Christmas holidays in Greece with kids are beautiful. Not only because of the magic holiday spirit but also because of very specific Greek Christmas traditions that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Although I have been living in Greece for many years, Greek Christmas became extra special to me when I had my kids. The magic of Agios Vassilis, the joy of singing Greek Christmas carols and the baking of the traditional Greek Christmas sweets, Christmas holidays in Greece are extra special with family. Some traditions go back generations or are typical for a specific region in Greece, others are more recent customs and are common everywhere in Greece. Christmas is called Christougena in Greek (=birth of Christ. Gena = birth in Greek) and is the second most important cultural and religious celebration in Greece after Easter. Here are some of my favorite Christmas holiday traditions.
My kids favorite Christmas holiday activity: the singing of the Kalanda. This is done on the day before Christmas. If you are staying in Greece during that day, be prepared to hear the doorbell ringing early morning. Children go from house to house playing a triangle (in the old days also a drum) and singing traditional Greek Christmas songs. If they sing well, they are rewarded with money or a sweet. In the past, they would also be carrying a boat, a very old custom in the Greek islands. In Crete children sometimes played the Lyra, a Greek string instrument. In the past, children received sweets, walnuts, dried fruits and biscuits instead of money. In some villages in Greece, children collected money for their local school. The money would be handed over to the school teacher to buy books and other materials.
Boat instead of Christmas tree
In the past, the Greeks used to decorated fishing boats with Christmas lights instead of a tree. This tradition is related to St. Nicholas who is the patron saint of the sailors and protects ships at sea. Some houses still follow this beautiful tradition and decorate a boat instead of a tree. At my Greek daughter’s school, a beautiful boat is decorated as well as a modern Christmas tree. A few years ago the central Athenian Syntagma square was decorated with a boat during the Christmas holidays but this year a modern tree is lightening up the city center. And did you know that the Nativity scene or Fatni, was introduced around the same time as the Christmas tree about 60 years ago?
Christopsomo and sweets
Christmas day is all about family and food. A period of lent has finished and Greek people traditionally eat pork, roasted in an oven or over an open spit. It is often served with a spinach and cheese pie and various salads and vegetables. Nowadays turkey has become popular in Greece. A traditional table decoration is the Christopsomo or Christ’s Bread. This round sweet bread is made in large loaves and flavored with cinnamon, orange, and cloves. The top is decorated with a cross. The crust used to be engraved to portray the family’s profession. The bread is made on Christmas Eve ready to be eaten on Christmas Day. Our favorite Christmas holiday activity is the baking of the traditional Greek Christmas sweets: Kourabiedes and Melamakarona.
In the past (and still today in some villages) a traditional Christmas holiday decoration is a shallow wooden bowl with a piece of wire suspended across the rim. Basil wrapped around a wooden cross hangs from the wire. Some water is kept in the bowl to keep the basil alive and fresh. Once a day someone, by tradition the mother of the family, dips the cross and basil into some holy water and uses it to sprinkle water in each room of the house.This ritual was used to chase away the Kallikantzaroi. Other families left a fire burning to keep them away. These Kallikantzaroi are goblins (or bad spirits) that emerge from the center of the earth and slip into people’s homes through the fireplace. They are more troublemakers then harmful. They are believed to do things such as extinguish fires, ride on people’s backs, braid horse’s tails, and sour the milk. They only appear during the 12 days between Christmas until Epiphany on 6 January. We have never seen one!
In Greece, Santa Claus is called Agios Vassilis (Saint Basil). He brings gifts for the children and his name day is celebrated on the 1st of January or New Years Day. This day is also called St. Vassilis/St. Basil Day. The story of St Basil is quite similar to the one of Saint Nicholas (or Santa Claus). Agios Vassilis) was a kind-hearted and helpful man, who was aiding the poor and needy ones while he was a bishop in Caesarea. The Greek Santa Claus is far from chubby though; he was a tall, thin man with a black beard and black penetrating eyes.
Stay tuned for more Christmas Holidays traditions in our next post!
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