Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Greek Christmas Question

Christmas in Athens' Constitution Square (Syntagma)
“‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring not even a mouse.”  NOT TRUE!  My magic mouse, let’s call him Mac, was scurrying all over the Internet trying to come up with something appropriately Christmassy for my distinct honor of writing the Murder is Everywhere Christmas Day post.  So, take that Clement Clarke Moore or Henry Livingston—whichever of you actually wrote the poem—times change. 
A Christmas Tree and Christmas Boat

Come to think of it, Greek Christmas is a perfect example of change.  Years ago in Greece, presents were not given on Christmas Day, Christmas trees were almost unheard of—though on some islands many would decorate a boat in their homes as a tree is today—and even the longstanding tradition of village children going from home to home singing kalanda to their neighbors has changed.  Still, though, at its heart kalanda remains the tradition it always was, but instead of being rewarded with sweets or fruits, the children play their little metal triangles and carol for euros.  Yes, “carol,” for the origin of that word is the Greek dance choraulein and it evolved over time, through the French, into caroling. 

Christmas Day in Greece also means feasting.  Although almost any occasion in Greece seems justification for food, Christmas is a true feast day, second only to Easter (see below).  It’s the end of a forty-day fast period for the observant from meat, eggs, and dairy.  Christmas dinner always means large, sweet loaves of christopsomo bread, melomakarona Christmas honey cookies, and kourabiethes almond cookie treasures that invariably lose their powdered sugar coatings all over your clothes.  But here, too, there have been changes.  The main course is no longer strictly the roast lamb, pig, and goat extravaganza it once was.  Roast stuffed turkey has made big inroads.  
The tallest Christmas tree in Europe

Perhaps the signal sign of Greece’s attitudinal change toward Christmas is what happened a few years back in Athens.  The mayor decided to erect the largest Christmas tree in Europe in Constitution Square (Syntagma) directly across from Parliament.  I heard it was quite a sight, even if an artificial tree.  Not sure what’s up there this year what with the area around Parliament being rather busy these past few Christmas seasons with other sorts of goings on (see my last week’s blog).  

So, here is my question: why does virtually everyone who writes about Greece and Easter say, “Christmas is not as important to Greeks as Easter.”  I have to admit I always thought the same way, but why?  It certainly isn’t that way in the United States.  In the Greek Orthodox faith Christmas and Easter are the big holidays (along with the Assumption of the Virgin on August 15th), so why does Easter seem more important than Christmas?  Most Greeks tell me they consider the two equivalent days from a religious point of view.  And therein may lay the answer. 

Greek Easter is preceded by a week of serious religious practices and cultural traditions building up to a single climactic moment: the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at precisely midnight on the eve of Easter Sunday.  Ninety-five percent of Greece’s population is of the Greek Orthodox faith (or at least Eastern Orthodox) and that’s a lot of people firing up their enthusiasm toward sharing a single moment with the rest of their countrymen.
Kourabiethes to munch on if you're bored.

On the other hand, the only sort of buildup Christmas Day seems to share with Easter Sunday is that both end more than month-long fasts.  Yes, there are Twelve Days of Christmas, but they start on Christmas Day, and the observant days within that subsequent period, although important and filled with their own traditions, follow the day of Christmas rather than build up to it in the way Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, and Good Friday lead up to Easter. 

Greece's Santa Claus, jolly old Saint Basil
Saint Vasilis (330-379)
On the other side of Christmas the Orthodox Church celebrates the circumcision of Christ and the name day of Saint Vasilis (Basil) on January 1st.  Santa Claus may have gotten his looks from Greece’s white-bearded patron saint of sailors, Saint Nicholas, but for Greek children their gift-giving Santa comes on Saint Vasilis’ Day.  And it is also the day when family and friends sit around the table and wonder which will be the one who finds the gold coin hidden in a piece of the vasilopita cake, for the one who does will have good luck all the year.
An Athens selection of vasilopita cakes
Epiphany in Tarpon Springs, Florida

 The Twelve Days of Christmas end January 6th on Epiphany, the day of Christ’s baptism.  It is another major feast day for the Greeks, and in many parts of the world a Greek Orthodox priest performs the “Blessing of the Waters” at a river, sea, or lake, then tosses the blessed cross into the water launching many young men in after it in hopes of retrieving the cross and receiving a special blessing from the priest that will bring the successful diver good luck for the entire year.

