Christmas in Greece is an interesting experience, incorporating a mix of modern Western and traditional Orthodox traditions. German Christmas trees and American fairy-lights sit alongside Greek almond cookies and traditional rituals, resulting in a wonderful festival celebrating love, generosity and light in the winter darkness.
Greek traditions and customs for Christmas
Whilst colourful Christmas trees are seen throughout the country, as a traditionally seafaring nation the classic Greek Christmas decoration is in fact a ‘Christmas boat’, hung in the window. Similarly, a simple wooden bowl decorated with a wooden cross wrapped in basil is used to keep goblins, called killantzaroi, away. These mischievous creatures appear during Christmas, travelling through chimneys and windows and spreading mayhem wherever they go. A skarkantzalos (Christmas log) is kept burning for the entire Christmas period in order to stop the killantzaroi entering the house via the chimney, but luckily the goblins disappear on the Epiphany after a priest blesses the house.
Just like Western countries, throughout the month of December, local children go from house to house singing kalanda, a type of festive carol. The songs differ from region to region, but usually tell the story of the nativity and offer good wishes to the homeowner. Remember that it is good form to donate a sweet or small amount of money to children singing kalanda!
Rather than swapping gifts on Christmas Day, Greeks traditionally save their presents until the 1st January, which is also St. Basil’s Day. Like St. Nicholas, St Basil is remembered for his generosity, so his saint’s day is the perfect time for exchanging gifts with family and friends. The new year is celebrated by smashing a good-luck pomegranate on the floor and cutting the vasilopita (St Basil’s pie). The pie is baked with a coin hidden inside, and whoever receives it is blessed with good fortune for the coming year!