How to Celebrate Greek Christmas

  • Take the children to see Santa Claus, who can often be found outside shopping areas giving treats to children.
  • Expect neighborhood children to sing “kalanda” (Christmas carols) on Christmas Eve and offer their good wishes to you. Have dried figs, walnuts, almonds and – most important, coins on hand to offer the youngsters who come to your house.
  • Prepare a holiday feast for Christmas Eve. Serve traditional foods and wine with baklava for dessert.
  • Bake loaves of “Christopsomo” (Christ bread), a sweet bread formed into shapes of your choice. You can also decorate the loaves with symbols that reflect your family’s trade. Serve the bread with dried figs.
  • Display a wooden bowl with a piece of dangling wire holding a sprig of fresh basil wrapped around a wooden cross; this is the Greek symbol for Christmas. Keep fresh water in the bowl to keep the basil alive.
  • Immerse the basil and cross in holy water once a day and sprinkle drops in every room of your house to keep the sprites, or “kallikantzaroi” away. These sprites are known to slide down the chimney between Christmas and Epiphany (January 6) and play mischievous pranks on your family.
  • Remind your children to hang their socks over the fireplace, where small gifts will appear.
  • Serve “Vasilopita”, or St. Basil’s cake, on December 31. Bake a florin (gold coin) into the cake. Whoever finds the coin in his or her piece of cake will have good luck in the coming year.
  • Exchange gifts on January 1, which is St. Basil’s Day. Also perform a renewal ceremony on this day by replacing all the water in your jugs with St. Basil holy water.
  1. Remember that St. Nicholas is considered the patron saint of sailors in Greece; he is said to save them from shipwrecks.
  2. Instead of giving large numbers of gifts to family and friends, many people in Greece give small presents to hospitals and orphanages.

Christmas many years ago, was never considered much of a holiday in Greece compared with Easter, but things have changed and now it’s much cherished. Christmas in Greece is celebrated with lavish decorations and lights strung across most of the streets in major cities and towns. Athens in particular has responded to the revival of Christmas where its flamboyant ex-Mayor (currently he is the Minister of Health), Dimitris Avramopoulos, has added new colour to the festivities by erecting the largest Christmas tree in Europe. This tree can be seen towering above busy Syntagma Square.

But the beginnings of Christmas in Greece go back to the time of St. Nicholas, who was known as the patron saint of sailors. According to Greek tradition, his clothes were soaked with brine, his beard drenched with saltwater, and his face is covered with perspiration because he had been fighting the storms and waves to reach sinking ships and rescue drowning men from the sea. Even today there is still an old custom where many ships never leave port without a St. Nicholas icon carried in the boat.

In Greece, there are many Christmas customs that are similar, yet slightly different from the West. Such as the custom on Christmas Eve where village children travel from house to house offering good wishes and singing “kalanda”, the Greek Christmas carols. The children accompany the songs using small metal triangles and little clay drums. Afterwards, the children are usually given sweets or coins in appreciation.

In Greek Christmas, the feast itself becomes the main attraction by both adults and children alike. Lamb and pork are roasted in ovens and open spits, and on almost every table are loaves of  “Christopsomo”, “Christ bread”. This bread is usually made in large sweet loaves of various shapes and the crusts are engraved and decorated in some way that reflects the family’s profession.

In Greek homes, Christmas trees were not commonly used, but during the last 30  years have become very popular. A small wooden boat was decorated instead of a Christmas tree. In almost every house though, the main symbol of the season is a shallow wooden bowl with a piece of wire is suspended across the rim; from that hangs a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross. A small amount of water is kept in the bowl to keep the basil alive and fresh. Once a day, a family member, usually the mother, dips the cross and basil into some holy water and uses it to sprinkle water in each room of the house. This ritual is believed to keep the “Kallikantzaroi” (bad spirits) away. There are a number of beliefs connected with these spirits, which are supposed to be a species of goblins who appear only during the 12-day period from Christmas to the Epiphany (January 6). These creatures are believed to come from the center of the earth and to slip into people’s house through the chimney. More mischievous than actually evil, the Kallikantzaroi do things like extinguish fires, ride astride people’s backs, braid horses’ tails, and sour the milk. To further repel the undesirable sprites, the hearth is kept burning day and night throughout the twelve days.

Gifts are mostly exchanged on St. Basil’s Day (January 1). On this day the “renewal of waters” also takes place, a ritual in which all water jugs in the house are emptied and refilled with new “St. Basil’s Water.” The ceremony is often accompanied by offerings to the “naiads”, spirits of springs and fountains. 

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One Response to “How to Celebrate Greek Christmas”

  1. Greece

    Can’t wait for Christmas holidays!:) 🙂