It’s the most wonderful time of the year: discover the customs and traditions of Christmas in Greece
Undoubtedly the biggest celebration in the Western world, Christmas is not the largest festival in Greece, ranking behind Easter in terms of religious significance. However, the word Christmas does come from the Greek Christougenna (Christos, meaning Christ and genna, meaning birth), and the festival is celebrated in style throughout the country!
The Christmas period in Greece lasts from the 25th December to the 6th January. Religious families may extend this as early as the 15th November, and the start of Advent. A world away from the chocolate calendars of the 21st Century, this 40 day period of fasting and reflection has great religious significance…and is the perfect preparation for the calorific Christmas meal consumed on the 24th December!
Greek customs and traditions for Christmas
Even though modern Greeks enjoy decorating their house with Christmas trees, the act was only introduced in 1833 when King Otto brought the tradition with him from Germany. As a seafaring nation, until then the traditional Greek Christmas decoration was a ‘Christmas boat’, hung in the window. A simple wooden bowl decorated with a wooden cross wrapped in basil also took pride of place in many Greek houses. The bowl was there to keep goblins called killantzaroi, away – they were thought to appear during Christmas, travelling through chimneys and windows and spreading mischief wherever they go. In many places, a skarkantzalos (Christmas log) was kept burning for the entire period in order to stop the killantzaroi entering the house via the chimney.
Rather than swapping gifts on Christmas Day, Greeks traditionally save their presents until the 1st January, which is also St. Basil’s Day. Like St. Nicholas, St Basil is remembered for his generosity, encouraging people to exchange heartfelt gifts amongst family and friends. The new year is celebrated by smashing a pomegranate on the floor to bring good luck, as well as cutting the vasilopita (St Basil’s pie). The pie, whose recipe varies from sweet to savoury, hides a silver coin and is cut into slices named for each recipient in order: Christ, the head of the household, the individuals present and the individuals absent. The coveted coin promises good luck for the coming year!
Greek Christmas ends with Epiphany on the 6th January, when the waters are blessed with a solemn Orthodox mass. Often, the priest will throw a cross into the local river or sea, and brave residents will jump into the icy waters to retrieve it. Be sure to dive in, as he who rescues the cross is blessed for the entire year!