Christmas is nearly here, less than two weeks to go! If you’re headed off on a short winter break this Christmas, then you may be interested to know how this important holiday is celebrated throughout Europe. Over the last few weeks we’ve discovered how Christmas is celebrated in Spain, Portugal and Latvia, and this week we’re looking at Greece.
Traditionally, in the past, Christmas hasn’t been as important as Easter to the Greeks, but in modern day things are changing and you will find many of the larger towns and cities decorated with glamorous Christmas lights and festive ornaments. St. Nicholas, not the same as our modern day Santa Claus, is an important part of a Greek Christmas, being the patron saint of sailors. According to Greek tradition St. Nicholas protects the sailors from the sea and his clothes and beard are drenched in brine and seawater. The Greeks celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6 with feasts and gift giving.
Although Christmas trees have become popular with Greeks adopting more Western traditions, many Greeks are now trying to revive the old traditions by decorating small boats instead. Every year in the city of Thessaloniki a large ship, decorated with tiny Christmas lights, is erected.
In the run up to Christmas, especially on Christmas Eve, children will go round door to door singing kalandas or carols, which are meant to bless each house. Drumming and tinkling triangles accompany the songs and children are rewarded with sweets, dried figs, almonds and walnuts.
For forty days before Christmas the Greeks traditionally fast for religious as well as health reasons, so when the fast is broken, on Christmas Day, they look forward to a big family meal consisting of roast hog and lamb; ceremonial pastries; melomakarona, honey dipped cookies stuffed with nuts and kourambiedes, cookies dusted with powdered sugar. On almost every Greek table you will also find loaves of Christopsomo or ‘Christ bread’, a round loaf decorated with a cross and small symbols.
The Greeks do not have stories of nice little elves that help Santa in his workshop, instead they believe in mischievous little creatures called the Kallikantzari who prey upon people and play tricks on them during the twelve days of Christmas. The Kallikantzari are believed to be half-animal and half-human and come down the chimney to wreak havoc upon the house. There are many ways Greeks try and keep the Kallikantzari at bay, including marking their doors with black crosses on Christmas Eve and burning a Yule log in their fireplaces throughout the festive period. Some households hang protective herbs and plants around the house to keep the creatures away too, such as thistle and asparagus, while others put sweetmeats or sausages out for the evil spirits in order to appease them.
On January 1, Greeks celebrate St. Basil’s Day, with the ‘renewal of the waters’ ceremony, in which all jugs in the house are filled with fresh water and offerings are made to the spirits of springs and fountains. Then on January 6 they celebrate the Day of the Epiphany, in which they celebrate in baptism of Jesus, the arrival of the Three Wise Men and the changing of water into wine. On this day the ‘blessing of the waters’ occurs, where young men dive into the cold waters to search for a cross which has been blessed and thrown into the sea by the village priest. It is said that the first man to retrieve the cross will have good luck for the rest of that year. The day culminates in festivities of music, dancing and feasting.
So, if you’re headed to Greece this Christmas, be sure to look out for those nasty Kallikantzari! Next week we’ll be looking at how Christmas is celebrated in Russia.