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Christmas in Greece: Symbolism, Tradition and Superstition Converge
According to tradition in Greece, especially the islands, the Greek people decorate ships instead of Christmas trees to celebrate the holiday season.
It may be simply a coincidence that the warm and ebullient country of Greece, which serves as a mainland to 2,000 islands in southeastern Europe, begins and ends its Christmas season with the religiously symbolic substance of water.
Although this country is tiny – smaller than the state of Alabama – there is nothing small about the pride that Greeks take in their Christmas traditions, with and without water.
Most of Greece’s 11 million residents are members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which makes them Greek Christians. They believe that John the apostle wrote the Bible’s Book of Revelations on the island of Patmos, which is part of the Dodecanese group of islands, only 40 miles from the Turkish coast.
And so on December 6, St. Nicholas Day, Christmas in Greece takes on added significance because St. Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, and nearly every island family in Greece works in the naval, shipping, fishing or sponge diving industries. The small fishing boats that circle Greece in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas honor St. Nicholas by stringing blue and white lights (the colors of the Greek flag) and placing a likeness of him at the helm.
Meanwhile, people on shore light candles in chapels and pray to St. Nicholas to protect their loved ones from the dangers of the sea – appropriate timing because seawater is particularly rough and choppy around Greece throughout the month of December. The Greek Navy also pays tribute to St. Nicholas with a special ceremony at the Hellenic Naval Academy.
Throughout their travels, sailors have been known to bring home Christmas trees, but they are not nearly as common as they are in other countries. Instead, most families prefer to take a smaller but earthier approach by wrapping a sprig of basil around a wooden cross and suspending it over a bowl of water to keep the basil fresh. Once a day throughout the Christmas season, the head of the household dips the cross into this “holy water” and sprinkles some in each room of the house. Greeks believe that this ritual keeps evil spirits away during the 12 days of Christmas.
Christmas in Greece: A Celebration of Food and Dance
By this point in the Christmas season, many traditional Greeks are eagerly awaiting an epic feast on Christmas Eve because they have been fasting since November 15. The Christmas fast is one of four religious fasts of the year, during which Greeks must abstain from eating meat, eggs and dairy products.
But first, they may indulge children who wish to go house to house, singing kalandas, or Christmas carols. Even musically challenged little ones enjoy following the example of their ancestors by tapping small, metal triangles and banging tiny, clay drums.
More musically inclined children may play the bouzouki – a dynamic string instrument that many people associate with lively parties during Christmas in Greece. Old-style bouzoukis feature three sets of double strings while modern ones have four sets of double strings. Either way, the sound of this music brings a joyful end to a 40-day fast – and marks the beginning of a meal that is distinctly Greek.
Stuffed grape leaves – filled with meat, rice and spices – often open the meal, followed by another dish the Greeks have made famous: Greek salad garnished with feta cheese, nuts and olives. In fact, varieties of olives are hand-picked in Greek villages and then pressed a process that results in virgin olive oil. This is a crucial flavor in Greek cooking, not to mention Greek salad dressings.
Greeks are renowned for making cooking fun and entertaining for their guests, and they often rise to the occasion during Christmas in Greece. For example, on Christmas Eve, they often spit-roast pig, lamb or goat over an open, roaring fire. Some Greek families enjoy a main course of chicken, turkey, fish or kabobs, complemented by a side dish of vegetables, such as moussaka, an eggplant-based, casserole-style dish that consists of layered tomatoes, peppers, onions and sometimes meat. And no Greek Christmas Eve feast would be complete without pita bread, with or without an olive oil dipping sauce.
Pita bread must compete for room at the table with another must-have Greek Christmas bread: christopsomo, known as "Christ Bread." These large, sweet loaves are molded into various shapes and the crust is decorated to represent the family’s profession.
If Greeks have room for dessert, it often includes kourabiedes (butter cookies), diples (a deep-fried pastry) and especially baklava, a light, cinnamon-sugar pastry that is drizzled with syrup. Christmas in Greece would not be complete with them.
Greeks exchange gifts on St. Basil’s Day, on January 1, when another version of the Christ bread, called vasilopsomo, is served. They are wise to keep an eye on both their gifts and their sweet bread because it would be just like the pesky Kallikantzari (sometimes spelled Killantzaroi) to wreak havoc with both if they lay unprotected.
Greece’s notorious little troublemakers play pranks on people during the 12 days of Christmas – from Christmas to the Epiphany, on January 6. Some people say these mischief-makers look like monkeys; others say they look like wolves. But since these goblin-like creatures apparently like to slip undetected into homes through chimneys, Greeks try to scare them away by hanging strong herbs near the hearth or burning a fire for 12 straight days – if, that is, the daily sprinkles of basil “holy water” failed to do the trick.
The Epiphany recalls the baptism of Christ, and priests visit homes and splay them with holy water – to bless the occupants and to expel any lingering traces of the free-spirited Kallikantzari during Christmas in Greece.
More tellingly, perhaps, the season ends as it begins: with ceremonies centered on the water. During the "renewal of waters" (or “blessing of the water”), a priest submerges a crucifix to make the water holy and capable of healing illness and disease. Also on this day, priests bless those ships anchored at harbors and ask, in St. Nicholas’ name, to watch over each and every one. Ships blow their whistles in appreciation and church bells ring across the countryside – making the religiously symbolic substance of water seem like not such a coincidence after all.
Augustin, Byron and Rebecca. A to Z Greece. Danbury: Scholastic, 2005.
Christmas Traditions in Greece. < http://www.christmasmagazine.com/en/spirit/xmas_greece.asp >
Gordon, Sharon. Discovering Cultures: Greece. Tarrytown: Benchmark Books, 2004.
Greece: Christmas traditions & customs. < http://www.thehistoryofchristmas.com/traditions/greece.htm >
Greek Feasts, Anniversaries, Customs.< http://www.greek-recipe.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article228 >
Jeffery, Yvonne. The Everything Family Christmas Book. Avon: Adams Media, 2008.
Nobleman, Marc Tyler. Greece: Countries and Cultures. Mankato: Bridgestone Books, 2003.
St. Nicholas Center. < http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/greece/ >