Greece, Christmas in

Greece, Christmas in

The Greek Christmas season contains three distinct holidays: Christmas, St. Basil's Day (or New Year's Day), and Epiphany. In spite of the festivities that surround it, Christmas is a much less important holiday than is Easter for the Greeks.

Advent

In Greece devout Orthodox Christians prepare for Christmas with "Christmas Lent," a fast lasting from November 15 to December 24 (see also Advent). During this period those who observe the fast eat no meat, eggs, dairy products, fish, olive oil, or wine. The less observant may participate in a shortened fast period, beginning a week before Christmas.

Carols

On December 24 young people go door to door in small groups singing Christmas carols. Called Kalanda, these songs tell the story of the birth of Christ. The singers accompany the carols with music made from folk instruments such as harmonicas, drums, and triangles. Many also carry a small, hollow ship made from cardboard, wood, or metal (see also Christmas Symbols). Householders toss sweets or coins inside the ship in return for the carolers'serenade. In Greece the ship is said to represent St. Basil, who sails to Greece to bring presents to children on St. Basil's Day.

Christmas Dinner

In Greece some families eat Christmas dinner after church services on Christmas Eve. Other families wait until Christmas Day. The meal begins with the head of the family blessing the Christmas loaf and making the sign of the cross over it. This bread is called Christ-opsomo, or "Christ's bread." Christopsomo consists of rich, sweetened bread dough studded with nuts and, perhaps, also dried fruit. The dough is shaped into a large, round loaf, sprinkled with sesame seeds and decorated with a dough cross. Each person at the table receives a piece of the blessed bread and the meal begins. Greek families often serve roast pork for Christmas dinner.

Name-Day Celebrations

Greeks celebrate name-days with greater festivity than they do birthdays. One's name-day occurs on the feast day of the saint or holy figure after whom one was named. According to this custom, Greeks not only celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas Day, but also may honor people who share related names. The English variants of some of these names include Christopher, Christine, Emmanuel, and Emmanuela.

Superstitions

Although the Greeks celebrate Christmas with joy, old superstitions warn that trouble may not be far behind. According to Greek folklore, pesky demons known as the kallikantzari roam the earth during the Twelve Days of Christmas. These imps pull mischievous pranks, often while keeping out of sight. Luckily for the Greeks, the holy rites performed by the priests on Epiphany chase them back into their underground dens for another year.

St. Basil's Day

The Greeks open their holiday gifts on January 1 rather than on Christmas. Since January 1 is observed as St. Basil's Day in Greece, children view St. Basil as the Christmas gift bringer. Other St. Basil's Day customs include sharing a special loaf of bread called vasilopita, or "St. Basil's Bread." Often this takes place at midnight on New Year's Eve, but it may also take place on the following day. Some families observe a special ceremony when cutting and distributing the holiday bread. The head of the family blesses the bread and makes the sign of the cross over it. The bread is sliced, and the first piece is offered to Christ, the second to the Virgin Mary, the third to St. Basil, and the fourth to the poor. The next piece goes to the head of the family. The rest of the family receive their pieces according to age, the eldest first. The bread contains a small token, such as a coin. Whoever finds the token in their slice of bread will have good luck in the coming year (see also Christmas Cake; King of the Bean).

Greek folklore teaches that the first person to enter the house in the new year symbolizes the fortunes of the household (see also Firstfooting). Some Greeks prefer a healthy, strong person to enter first, others prefer an icon (a religious image) to enter first, held in someone's outstretched arms. Householders often welcome the first person to cross their threshold in the new year with sweets and coins.

Epiphany

Epiphany closes the Christmas season in Greece. Church services include the blessing of water. These services may take place outdoors, alongside natural bodies of water. They may also take place inside churches into which a large vessel of water has been brought. Parishioners receive small bottles of holy water to take home with them.

Further Reading

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Bethesda, Md.: Nea Attiki Press, 1993. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003