Shiny decorations, the smell of baked cookies & cinnamon and carols’ singing – it’s Christmas time again! The Holiday Season has arrived and families all around Greece have caught the Christmas fever to celebrate the birth of Jesus, along with the advent of New Year.
People usually think of Greece as a gorgeous summer destination, but little do they know the mainland, the vast natural surroundings and the unique traditions of the country, makes Greece the perfect destination all year round.
When you hear the word Christmas, you immediately think of snowy villages in Finland, or the shiny decorated markets of Vienna, or maybe the fancier city of London. But Greece is home to some unique Christmas traditions – here are the 10 things you didn’t know.
10 Christmas Facts About Greece
1) The Christmas Boat
While decorating the Christmas tree is very popular, decorating a Karavaki (Little Boat) is a unique old tradition of the country. Greece is a country with about 6000 islands and the tradition of Christmas tree was not part of the Greek Culture until its establishment by the first king of Greece, Otto. It dates back hundreds of years as a Christmas tradition, when decorating small boats was a way to welcome seamen back to their families during Christmas. Its popularity has grown over the last decades and it is likely that whenever you go in Greece, you’ll find a little wooden boat decorated with ornaments and lights.
2) Holiday Season in Greece
While throughout Europe, Holiday season is considered to end with the coming of New Year, in Greece it lasts usually until the 8th of January, where students go back to school after their two weeks’ break. The festive traditions start on December with Christmas, climax on New Year’s Day and end on Theofania (Epiphany Day) and the St. John the Baptist celebration on the 7th of January.
3) Christmas Carols
Christmas carols are widely sung through the country. Variations can be found on different parts of the country, but generaly the carol songs are of three types (three songs). Καλήν Εσπέραν Άρχοντες (Kalin Esperan Archontes) is sung on Christmas Eve. Children accompanied by instruments such as triangles or accordions rush from door to door on every city or village to sing the carols and earn treats such as sweets, candy or money. Αρχιμηνιά κι αρχιχρονιά (Archiminia & archichronia) is widely sung on New Year’s Day. And in the end, Σήμερα τα Φώτα (Simera ta fota) is sung on Theophania (Epiphany Day) on the 6th of January.
Pic: Wiki Commons
4) Aghios Vasilis – Greek Santa Claus
On the contrary to latin based languages, Santa Claus in Greek is not translated as Father of Christmas but St. Bill (Aghios Vasilis). While kids from other countries wait anxiously for their gifts on Christmas Day, Aghios Vasilis visits Greece on New Year’s Eve! The reason is probably because St. Vasilis Day is celebrated on New Year’s Day and thus the tradition. So if you celebrate Christmas in Greece, make sure you leave cookies & milk for Santa on New Year’s Eve!
5) Theofania (Fota) & St. John the Baptist Day
Theofania (also known as Fota – ‘Lights’) are celebrated with the Great Blessing of the Water. It derives from an old tradition that wants the waters to be cleaned from the evil kalikantzaroi (goblins) who try to harm the Christians. At the ceremony, a cross is thrown into the water, and men try to retrieve it for good luck. The 7th of January marks the celebration of St. John the Baptist, when the numerous Johns & Joans celebrate their name-day.
6) Traditional Christmas Sweets
Greeks love to eat! Christmas season is beloved amongst the Greeks mainly because of the food feast – tables full of extreme amounts of food & sweets waiting to be gobbled up! There are 3 types of mouth-watering desserts that are usually made only through Christmas season: Melomakarona, kourabiedes & diples. Melomakarona are spiced cookies made with olive oil & honey and topped with nuts. Kourabiedes are butter cookies topped with icing sugar and diples are deep fried folded honey rolls. All are delicious – feeling hungry yet?!
Kourabiedes. Pic: Wiki Commons
7) The Custom of Podariko
Podariko is a tradition of New Year’s Day. With the coming of New Year the first person who enters every house has to be a lucky one, in order for the house owners to have a lucky and prosper New Year. The person usually carries a pomegranate, which he/she cracks outside of the house. The pomegranate is picked during the autumn season and is kept until New Year’s Day. The fruit’s grains symbolise the abundance & fertility, while its deep red colour is supposed to bring luck to the house. On my island, the person who enters first the house has to carry the pomegranate, a branch of olive tree that symbolises peace, a stone taken from a field or a river, (a bramble root and/ or a water jar) – yes all of that together – crash the pomegranate and sing a song about prosperity & luck.
8) Vasilopita (St.Vasilis Pie)
Vasilopita is a traditional cake that is cut and eaten on New Year’s Day. During the preparation of the cake, a special coin is placed in it. The person who cuts the cake (usually the father or mother of the house), makes the sign of the cross three times above it and then starts serving the pieces, one piece for the house, the Christ, The Virgin Mary, Saint Vasileios and then each person. Whoever gets the coin in his/ her piece, will have luck for the rest of the year.
9) Christmas Destinations in Greece
Lush natural surroundings and picturesque villages are the ideal places to spend Christmas in Greece. While the big cities such as Athens and Thessaloniki boast their festive spirit with different types of events, Greece’s countryside gives Christmas celebration a real traditional spirit. If you find yourself in Northern Greece, check out the Christmas Dreamland in Drama with Santa’s village right in the center of the city or the Mill of Elves in Trikala, Thessaly to get the naughty spirit!
I bet you didn’t know this, but there are plenty of skiing centres in Greece as well! If you are fond of snow, try the mountains of Parnassos, Kalavryta, Pertouli & Pelio, Kaimaktsalan, Vasilitsa, Falakro, etc.
10) Celebrating Christmas with family
The most important part of Greek holiday traditions is undoubtedly family. Greeks love to celebrate altogether. We like the mess, the food, the loudness, the company; we talk, we eat, we dance, we drink, we sing together with family and friends. Because Christmas in Greece is equal to love.
Kala Christougenna se olous! – Merry Christmas to All!
Words, Rachel Klarnetatzi