14 days of Christmas festivities in Greece
Although they belong to the Orthodox side of Christianity, Greeks celebrate Christmas on December 25th. In fact, as people who are known for nurturing family values, but also being on the fun-loving hedonistic side, Greeks officially celebrate Christmas for 14 days, starting on Christmas Eve and ending on Epiphany (6 January) with the "Great Blessing of Water".
If you are coming from a typical continental or northern climate, you will absolutely love the weather during Christmas in Greece!
This country has 320 sunny days per year and rarely has a significant amount of snow during winter, but they like to start with the festivities as soon as December arrives. The streets and city squares are decorated with lights, Christmas trees, and shiny boats. They may lack the snow, but they certainly don't lack the joy and enthusiasm! Greek homes as well are decorated quite early.
This is not the time to count calories. Greek Christmas food is absolutely scrumptious! And don't forget to leave room for Greek desserts!
Christmas in Greece is also the ideal time to try all their spicy and greasy staple food. Get it, greasy? After all, who's gonna see your belly this time of year Right? The main Christmas meal is often roasted lamb or pork, often served with spinach and cheese pie and various salads.
The night before Christmas they bake a special kind of bread called Christopsomo (Christ's bread) and it is eaten after Christmas dinner. Every Christopsomo should have a cross made of dough in the center and almonds and nuts on top to symbolize prosperity.
Did I mention that Greeks are quite the gourmets and hedonists? Their desserts will literally make your mouth water. Christmas and new year desserts include Baklava (filo pastry filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup), Kataifi (made of shredded filo dough flavored with nuts and cinnamon), Deeples (a kind of fried pastry) and Melomakarona, which is basically an oval-shaped biscuit made from flour, olive oil and honey, rolled in chopped walnuts.
Greeks have a boat decorating tradition for Christmas! It looks so festive and celebratory, even a Viking Santa would envy that sight.
Another unique and fascinating tradition that connects sunny Greece with the northern custom of decorating a Christmas tree is boat decorating. As a nation of sailors, they have to honor their seafaring ancestors and what better way to do it? Decorated boats and ships are the shiniest tourist attractions in Greece every December. One of the biggest ones can be seen in Aristotelous Square in Thessaloniki (the second largest city in Greece) that is set up next to a huge Christmas Tree.
There are also large boat displays in Athens and even in small coastal cities. The tallest and most beautiful Christmas tree is set up on Syntagma square in Athens and the whole ceremony of decorating the tree is usually followed by musical performances, singing and dancing.
And yes, you've guessed it! There is a Greek Santa! His name is Saint Basils!
Aghios Vasilis or Saint Basil, the patron saint of sailors, is also honored with the tradition of boat decorating during the holiday period and you can also find small model boats next to Christmas trees in Greek homes. Another way the Greeks honor this saint is by baking Vasilopita. It is a New Year's Day cake that has a hidden coin or trinket in it. It is believed that the member of the family who finds it will have good luck during the whole year.
The Greeks share this custom with other areas in eastern Europe and the Balkans. Unlike in the Western countries, in Greece children get their Christmas present on January 1st, which is Saint Basil's day and younger children believe the gifts were brought by Aghios Vasilis (Saint Basil), so it is obviously their version of Santa Claus.
Christmas carols - the Greek way!
If you want to get a taste of genuine Greek culture you will not miss out on hearing Greek Zorba sirtaki music in one of the traditional Greek restaurants, even on Christmas. However, singing carols is also very popular, especially on the three official carol days, Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve and January 5th. Most of the songs tell Christian stories about the events that took place around the birth of Christ, similar to the western traditional Christmas carols.
Children will first "perform" for their parents and get some pocket money. After that they will walk around the neighborhood, singing, playing a triangle and drums and people who open the door for them will give them some treats, nuts, dried fruits, or a symbolic amount of money. The Greeks also share this custom with many other Orthodox cultures.
Christmas customs of pagan origins
Christmas in Greece has more unusual customs and beliefs dating back to ancient pagan origins. According to folklore, ugly goblins come out of the middle of the earth and enter their houses to eat food and frighten people during this time of year. Many homes keep a fire going for 12 days since the fire is believed to keep the goblins out.
In some parts of the country, people hang a pomegranate in the doorway. This plant is a symbol of fertility, beauty and eternal life and the Greeks share this belief with ancient Persians. Nowadays it is also a symbol of success and prosperity. Some people throw the pomegranate fruit in front of their door and the more seeds come out of the fruit, the year ahead is believed to be more prosperous.
Another custom that is supposed to bring good luck is smashing the dried fruit, stamping on it and then entering the house. Before Christmas trees became so popular, many Greeks used to wrap basil around a wooden cross. They would dip the cross into the water and sprinkle it around to ward off the evil spirits.
The blessing of water
Christmas festivities in Greece end on Epiphany (January 6), which celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River. After the Divine Liturgy, priests would traditionally throw a cross into the sea or river and a group of swimmers would compete in swimming to recover it.
It is usually a group of young men and athletes who participate in this event and the one who recovers the cross is considered to be especially lucky and prosperous during the following year. This custom is not unique in Greece, they also share it with their Orthodox counterparts from Slavic countries.