Christmas in Greece
December marks the beginning of the festive season in Greece, with the Christmas spirit in full swing. The country is adorned with beautiful lights, and the air is filled with the aroma of delicious festive food. Christmas markets and fairs are set up across the country, offering endless opportunities for fun and entertainment, including Ferris wheels and live music. The celebrations kick off on December 24th and continue for 12 days, culminating on Epiphany, which falls on January 6th.
Before the official Christmas celebrations in Greece, people observe St. Nicholas Day on December 6th. Unlike in other countries, where St. Nicholas is associated with gift-giving and children receive presents, this is not the case in Greece. Instead, St. Nicholas is associated with the navy, and many celebrations occur aboard boats.
This time of year also celebrates many other Saints’ days before and after St. Nicholas Day, which is considered the start of winter. Traditionally, Greek homes should have their warm carpets laid out by November 30th, St. Andrew’s Day, before enjoying the feast of St. Barbara on December 4th, St. Savvas’s Day on December 5th, and St. Anne’s Day on December 9th.
In Greece, boats were once the traditional centrepiece of Christmas celebrations rather than Christmas trees. As a maritime nation, boats hold a special place in the hearts of many Greeks, and seafaring family members return to shore for holiday celebrations. These boats not only provide a safe passage home but are also often made to be decorative and functional. Some small festive boats can be displayed on a mantlepiece or table in Greek homes. In contrast, others are much larger, like the three-masted ship erected annually in Thessaloniki’s Aristotelous Square.
Over time, Christmas trees have become popular, replacing the traditional Christmas boat. Nowadays, many families decorate their homes with both trees and maritime vessels, embracing both traditions.
In Greece, December 24th marks the beginning of Christmas celebrations. The day is filled with various traditions, including singing kalanda (carols). Greek children visit homes from as early as 7 am, carrying musical triangles and drums and singing Christmas stories, followed by praises for the homeowner. If they sing well, they may receive a little money and sweets such as melomakarona or kourabie.
On Christmas Eve, Greeks bake the traditional Christmas Christopsomo. Each region has its version of this round loaf, but all incorporate a cross to honour the religious aspect of the occasion and nuts to symbolise prosperity. The loaves are often decorated with unique and personal designs representing the household’s work. For example, a family that earns a living by fishing may use a design with fishermen.
Many Greeks attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve. For individuals observing the 40-day Christmas fast, this service marks the end of their fast, and they can finally indulge in some filling festive food.
Christmas is a day to feast and spend time with loved ones, although no gifts are exchanged. Greek homes are filled with traditional treats like Christopsomo.
New Year’s Eve
On this particular day, there are various traditions to observe. One of them is called “pothariko,” in which the first-born or lucky child of the family enters the home first, leading with their right foot. They then smash a hanging pomegranate above the front door for good luck. The more seeds that fall on the doorstep, the better the luck is believed to be.
St Basil’s Day
On January 1st, Greek children received Christmas gifts from St. Basil. Although different from St. Nicholas, this joyful gift-giver shares many of the same qualities. A special cake called vasilopita, which contains a coin, is eaten on this day. Whoever finds the coin in their slice will be blessed with good fortune in the coming year.
On January 6th, many Greeks practised diving into cold water to retrieve a cross blessed by a priest. This marks Jesus’ baptism into the Greek Orthodox Church and the end of the Christmas season in Greece.