The holiday season in Greece is magical! I used to go back home (the Netherlands) for Christmas and New Year’s. But the past couple of years I stayed in Athens with my kids and it was very nice to spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Athens city (and all other cities and towns in Greece) is beautifully decorated, people are out everywhere and there are lots of activities being organized by municipalities, shopping malls, museums and other cultural institutions. The mild climate makes it possible to be outside all day. I have listed my favorite things to do in Athens with kids during Christmas in a previous article. There are many Christmas traditions that are unique to Greece and Greek culture. This is the same for New Year or ‘Protochronia’ celebrations. Here are some of the most popular Greek family New Year’s traditions.
The most important figure for children in Greece during Christmas is not Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas, but it is Saint Vassilis (Agios Vassilis). Saint Vassilis arrives a week after Christmas and brings presents for the children on New Year’s eve. Basil the Great / Saint Basil was born 330 AD and is one of the forefathers of the Greek Orthodox Church. He has a lot in common with Saint Nicholas. Both were bishops and both are known for their kind heartedness, their compassion and their help to the unfortunate. Agios Vassilis gave his wealth to the poor and build the first hospitals, orphanages and helped the homeless. He died on the first of January and therefore his name day is celebrated on this day.
The Vasilopita or Greek New Year’s cake
Saint Vassilis has brought another tradition to New Year’s in Greece. And one that my children absolutely love. Every family in Greece will have a vasilopita or King pie on New Year’s. This cake or bread is made of a variety of doughs depending of the region and family tradition. Inside the cake is a coin – the flouri – hidden and the person that finds the coin will have good luck and good fortune for the year ahead. The vasilopita is usually sliced (in a traditional way representing the cross) after midnight to bring good luck and to bless the house and by tradition handed out by the head of the family. How is this cake connected to Saint Basil? I have found different stories. According to one, Saint Basil called on the citizens of his town Caesarea to raise a ransom payment to stop the siege of the city. Each citizen handed over his gold or jewellery. When the ransom was collected, the enemy was embarrassed the the act of collective given and called off the siege. Saint Basil had to return the unpaid ransom to the citizens but had no idea which items belonged to which family. He baked all the jewellery into loaves of bread and distributed them. By a miracle, each citizen received their exact share. In other stories this is Saint Basil’s attempt to give charity to the poor without embarrassing them or trying to hide his givings to the poor from the ruling king or emperor.
The singing of the Kalanta is done both on the day before Christmas and on New Year’s Eve. Children (in the old days often boys) go from house to house playing a triangle and sometimes drums and singing 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.
Greek families usually celebrate New Year’s eve together at home. Adults often play card games for good luck. The games go on for hours and end around midnight. The state lottery is also very popular on New Year. Rolling dice is another favorite.
Luck plays a big part in Greek New Year. In most of the country you can find the pomegranate, an ancient symbol for good luck and fertility. The pomegranate is hanging from the door and by tradition smashed on the floor at midnight for goodluck. In some parts of Greece it is an onion that will bring goodluck, on the Cycladic islands it is a north wind or a dove.
Children are also given money on New Year’s Eve. This is called Kali Hera. And the lucky foot is called Kalo Podariko. At midnight someone considered lucky is asked to leave and to re-enter the house – with the right foot first – to bring good luck for the new year. It is said that luck is only brought by someone with a kind, loving and honest heart, so children are usually chosen to usher in the New Year in this way. A traditional Greek New Year’s present is a good luck charm, or ‘gouri’. This gift will protect the person and bring luck for the year to come.
Finally, at New Year’s Eve, at midnight, the windows of the house are opened to let the Kallikantzaroi out, the evil spirits or goblins, I described these in my article about Greek Christmas traditions.
I wish you Happy New Year or Kali Chronia!
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.