Fireworks over the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center in Athens
The name day of Agios Vassilis
The holiday seasons in Greece brings Saint Basil or Agios Vassilis. He is the most important figure for children in Greece during Christmas and not Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas. Saint Basil arrives a week after Christmas and brings presents for the children on New Year’s Eve. Basil the Great was born 330 AD and is one of the forefathers of the Greek Orthodox Church. There are many similarities with Saint Nicholas. They were both bishops and known for their kindheartedness, their compassion and their help to the unfortunate and homeless. Agios Vassilis donated his wealth to the poor and is considered the founder of the first hospitals and orphanages. He died on January first and his name day is celebrated on this day.
Vasilopita or New Year’s lucky cake
You will see many traditional sweets and cakes in bakeries everywhere during the holiday season in Greece. There is only that is specifically created for New Year: the Vasilopita or Greek New Year’s cake. The tradition of the New Year’s cake is connected to Saint Basil and therefore also called King Pie. This cake is made of a variety of doughs and appears in different forms depending on the Greek region and family tradition. Inside the cake, a coin – the flouri – is hidden. The person that finds the coin will have good luck and good fortune for the year ahead. The Vasilopita is sliced in a traditional way representing the cross and this is traditionally done after midnight to bring good luck and blessings to the house. I was wondering how this cake is connected to Saint Basil. Researched gave me different stories. Some say that Saint Basil called on the citizens of his town Caesarea to raise a ransom payment to stop the siege of the city. Each citizen handed over his gold or jewellery. When the ransom was collected, the enemy was embarrassed the act of collective given and called off the siege. Saint Basil had to return the unpaid ransom to the citizens but had no idea which items belonged to which family. He baked all the jewellery into loaves of bread and distributed them. By a miracle, each citizen received their exact share. In other stories, it is Saint Basil’s attempt to give charity to the poor without embarrassing them or trying to hide his giving to the poor from the king or emperor.
My apartment’s doorbell never rings more often than in the holiday season in Greece. And certainly this year my kids have been going around the neighbourhood again the singing of the Kalanda. These traditional Greek Christmas Carols are sung on the day before Christmas and on 31 December. 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. The singing of the children is considered to bring good luck.
Good luck plays a very important role in more traditions of the holiday season in Greece. On New Year’s Eve, families get together at home and they often play card games for good luck. The games can go on for hours and end around midnight. The state lottery is very popular during the holiday season in Greece. Rolling dice is another favourite.
Symbols of good luck that can be found everywhere during the holiday season in Greece are the pomegranate (an ancient symbol for good luck and fertility) hanging from the door and by tradition smashed on the floor for good luck at midnight. In some parts of Greece, it is an onion that will bring good luck. And did you know that on the Cycladic islands it is a north wind or a dove?!
Children are also a symbol of good luck. They receive money on New Year’s Eve, this is called Kali Hera. And the lucky foot is called Kalo Podariko. At midnight, someone considered lucky is asked to leave and to re-enter the house. This is done with the right foot first and it supposed to bring good luck for the new year. It is said that luck is only brought by someone with a kind, loving and honest heart, so children are usually chosen to usher in the New Year in this way. A traditional Greek New Year’s present is a good luck charm, or ‘gouri’.
The release of the Kallikantzaroi
Finally, at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the windows of the house are opened to let the Kallikantzaroi out, these are the evil spirits or Christmas goblins. These Kallikantzaroi emerge from the centre 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. Having said that, we have never seen one!
For places to celebrate New Year’s in Athens and for activities with children, have a look at christmas-in-athens-with-kids-2018.
Happy New Year or Kali Chronia!