Last Updated on January 26, 2023 by Celeste.
Christmas holidays in Greece are wonderful. The magic holiday spirit can be felt on the city streets through sparkling street decorations or at local churches in the neighborhoods and islands.
Christmas holidays in Greece with Kids
Greece features some Christmas traditions that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. And although I have always loved Christmas in Greece, the holidays became extra special for me after my children were born.
With the magic of the Greek Santa – called Agios Vassilis –, the joy of singing Greek Christmas carols, and the baking of traditional Greek Christmas sweets, Christmas holidays in Greece are extra special with family.
Greek Christmas Traditions
Christmas in Greece 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. Many Greek Christmas traditions go back generations or are unique for a specific region in Greece. Food—as always in Greece—plays an important role.
1. Christmas Carols or Kalanta
My kids’ favorite Christmas activity is Kalanta. These are Christmas carols sung on 24 December. If you live in Greece, be prepared to hear your doorbell ring early morning. Kids go from house to house playing a triangle and singing the special songs. If they are lucky, they are rewarded with money or a sweet.
In the past, kids would also be carrying a boat, a very old custom in especially the Greek islands. Depending on the region, kids sometimes played the Lyra, a traditional Greek string instrument, a drum, or a bagpipe-style instrument.
The children would receive 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.
2. Decorated Boat
In the past, the Greeks used to decorate 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.
Many people still follow this beautiful tradition and decorate a boat together, or instead of a tree. Such as seen at Syntagma Square in Athens, pictured above or here below in combination with a tree at the Public Market of Chania in Crete.
Here is our boat
3. Christmas Tree and Nativity Scene
The Christmas tree and the Nativity Scene (or Fatni in Greek) are more recent Christmas traditions in Greece. They have been introduced to the country some 60 years ago. Below are the Christmas trees at Little KooK-themed Cafe in Athens.
4. Agios Vassilis versus Santa Claus
In Greece, Santa Claus is called Agios Vassilis (Saint Basil). Agios Vassilis brings gifts for the children and his name day is celebrated on the 1st of January or New Year’s 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 generous and kind-hearted and helped the poor and needy. The Greek Santa Claus is far from chubby, though; he was a tall, thin man with a black beard and black, penetrating eyes.
5. Greek Christmas Food
Greek Christmas is 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. More recently, the Christmas turkey has become popular in Greece.
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 and is ready to be eaten on Christmas Day.
Our favorite Christmas holiday activity is the baking of the traditional Greek Christmas sweets called Kourabiedes and Melomakarona. For kourabiedes, I always use this recipe by my friend Amber at Provocolate. For melomakarona, have a look at my friend Laurenaki for a kids-easy recipe of these honey-soaked Christmas cookies.
In the past – and still today in some village houses – you can find a shallow wooden bowl with water and basil/and or a cross. Water is kept in the bowl to keep the basil alive and fresh.
Once a day someone, usually the mother, 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.
These Kallikantzaroi are goblins (or bad spirits) that emerge from the centre of the earth and slip into people’s homes through the fireplace. They are more troublemakers than harmful.
Kallikantzaroi only appear during the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany on 6 January. Unfortunately, we have never seen one!
Merry Christmas or Kala Christougena!
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