How do Greeks celebrate Christmas?
One might think Christmas in Greece is like everywhere else – Christmas markets, elaborated decorations, giving gifts, and a turkey feast. These celebrations were of course embraced by Greeks for a long time in modern society. However, some Greek Christmas traditions stood the test of time and are still widely celebrated today.
Christmas celebrations in Greece start on Christmas Eve and lasts for 14 days with Epiphany, the “Blessing of Water’ marks the ending. But the festivities actually begin in early December. Here are some of the characteristics of Greek Christmas you may observe while holidaying in Greece.
During the 19th century, the tradition of decorating Christmas trees with ornaments was first introduced to Greece by the ruling class and remained the privilege for the upper class in the country. It only became popular among the general population after World War 2. Greece has a long maritime heritage. Back then, Greeks would decorate and illuminate small boats, symbolizing their respect for the sea and welcoming their loved ones home. Today, you will see many vessels in ports and marinas lighted up in honor of this tradition, particularly so for regions near the sea and the islands.
We all love gifts over Christmas dinners! This is where you will be very surprised because there is no culture of Christmas gifting in Greece! Instead, gifts are presented only on New Year’s Day in celebration of Aghios Vasilis (or Saint Basil in English), also known as the “Western Santa Claus” in Greece. According to the Greek tradition, Saint Basil was associated with bringing aid to the poor. Therefore he was considered as someone who brings “gifts” and blessings to the people.
Singing Kalanda (Carols)
This is a long-standing tradition in Greece but the melodies are different from what we commonly hear such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. The kalanda is performed on Christmas Eve mostly by young children holding musical triangles standing at the doorstep to sing. In return, they will be rewarded with sweet treats like the Melomakarona (honey cookies) and Kourabiedes (sugar-coated butter cookies).
Feast and traditional fare
A big festive day like Christmas must be accompanied by a mouth-watering feast and lots of traditional food. In Greece, the food varies from region to region but generally, there is a common traditional recipe you will find on every Greek table.
Vasilopita, or the traditional New Year’s cake, contains a charm hidden in the dough, and the person to find it in their slice will be blessed with good fortune. This tradition is associated with a tale of Aghios Vasilis (Saint Basil) where he baked buns with hidden valuables and handed them to the people.
Christopsomo, or Christ bread is another customary staple on the Greek Christmas table. Although the decoration on the loaf differs from region to region and family to family, it does have some similarities. Typically it has a cross made of dough in the center, as well as almonds and nuts sprinkled on top to symbolize prosperity. Christopsomo has a sacred meaning to ensure the well-being of the home in the year to come.
Melomakarona and Kourabiedes are the most popular traditional Christmas desserts in Greece. Melomakarona is a soft egg-shaped dessert with sweet honey, orange zest, and sprinkled with walnuts. Kourabiedes is a sugar-coated butter cookie with almonds. While these desserts are connected with the Christmas period, Greeks were already eating them as an everyday dessert during ancient times.
Is serving turkey a Greek tradition?
Traditionally, contrary to the serving of turkey, the main dish on the Greek Christmas festive table is actually pork. The introduction of turkey during the late 19th century added a variation of festive food on the Greek table. This remains popular in modern days. One common way is to make cabbage leaf rolls filled with pork alongside celery or spinach.
Now that you know a little more about Christmas traditions in Greece, impress your Greek hosts if you are ever invited to one of their celebrations! Perhaps consider spending your next Christmas vacation in Greece.
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