Christmas traditions in Greece: the boat, the carols, and the sweets

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Christmas is one of the most important holidays in Greece and a reason for families to get together. The festivities extend from the 25th of December, Christmas day, until the 6th of January, the Epiphany. Across Greece, there is a great range of traditions, many of which originate in Christian customs. Some Greek Christmas traditions are rooted deeply in time and have been preserved unchanged, while others feature geographical variation.

 

Here, we introduce some prevalent Christmas traditions you will witness if you celebrate the holidays in Greece.

 

The Christmas boat

Being a genuinely maritime country, Greece has an intimate relation to the sea, one cherished through the Christmas decoration of the boat, called in Greek Karavaki. Wooden boats are ornamented with lights in mid-December and placed strategically to adorn each house.

 

Nowadays, however, many Greek families decorate a Christmas tree, a tradition first imported in 1833 from the at-the-time Bavarian king Otto. Interestingly, it was after the 1950s that people in Greece adopted the Christmas tree, and even today, only those on the mainland prefer it over the karavaki.

 

 

The Greek Santa

As in other cultures, the holiday presents are brought to children by Santa Claus, who in Greece is called Ai-Vasilis, Saint Basil. The feast of Ai-Vasilis is not on Christmas but on New Year’s Day, during which the opening of the gift takes place. Ai-Vasilis has adopted the dress of Santa Claus— he is imagined to be a round white-bearded grandfather— even though the saint is portrayed in Christian icons with a black beard and a humble cassock.

 

The story behind Ai-Vasilis explains another Christmas tradition in Greece, the cutting of the Vasilopita.

 

 

The Vasilopita

The Vasilopita is a round sweet bread, and every household cuts a Vasilopita when the year changes. Inside every Vasilopita, there is a coin, and it is believed that whoever gets the coin— the person whose piece of the Vasilopita includes the coin— will have a lucky year. This tradition originates in the story of Ai-Vasilis, who distributed to the citizens of Cappadocia the coins, jewellery, and other goods he had collected in an effort to ransom an enemy army that never attacked Cappadocia, by hiding them inside loaves of bread.

The Bread of Christ

In many areas of Greece, alongside Vasilopita, each household shares the “Bread of Christ,” traditionally prepared on Christmas Eve. The Bread of Christ is ornamented with various predominantly Christian designs: most usually, a cross is carved with dough and decorated with almonds.

In the region of Crete, the kneading of this particular bread constitutes an entire ritual and functions as a symbol of the Holy Communion.

 

The Christmas Carols in Greece

Another seminal Christmas tradition is carol singing. Kalanda, carols, stem in Byzantine psalms and are sung on the eve of all three major holidays (Christmas, New Year’s, and Epiphany).

It is customary that children, either individually or in groups, visit houses and shops, with the accompaniment of an iron triangle, and sing the carols. To do so, they ask, “na ta poume?” which translates into “should we tell them (the carols)”. In the past, carol singers were rewarded with sweets, but today, most people tip carolers.

 

Carols showcase impressive geographical diversity, and more than thirty variations have been counted for the Christmas carols alone.

 

Christmas cookies and pomegranates 

Spending Christmas in Greece is a truly unique experience through which one can reflect on the year that passed and wish the best for the one that will come. To sweeten the holidays, one can delve into kourabiedes and melomakarona, the traditional Greek Christmas sweets.

 

Kourabiedes are shortbread-type cookies covered in powdered sugar, while melomakarona are honey cookies, and their name translates into meli, which means honey, and makaria, which since ancient times has signified that which is blessed.

 

Good fortune is a shared aim for several traditions, such as the Vasilopita. We would like to conclude with another Greek custom you can do wherever you spend the holidays: the breaking of the pomegranate.

 

On New Year’s morning, every family enters their house holding a pomegranate, which the householder throws with force behind the front door. When the pomegranate breaks, the family wishes the year to be filled with as many happy and blessed days as the pomegranate’s strong and beautiful seeds are.

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