Greece has many customs and traditions related to Christmas and New Year. Many of these are common throughout the country, but many others are local and little known. Although the celebration of Christmas has been heavily influenced in terms of decoration and gastronomy by Western countries, Greeks remain quite faithful to certain traditions, such as kalanta (Christmas carols), the cutting of the “vassilopita” on the 1st of January, the pomegranate smashing for the New Year or the “podariko”. Christmas is celebrated with the family.
Karavaki, the boat decoration
Traditionally, in the coastal regions of Greece, boats were decorated for Christmas because the Greeks were mainly a seafaring people. When children sang Christmas carols, they took the boat, which they usually made themselves, with them to collect the sweets that were distributed for their carols. The custom of the Christmas tree arrived in Greece with King Otto, who was King of Greece from 1832 to 1862. However, the Christmas tree was adopted much later by the Greeks, as the boat was associated with the separation of sailors from their families, and grief and melancholy.
Kalanta, the Christmas carols
Christmas carols are traditional songs of praise that have Byzantine roots and are sung every year on the eve of major religious holidays, such as Christmas, New Year and Epiphany. Kalanta are usually sung by children, who go to houses and shops and sing these “wishes”. The children now collect money. They usually accompany the song with the traditional triangle. The kalanta can vary from region to region. There are at least thirty variations of Christmas kalanta!
According to Greek tradition, the Kalikantzaroi (goblins) are evil spirits, living in the underworld and their world is connected to ours by a tree. The evil spirits called Kalikantzaroi live under the tree, trying to find a way out of our world, which they manage to do during the twelve days of Christmas (from 25 December to 6 January). According to the legend, Kalikantzaroi can come up to our world at this time and cause problems because Christ has not yet been baptised and therefore cannot protect people from evil. The faithful of the time keep them away from their homes by making a fire and using incense.
Traditional Christmas meal
Traditionally at Christmas dinner in Greece, there are homemade pies with stuffing, such as seasonal vegetables (spinach, leeks, onions, horta), cheese and minced meat.
The traditional Christmas table includes pork dishes, such as pork with celery, roasted in the fireplace or oven, sausages, tigania or pichti (meat simmered with lots of lemon). Of course all dishes are accompanied by good local wine!
Christopsomo, or ‘Christ’s bread’ is a loaf of aniseed bread prepared by the housewives of each household on Christmas Eve. On this Christmas bread, women engrave the sign of the cross. On Christmas Day, the master of the house cuts the Christmas bread and distributes it to the members of his family. In some parts of Greece, a coin is inserted into the Christmas bread, as is the case in the vassilopita.
Christmas & New Year’s cakes
Cakes prepared in Greece and associated with the festive season are melomakarona, kourabiedes, diples and vassilopita for the New Year. But there are other sweets such as “aetoudakia”, in the form of biscuits or vassilopita, isli and foinikia for example, which originate from the culinary traditions of Greeks from the coasts of Asia and Constantinople.
At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, someone considered lucky or a child (because they are innocent) is sent outside and told to go back into the house, right foot first, to bring good luck for the next year: this is the custom of podariko!
The pomegranate crash
With the change and the arrival of the New Year, just before AghiosVassilis (Santa Claus) comes for the children, one of the first things that happens in the houses is the smashing of the pomegranate. The pomegranate symbolises euphoria and fertility and that is why it is smashed to bring good luck to the house by spreading all its seeds!
Of course the customs do not stop there, there are many others. Moreover, traditions can be lost or change over time.