Christmas or Christougena (Birth of Christ. Gena = birth in Greek) ’ is the second most important cultural and religious celebration in Greece (Easter is the first). It is a true family event and full of traditions. Some elements go back generations or are typical for a specific region in Greece, other symbols are more recent and used everywhere in Greece. Here are some of my favorite Greek Christmas elements.
An old tradition – but still very much alive and a favourite to my own children – is the singing of the Kalanda on the day before Christmas. Children (in the old days often boys) go from house to house playing a triangle and sometimes drums and singing songs similar to carols. If they sing well, they are rewarded with money or things to eat. Sometimes they will also carry model boats decorated with nuts which are painted gold. Carrying a boat is a very old custom in the Greek islands. In Crete children sometimes played the Lyra, a Greek string instrument. In the past, children did not carry an instrument and they received sweets, walnuts, dried fruits and biscuits instead of money. But in some villages in Greece, the children collected money for their local school. The money would be handed over to the school teacher to buy books and other materials.
Although most homes decorate a christmas tree with tinsel, colored lights and stars nowadays, the Greeks used to decorated fishing boats with christmas lights during the holiday season. This tradition is related to St. Nicholas who is the patron saint of the sailors. He protects ships at sea. Some houses stick to this tradition and decorate a boat instead of a tree. On Syntagma square in the Athens city center you can find both. One of my personal Christmas favorites, the Nativity scene or Fatni, was introduced around the same time as the Christmas tree (in the villages some 60 years ago) and is therefore a more recent symbol in Greece.
The holiday season officially starts with the Lent 40 days before Christmas. Shops, shopping malls and streets in Athens are decorated around end November. Santa Claus has also made his way to Greece and we can find him everywhere in Greece nowadays.
Christmas day traditionally starts with the morning mass in church at 5 in the morning. Afterwards, people wish each other Kala Christougena and Chronia Pola. Lent has finished and people traditionally eat pork, roasted in an oven or over an open spit. It’s often served with a spinach and cheese pie and various salads and vegetables. Nowadays turkey is also popular for Christmas. A traditional table decoration are loaves of Christopsomo (Christ’s Bread). This round sweet bread is made in large loaves and flavored with cinnamon, orange and cloves. The top is decorated with a cross. The crust used to be engraved to portray the family’s profession.The bread is made on Christmas Eve ready to be eaten on Christmas Day. Traditional Greek Christmas sweets are kourabiedes and Melamakarona.
In the past (and still in some villages) a traditional decoration is a shallow wooden bowl with a piece of wire is suspended across the rim. A sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross hangs from the wire. Some water is kept in the bowl to keep the basil alive and fresh. Once a day someone, usually the mother of the family, dips the cross and basil into some holy water and uses it to sprinkle water in each room of the house.This ritual was used to chase away the Kallikantzaroi. Other families left a fire burning to keep them away. These Kallikantzaroi are goblins (or bad spirits) that emerge from the center of the earth and slip into people’s homes through the fireplace. They are more trouble makers then harmful. They are believed to do things such as extinguish fires, ride on people’s backs, braid horse’s tails, and sour the milk. They only appear during the 12 days between Christmas until Epiphany on 6 January.
In Greece, presents are brought to children by Aghios Vassilis (Saint Basil) on the 1st January or New Years Day. This day is also called St. Vassilis/St. Basil Day.
Celeste Tat is an expat living in Greece for 20+ years of which 16 years in Athens. She is the mother of 2 young children and always searching for family friendly activities and vacation destinations. She is the creator of Family Experiences Blog and the exclusive Blogger and Community Manager for Family Goes Out in Greece.