Like the well known songs say “It’s the most wonderful time of the Year”, Christmas is the beloved celebration of everyone. Are you ready to experience Christmas Greek style? Sure you are! Christmas in Greece means that the tradition never dies. Greeks know how to celebrate Christmas with joy, having fun and of course with the best homemade food. Here are some of the unique Greek traditions during Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Greeks decorate a boat instead of a Christmas tree
Wait, what? Well it sound pretty legit if you think that Greece is surrounded by sea and it has around 2000 island spread on its national waters. Greeks and maritime are tightly connected since the ancient times. The island and the seaside areas were the homeland of renowned captains as well as many simple seafarers, who were often separated from their families for long time periods. Almost every family had at least one male member working as a sailor or a captain since that was one of the few occupations that men living on the islands could do to support their families.
There were times when families were separated from all their adult male members in this way. The younger members of the families, who at that time made their own toys using wood, paper and cloths, often ended up making the traditional boats, inspired by the long trips of their loved ones, hoping they will see them again soon. It was common practice for the sailors to plan, if possible, their trips in order to be at home with their families during the festive days. They would stay till Epiphany or the “Great Blessing of the Waters” and only then would leave again for one longer trip. The small decorated boat was considered as a tribute and a welcome to the sailors returning home, and so its adornment was gradually established. On Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Epiphany’s Eve, when children were going door to door singing carols, they would bring with them their handmade toy boats so that the housewives would put all kind of treats in there.
This tradition has almost been extinct nowadays. Greeks now they prefer to decorate the typical Christmas tree everyone knows about. However, some still keep a small boat as a decoration on their Christmas tree or somewhere in the house as a discreet reminder of the tradition.
Kids sing Christmas carols door to door
Christmas is all about the kids right? It is their favorite celebration as they receive gifts and they are anticipating for Santa Claus in New Year’s Eve. But that’s not all. On Christmas Eve and on New Year’s Eve group of kids are rushing out on the streets of their hometown or village. They would sing Christmas carols in every house, sending the message of Jesus birth, wishing the homeowners health and happiness and a Happy New Year. Every region in Greece has their own carols but the main idea is the same. The lyrics and music may vary but the meaning would always be the same. After they are finished with their singing the people offer the kids money or sweets.
Melomakarona and Kourambiedes
We hope that you aren’t on a diet during Christmas time. If you are, though we have bad news for you. You will be tempted to break it for a few days. The reason is these two little sweets called Melomakarona and Kourambiedes. Everyone is thrilled eating them and enjoy cooking them with their loved ones. They are the ultimate Christmas treats. Every house has a plate on their living room filled with these goodies that give an incredible scent in the house especially during baking.
Typical ingredients of the egg-shaped Melomakarona are flour or semolina, sugar, orange zest and/or fresh juice, cognac (or similar beverage), cinnamon and olive oil. During rolling they are often filled with ground walnuts. Immediately after baking, they are immersed for a few seconds in cold syrup made of honey and sugar dissolved in water. Finally, they are decorated with ground, as well as bigger pieces of walnut. Some also like to cover Melomakarona with chocolate.
Kourambiedes resemble a light shortbread, typically made with almonds. Sometimes they are made with brandy, for flavoring, though vanilla, Mastiha or rose water are also popular. In some regions of Greece, Christmas are adorned with a single whole spice clove embedded in each biscuit. Kourambiedes are shaped either into crescents or balls, then baked till slightly golden. They are usually rolled in caster sugar while still hot, forming a rich butter-sugar coating.
Are you sure that you can resist?
On New Year’s Eve the house owner will break a pomegranate in front of the door of the residence. The pomegranate is the symbol of luck. For those who are more religious, before they break the fruit they go to the Church in order to have it blessed by the local priest. As the red fruit strikes to the ground, they say “With health, happiness and joy the New Year shall come and as many seeds are inside the pomegranate so much money shall be put in our pockets the New Year.”
No one actually knows the precise origin of this tradition and why people think that the fruit is considered to bring luck. A theory says that in Ancient Greece people believed that the power of the pomegranate was hidden in the thousand seeds that it has inside. They represent fertility and abundance. The red color is the color of luck. Initially it was performed in Peloponnese but now this tactic is widely spread in Greece. Who knows maybe it does help to bring good luck!
In New Year’s Eve Greeks are gathered in houses with family and friends. The company usually is quite big. It’s the Greeks we are talking about. They come together to eat dinner and drink while they are waiting for the New Year. When the clock strikes midnight and the New Year come they open champagne and they wish happy New Year.
After that families cut the Vasilopita to bless the house and bring good luck for the New Year. A coin is hidden in the bread by slipping it into the dough before baking. At midnight the sign of the cross is etched with a knife across the cake. A piece of cake is sliced for each member of the family and any visitors present at the time, by order of age from eldest to youngest. Slices are also cut for various symbolic people or groups, depending on local and family tradition. They may include the Lord, St. Basil and other saints, the poor, the household.
Whoever finds the coin in its slice is considered to have a lucky and joyful year. He would receive the congratulations from everyone in the household and he would keep the coin as a reminder for that day.
Agios Vasilis, the Greek version of Santa Claus
In Greece they don’t have Santa Claus. Instead there is another Saint called Agios Vasilis (Saint Basil). He comes from Caesarea in Asia Minor. His story is quite similar to the one of St Nicholas. Agios Vasilis was a kind and helpful man who was aiding the poor and the ones in need like orphans, widows and people with disabilities. He died on January 1st 379 AD and the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates his memory that day. That’s why in Greece Agios Vasilis brings the presents to the kids on New Year’s Eve and not on Christmas aw it happens to other countries.
To remember his charity work people cut Vasilopita as it is named after him. The coin that is hidden inside the dough symbols the gifts that the Saint was giving to the poor and the orphans. All the children expect him to come on New Year’s Eve and bring his gifts leaving them under the Christmas tree when the clock strikes midnight.
Do you want to experience white Christmas in Greece? Check out the guide to Greece for suggested destination in December. Celebrate New Year’s Eve eating Vasilopita or Melomakarona. We hope that you will find the coin in your slice!