Christmas skaters in Athens
That’s two additional, significant upbeat holidays associated with Christmastime, yet Greeks still seem to hold a greater fondness for Easter time.  But if the explanation isn’t simply one of positioning—that Easter Day is the culmination of a celebratory season, while Christmas Day is the reverse­—what is the answer?

Perhaps it’s tied into another aspect of those Twelve Days. For during that period virtually every Greek in one way or another engages in some superstitious practice—like wrapping a sprig of basil around a small wooden cross and suspending it over a bowl of water—or seeks a blessing from a priest, to ward off the kallikantzari, the half-beast, half human, bad-spirited gremlins who will slip into your house through a chimney to wreak havoc and mischief amid your home, livestock, and food.  BUT they only do so during the twelve-day period from Christmas to Epiphany.  

Could it be that those who subconsciously believe in kallikantzari also harbor an unconscious thought or two at what mischief might be lurking in wait for them beyond Christmas Day?  I wonder.  
A mischief maker

But whatever the answer—likely something very different—to each of you and my extraordinary blogmates at Murder is Everywhere I wish Kala Kristuyenna and Xronia Pola (many years). 


Jeff — Saturday


  1. Thanks, Jeff, for another insight of Greece. And on Christmas while the rest of us were relaxing!
    Best wishes for today and 2011!

  2. I think all the various branches of the Christian religion view Christmas as the start of the story of salvation. Christ is born; He is an infant no different from any other.

    But...all Christianity teaches that He is God and man which significantly raises the importance of Easter. As God, He knows the fate that awaits Him on the cross. As man, he has free will. As man, he was free to choose not to die on the cross; he could have backed off from his message and hid out in Nazareth. As God, He knows that the salvation of the world depends on His willingness to submit to death on the cross. So salvation doesn't arise from Christmas; it arises from His rising from the dead. Salvation is not through His birth but through His death and resurrection making Easter the most important day in the Christian calendar.

    American Catholics don't place much emphasis on the Feast of the Epiphany or the revelation to the world through the Three Kings. However, on of my nieces was born on January 6th (Little Christmas) so, not surprisingly, her name is Christine.

    I don't know if it is still true, but for a time in Ireland, boys born between 12/25 and 1/06 were named Noel.

    Thank you for the information about the celebration of both important days in Greece. Fasting between Ash Wednesday and Easter is a big part of Catholicism but we don't have the same period of fasting during Advent.

    Best wishes to all.


  3. Thanks, Michael, see you on the other side.

    And, Beth, so interesting. I received a very similar (private) note from a writer in Greece whose essential take was similar to yours. Remember that her "second"--maybe third--language is English, but this, in part, is what she had to say:

    "The foundation of Christian faith is hope for life after death... Christ became man to show us greatness on earth and resurrection in his father's heaven of love... in Greece, actually wherever Greek Orthodoxy is practiced, the summit of faith is the moment of certainty, Easter Sunday 00:01 am, when we find out the happy news, bells triumphantly announcing the confirmation of that hope... (Yes We Can :) Vanquish Death! Hierarchically Christmas is a big celebration in church, of course, but everyone does get born, to be born from a virgin is bigger, to be resurrected divine... (by the way Virgin Mary is human by us, not godly matter)"

    God bless us one and all...


  4. Jeff, I wish I wrote as well in English as she does.

    Contrary to what a lot of people believe, the Catholic church does not deify the Virgin Mary. The devotion (the prayers) comes from the story of the wedding feast in Cana. When the wine runs out, Mary goes to her Son because of the humiliation facing the host, she doesn't ask Him to do anything, she just tells Him of the social humiliation the host is facing. Her Son remedies the situation, leading to the belief that if Mary knows the need, she will ask her Son for His help and He loves and respects her so much that He won't refuse her requests.

    Without Easter there is no Christian faith. It is the essence of Christianity.

    All branches of Christianity

  5. Beth. I think you just succinctly answered the question..."Without Easter there is no Christian faith. It is the essence of Christianity."

    Thanks, now watch out for the kallikanzari:)

  6. Jeff

    Thanks for your lovely Christmas post. I'm always happy to learn even more about the culture of my husband and his family. The cookies I remember wellfrom years past when more of the older Greek friends and relatives were alive. I vow to make them some years, but never have.

    Does this mean you have to write a New Year post too?


  7. Thanks Jacquie, and please save me some melomakarona--my favorite--when you get around to making them. As for next week, yes I get to post on New Years Day, but based on an article I just read, I think the subject will be more topical. It just cries out for a mention at the turn of the New Year. All the best,