Saturday, December 17, 2022

How (Some) Greeks Celebrate Christmas

Christmas in Athens' Constitution Square (Syntagma)
Christmas arrives in a week, which means my annual Christmas post will grace this space then.  It's a tradition that I dare not vary, but then again, I think it's time for me to reflect on how Christmas is celebrated in Greece...something I'm certain will lead to a boatload of challenges and corrections. So here goes...
A Christmas Tree and Christmas Boat    
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, 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.  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.  

Perhaps the signal sign of Greece’s attitudinal change toward Christmas is what happened a dozen or so years back in Athens, when 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.   
The tallest Christmas tree in Europe
Just to be clear, as celebrated as Christmas has become, virtually everyone  acknowledges that “Christmas is not as important as Easter.”  Although both end more than month-long fasts, 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.  Bottom line, as I've heard succinctly stated, "Without Easter there is no Christian faith. It is the essence of Christianity." 
Kourabiethes to munch on if you're bored.

Christmas Day kicks off the Twelve Days of Christmas, and its accompanying observant days.

Greece's Santa Claus, jolly old Saint Basil

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 of them 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.

Against this background of joyous celebration, there lurks a darker side--a boon for we mystery minded folk. During that twelve-day period virtually every Greek in one way or another engages in a superstitious practice. Some wrap a sprig of basil around a small wooden cross and suspend it over a bowl of water—others seek a blessing from a priest--but all do what they do 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.  

These days they're likely into porch piracy.
A mischief maker
Happy Holidays to all.



  1. Thank you for this, I especially loved the Christmas goblins! Merry Christmas to you too Jeff!

    1. Thanks, Ovidia. The Goblins are my favorites too....right up there with the durians you so kindly introduced me to this week. :) Happy holidays to you and yours.