Christmas in Greece is not the most popular holiday…that would be Easter. And Greece can get chilly in the winter – don’t expect year round warmth. But you’re (almost) guaranteed sunshine due to the fact Greece is located in Southern Europe. So, if you’re looking for a holiday at a quiet time of year, don’t mind wrapping up warm and are interested in seeing some local traditions, you can’t go wrong with taking a break in Greece at Christmas, or at least the winter season.
Here, Bex of Life Beyond Borders and a true Grecophile introduces us to some of her favourite Greek Christmas customs.
Christmas trees are not traditional to Greece—houses will usually have a shallow wooden bowl with a piece of wire over the rim, on which hangs a wooden cross wrapped in a basil leaf. A small amount of water is kept in the bowl to keep the basil fresh. Once a day, someone in the family will dip the basil and cross in Holy Water and use this to flick around the house—to ward off bad spirits—Killantzaroi in Greek.
It’s thought the Killantzaroi materialise during the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany (25 December – 6 January). They come from the middle of the earth down the chimneys of homes and make milk go off, extinguish fires in the hearth. All sorts of mischief! I know of Greek families who keep their fire lit throughout this time in order to ward off the spirits.
1st January is St.Vasilis’ Day (or St. Basil) in the Greek Orthodox calendar. This is the day when Greeks will exchange wrapped gifts, not Christmas Eve, and is also the day when the New Year Cake—Vasilopita—is cut. When the Vasilopita is prepared, a coin is thrown inside and the person who gets the coin in their slice of cake once cut is reported to have luck year round. It is a very social occasion so if you’re visiting Greece during this period, you can usually go to the local town or village square and join in the celebration—even in the Greek capital, Athens, there will be neighbourhood ‘Cutting of the Vasilopita’. Local schools will have one—everyone’s invited. Don’t feel shy.
Followers of the Greek Orthodox church, if they still follow the tradition, will fast forty days before Christmas. This means eating no animal related products. Once the fasting is over, the meal is prepared in abundance. Turkey’s not usually eaten, (although more and more families are turning to this ‘western’ tradition). Greeks traditional choice of meat is lamb or pork, either roasted in the oven or on the spit. Spanakopita (spinach and cheese pie) and tiropita (cheese pie) are also served, along with vegetables and salad.
Don’t forget the desserts! Baklava, along with melomakarono – egg or oblong shaped biscuit/cakes made from flour, olive oil, and honey and rolled in chopped walnuts – are a favourite, and my personal favourite!
This is a very famous day in the Greek calendar. On 6th January, the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates Jesus’ baptism in a traditional, and interesting way.
The local priest will bless a large wooden cross and throw it into the waters of either the sea, lake or river – depending on the region. Young virile men will dive in to try to be the first to retrieve it. It’s reputed that whoever gets the cross first will have good luck all year. Personally, I enjoy just watching from the sidelines – wrapped in my warm coat, scarf and hat. I head down to Piraeus port usually and watch from there, it’s the biggest turnout in Greece, besides Thessaloniki. But it’s also nice to be on a Greek island for this experience. The whole community gets involved and it’s hard to not get caught up in the jovial atmosphere.
So don’t just think of Greece as a summer destination; there’s something for everyone year round.