armed youngsters of today. Greek children continue to sing the Carols, some dating to Byzantine times, on New Year’s Eve. From the morning onwards children of the neighborhood go from house to house and ask permission to sing the kalanta, or carols, accompanied by a triangle. When we open the door to the children, it is believed to bring good luck into your home; in return the carolers get coins. In the evening the family will gather and there will be a focus on the Vassilopita . Vasilopita literally means Saint Vassilis – Saint Basil’s Cake, which contains a hidden coin baked inside.
Saint Basil was the son of a very wealthy and well educated family of Caesaria, Cappadocia, where he was born in 330 AD. He became a theologian after extensive studies in Caesaria, Constantinople and in Athens and many travels. Eventually he distributed all his personal wealth among the poor and build Basiliad, the first hospital in history. The Basiliad derives its name from its founder, Saint Basil. At the time considered, one of the wonders of the world: consisting of a poorhouse, hospice and a hospital.
According to legend, when St Basil his city was under siege by a ruthless tyrant, Basil asked the people to help pay a ransom in order to save their city. The tyrant, humiliated by the total solidarity of the city’s townspeople, finally reversed his position without taking the ransom. Saint Basil was now faced with the responsibility of how to return the valuables to the people. Facing a conclusion that was seemingly impossible for anyone to know what belonged to whom, he asked the village bakers to make loaves of bread in which were placed their valuables, but the underlying miracle was that everyone received exactly what they had donated.
Since then, the custom of cutting Vasilopita has been consecrated. Orthodox families worldwide, look forward to this wonderful annual tradition. The belief that the Golden Vasilopita Coin will bring luck and good fortune for the upcoming year is preserved to this very day. Around the table, all family members will gather in an atmosphere of joy and anticipation, of who will find the Golden Vasilopita Coin as the Cake is methodically served in individual slices. The head of the family will cut the first slice for Jesus Christ, second for the Virgin Mary, the third for St. Basil, the fourth for the poor, then one slice for each member of the family from the eldest to the youngest. Slowly piece by piece serves to heighten the excitement of who will find the coin which it contains. The one, who finds the coin in their slice, will enjoy good luck for the upcoming year, but more importantly, will have a memory and keepsake to last their lifetime.
Smashing a pomegranate on New Year’s Day is another Greek tradition that dates back to ancient times; it originates in the Peloponnese or Serres, later spreading over the entire nation. According to Greek Mythology, the pomegranate has been a symbol of strength, life, fertility, eternity, and good fortune since ancient times.
During Christmas time in Greece you see pomegranates everywhere. Hanging on the doors at houses, in shops decorations and some of them are real fruits some of them are silver, gold, brass with glitter, painted in red etc. But breaking a pomegranate on the floor is the real custom. When the clock strikes 12, someone in the house breaks a pomegranate by throwing it on the doorstep. The red seeds that come out of the fruit represent the luck of the New Year and they say that the more seeds get on the floor the luckier the people in the house will be. If someone gets a red spot by the fruit’s juice they will be very luck that year.
There are variations of the custom in different areas in Greece. In villages the family used to go the church with a pomegranate to bless it.
And last but not least is the entering of the Greek Santa Claus in the house.. The Greek Santa Claus is indeed Agios Vasilis or St. Basil!!! He brings the presents on New Year’s Eve. He died on January 1st 379 AD. Therefore the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates his memory on January 1st. This is why in Greece Agios Vassilis brings presents on New Year’s Eve and not on Christmas eve. The 1st January will the also be the name day for Vasilis and Vasiliki . If you met anybody under that name on your holidays here, you can send them a message with Chronia Polla…
6 January Epiphany
Epiphany is one of the most sacred Greek Orthodox celebrations, rich in many Christian traditions which also date back to ancient times. Epiphany also called Theofania meaning vision of god or Fota meaning light. Is celebrated on January 6 and is a day of joy and brightness, as Christians celebrate the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist. The customs around the Epiphany starts to take place the day before. You’ll likely see Greek children singing special Greek songs called kalanta. You’ll see these kids singing out at public squares, at small businesses or even in public transport. The idea behind this is that they are symbolically communicating the message of Jesus’ baptism. It is common for adults around them to give them a few coins for their efforts.
The “Great Blessing” happens in church on the day of the Epiphany. A ceremony called the Lesser Sanctification of Water or mikros agiasmos is performed by priests. Sanctified water is sprinkled on the congregation. Then the “Dive of the Cross” is performed: A cross is thrown by the priest in the sea at Zante town (although on Zante the Cross is not thrown into the sea but baptized by the local Bishop, mounted on a long pole). According to popular belief, this ritual gives the water the power to cleanse and sanitize. In many places, after the dive of the cross, the locals run to the beaches or the shores of rivers or lakes to wash their agricultural tools and even icons. Indeed, according common folk belief, icons lose their original strength and power with the passage of time, but they can be restored by dipping the icons in the water cleansed by the cross. This may be a survival of ancient beliefs. Athenians held a ceremony called “washing”: the statue of Athena was carried in procession to the coast of Faliro where it was washed with salt water to cleanse it and renew its sacred powers.
Today on many tables Avgolemono will be served, a very common dish enjoyed throughout the year. It is a simple chicken broth infused with a lemon and egg mixture, generally cooked with rice or orzo. The consistency varies depending on personal taste and the soup is often served as the first meal after the Christmas Eve church service and today!
And last let us not forget the blessing of the house by your local priest. The sanctification of the home takes place with prayer and the sprinkling of holy water. The priest, at this annual visit, asks God to have mercy on the house, to rid it of every evil and to fill if with every blessing. Everyone of the house, prays together for the living and the dead of the family, and all who live and have lived in the house, the priest blesses the house. Traditions of the ceremony differ according to local custom, but these are the general guidelines: A candle with an icon and some holy water should be placed in a suitable place, such as kitchen or dining room table, or a home altar. Also, a list of first names for whom prayers are to be offered, including members of the family and all those living in the house. The list should have a clear distinction between the living and the dead. If it is the practice to give the priest a gift, it should not be placed with the holy objects on the table. It can be prepared in advanced, but given at the conclusion of the service.
When the priest comes, all who are present in the house should gather around the icon with the candle. As he goes, he sprinkles holy water, and prays for a blessing upon each room When they have gone through the entire house, the family gathers again around the table and the priest blesses each person present.
And of course today the Name day for Fotis and Foteini, we will phone them and say CHRONIA POLLA!