The Customs of Christmas

Christmas Around the World — Greece

Christmas GreeceChristmas in Greece tends to be a religious celebration following the traditions and rites of the Greek Orthodox church.

Preparation for the Christmas season begins on November 15 with a solemn forty-day period of fasting and reflection. This period called Christmas Lent lasts until Christmas Eve. People focus on preparing spiritually for the arrival of the Christ Child. They attend church services, confess their sins, and take Communion. They also fast abstaining from all meats, milk products, and rich foods.

On Christmas Eve, the last day of Christmas Lent, groups of children go from house to house singing the Kalanda, Greek Christmas carols. It is considered good luck to have children come to one's home and sing so often coins and treats are given to the children for their songs. The Kalanda are also sung on New Year's Eve and the Eve of Epiphany, January 5.

Decorations in the home are simple mainly involving the home's altar. The altar consists of a wall cabinet or table where people stand or kneel and pray while facing the east. Religious icons, statues or pictures of saints, and other religious items are placed in or on the altar. The most popular icons picture Mary, Nicholas, and Basil. In addition to these icons family altars may contain wedding crowns, a cross, a prayer book, a censer, a light or candle, and other important items related to other religious holidays like Epiphany and Palm Sunday.

Christmas trees did not appear in Greece until 1839 when King Othon I put one up in his court. It used to be that the tree of choice was the juniper tree decorated with walnuts, almonds, dried figs wrapped in tin foil and tied to branches with string, and tiny candles (lit only on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day). Today Christmas trees come from Greek tree farms and are decorated with lights and tinsel and topped with a star. Some homes put up the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve while others wait until New Year's Eve.

Greeks who own boats will decorate them in honor of St. Basil's bringing presents from Caesarea by boat on New Year's Eve. Children get into the act by decorating paper, tin, or wooden boats and placing them throughout the house.

Greek cities decorate the city squares and across streets with lights, but no public Christmas celebrations are held before Christmas Day.

On Christmas Day the Dodecameron, the 12 days, begins. It is a joyful time of celebration that lasts from Christmas Day to Epiphany, January 6. For many this is a time of decorating, cooking, and buying and wrapping presents. Friends get together for parties, dances, and much fun and camaraderie.

Christmas Day is the celebration of Christ's birth. Many attend church services starting as early at 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning.

Each home enjoys a Christmas feast shared with the immediate family only. Many families, as they gather around the table, will pause before sitting to lift the table three times in honor of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The meal starts with the breaking of the christopsomo, a Christmas bread eaten with honey. Roast pork, chicken, or rabbit may be found on the Greek Christmas table along with many delightful cakes, cookies, and pastries.

On New Year's Eve children once again visit homes singing the Kalanda. Families enjoy having the children sing because it is considered a sign of good fortune coming to the house in the coming year. Much cooking is done and the house is prepared for the New Year's Eve feast or party. Children prepare for the arrival of St. Basil (St. Nicholas does not deliver their Christmas presents; St. Basil does). They leave a tray with a bowl of water, two dishes of pancakes or other sweet cakes, a pomegranate, and a pestle or stone for St. Basil. Card games and games of chance are popular on this day. It is thought that the winner of these games will have good luck in the coming year. At midnight, all windows are opened to let out all evil spirits and bad luck from the previous year so the householders begin the new year clean.

Greeks are a superstitious lot as seen by some of their New Year's traditions. This first person to arrive at a house can bring good luck if that person is a head of the household, oldest child, or youngest child. Some families cheat by arranging for someone to do this; others leave it to chance. If the first thing eaten is sweet then the whole year will be sweet. Avoid doing anything that may ruin the sweet spirit of the day or the household will have a bad year. Other traditions to ensure a good year include breaking a pomegranate over the threshold to ensure plenty, killing a rooster on the threshold to make the house strong and sturdy, and bringing a stone or sand into the house, the heavier the stone or sand the fuller the harvest will be.

New Year's Day, also known as the Feast Day of St. Basil, begins with morning church services. At some point during the day but before the start of the New Year's dinner the Vasilopita, or Basil's bread, is cut. Vasilopita is baked with a coin inside, and the one who finds the coin will have good luck for the whole year. The New Year's Day dinner is a lavish affair open to extended family, neighbors, and friends. The table is decorated with pomegranates, sweets, honey (symbols of abundance), an olive branch (symbol of health), or coins (symbol of prosperity). An empty chair saved for St. Basil is placed at the table. The meal may include roast pork or chicken or turkey, an assortment of vegetable dishes, breads, and pastries.

Gifts are exchanged between family members and friends. It is widely known in Greece that St. Basil delivered the gifts, not St. Nicholas or Santa Claus.

Parties and fine eating continue until the fast of Epiphany begins on January 5.

Epiphany is observed over a three-day period, January 5-7, in Greece.

On January 5, the Eve of Theophania or Epiphany, also known as the Lesser Blessing of the Water, children visit houses singing one last Kalanda about the baptism of Christ. Many Greeks observe a strict fast and prayerful reflection in preparation for attending the Greater Blessing service on the 6th. Some, however, fast on the 4th so they can attend the Lesser Blessing service on the 5th. During the Lesser Blessing service, the priest blesses water by dipping a cross in the water three times symbolizing the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. The people in attendance are blessed by the priest when he touches them with a sprig of basil or a small evergreen branch that was also dipped in the water. The parishioners leave the church with a small bottle of holy water to take home.

On January 6, Epiphany, many people once again go to church services for the Greater Blessing of the Water. Epiphany is also called Theophania, God appears. This service may take place in a church building or by a natural body of water. If it takes place out of doors, the priest blesses the body of water and throws a large cross into it. The young men of the village dive in to rescue the cross as soon as it hits the water. The one who rescues the cross is blessed by the priest and is said to have earned good luck for the whole year to come.

Back at home people thoroughly clean the house leaving all doors open to air the house out. All rooms are well lit. On a table a bowl of clean water, a lit candle, an icon, and an incense burner is laid out. A priest visits the home blessing the water by dipping a cross into it. Then he dips a sprig of basil into the water and sprinkles the holy water into all four corners of every room in the house. Any unused holy water is poured into a bottle and placed on the family altar.

On January 7, families celebrate the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist. Friends and family are welcomed to share in the celebration.

Christmas in Greece is a religious celebration. Friends and family join in this joyous celebration that lasts for twelve days. Sometimes I wish that we in the United States celebrated Christmas for more than one day.

Jesus is the Reason for the season

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