With Easter as the most festive holiday on the Orthodox Church’s calendar, Christmas is not as widely celebrated in Greece as in the rest of the Christian world. The people of Athens, however, do take pride in some of the celebratory trappings, including their Christmas tree in Syntagma Square, the amusements for kids all around it, the cheery lights and tiny boats – symbols of journeys to new destinations – decorating some houses throughout the Greek capital city, and attention given to Saint Nicolas (patron saint of sailors) and Saint Basil, also known as Santa Klaus.
As far as holiday pastimes are concerned, families looking for snow this unseasonably warm year (2010) should head to the mountains and well-known villages like Kalavryta in the Peloponnese or Arachova near Delphi, both approximately two hours from Athens by car. In Athens itself, there are free street concerts and fireworks.
Local Christmas Traditions
Greeks enjoy telling a Christmas myth about children who have not behaved. They talk about kalikantzari, little dark spirits resembling ugly elves that appear for 12 days (December 25 to January 5) to bring trouble to mortals. In some villages, local residents believe they can protect themselves from kalikantzari using herbs, asparagus and basil. On the island of Skyros, locals even hold special dance celebrations to make the kalikantzari disappear. Inside their houses, women sprinkle holy water in every corner with a cross and basil, and dried pomegranate is said to bring good luck. The kalikantzari are believed to vanish starting on January 6, an event known as Ton Foton, meaning ‘day light,’ when levity returns to the house and the spirit. Ton Foton is also the most common name day in Greece, celebrated on the feast day of St. John the Baptist (in Greece, Orthodox feast names are more important than birthdays).
January 6, the Epiphany, is also known as Theophany, one of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church. On this day, to prove their faith and courage, young people jump into the cold waters of the sea to recover a holy cross and return it to a priest. The first one to find the cross is blessed for a year, as is the local water and/or sailing port. Throwing the cross into the water symbolises the passage of Jesus’ life from his birth to his baptism or the passage of his spirit to a new person. Theophany is commonly celebrated in Cyprus, but also in many other Greek communities around the world. After the Theophany, a priest visits local homes to pray and bless each house.
Amidst all these serious undertakings, on the mornings of Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and the Epiphany, local children often gather before different homes and sing kalanda (carols) in exchange for cookies or some coins. The kalanda have existed since pagan times and recount the story of Christmas; they have been a part of Christian Christmas custom since the early days of the Byzantine Empire.
Fewer and fewer believers still fast during the 40 days preceding Christmas, but the break-fast meal remains an opportunity for all to roll up their sleeves and show their skill with traditional foods.
Many meals begin with a soup eaten on the night of Christmas itself. It’s a simple dish made with chicken, rice and avgolemono sauce, which is composed of lemon and eggs. It is accompanied by chrystopsomo, which means ‘Christ’s bread,’ a rounded loaf of village bread. The choice of ingredients for chrystopsomo differs from house to house, but popular ones include olive oil, red wine, orange juice, dry grapes and walnuts. Following this is a traditional plate of meat, typically lemon pork with vegetables, although turkey is now also sometimes served.
Holiday desserts in Greece are abundant and also extremely sweet! Kouriambedies are typical Christmas cookies dusted with white sugar to remind one of small flakes of fresh snow. These shortbread cookies are very sweet and may include almonds or nuts in a circle or crescent shape.
Melomakarona is another delightful pastry that combines the Greek word meli, meaning honey, with the Italian word for macaroon. These sweet treats are made of nuts, olive oil, honey syrup, cinnamon, orange and clover. They are rounded or oval-shaped and often topped with nuts or sesame seeds.
Finally there is vassilopita, a type of cake bread sprinkled with powdered sugar that is often eaten on the New Year. Vassilopita means ‘cake of Saint Basil, Vassilis,’ the Greek Santa Klaus. The special and entertaining custom of cutting this cake is as follows: the firsts slices – made for the Holy Trinity and Holy Virgin – are typically eaten last; the next piece goes to the father or head of the family, followed by the wife, the kids (from oldest to youngest) and other family members and guests. Hidden inside the cake is a coin or medallion and the one who finds it will be lucky for a year.