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Greek Christmas Traditions

Updated on December 24, 2013

Celebrating Christmas The Greek Way

In recent decades the traditional way of celebrating Christmas in Greece has changed so much, that younger people don't really know that Santa Claus is a foreigner in Greece. Housewives have forgotten that they should watch out for Kalikantzari, the Greek Christmas goblins, and their mischievous deeds.

The western way of life has altered traditions throughout the globe - and a country that is a part of Europe, even a remote south-eastern part of it, cannot claim to have remained untouched by the spirit of globalization, in the beginning of 21st century.

So much the worse! Aided by my memory, by scattered pieces from old books and albums, by testimonies and shows on the TV, by special Christmas editions, supported by the staunch love of folklore researchers and ardent exponents of native traditions, I shall attempt to retain on this page some of the Greek customs that signaled the birth of Jesus Christ and this distinguished period of the year in our country for many centuries, until the winds of change covered them with rosy-cheeked fanfares.

Greek Orthodox Traditions, St Basil
Greek Orthodox Traditions, St Basil

Christmas Eve In Greece

Expecting Santa?

Don't!

Santa Claus, with his red coat and pants garnished with unsullied white fur edgings, with his rosy cheeks and deep laughter, with the bottomless sack full with toys, is a North American invention of the mid-19th century and has nothing to do with our very old Greek traditions.

Did children not receive gifts?

Oh, yes, they did - but this happened on New Year's Eve. Of course, it wasn't Santa who brought them, but Saint Basil the Great, the influential bishop of Caesarea, a flourishing Greek city on the coasts of the Black Sea back in the 4th century. Basil of Caesarea was born in a wealthy family, but he preferred to donate all his possessions to the poor and the needy. He also loved and protected children. He is admittedly the original Father Christmas.

Saint Basil was a distinguished theologian of the Greek Orthodox faith and an ardent supporter of the Nicene faction, as opposed to the Arianism sect. Arianists disputed the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, namely the divinity and consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son. Saint Basil was a man of solid education who helped stipulate some very fundamental formulations of Greek Orthodoxy during those early stages of the faith. For his contribution, he is also celebrated as one of the Three Holy Hierarchs (patron saints of Letters and Education) on the 30th of January.

Greek Christmas - Nativity Icon
Greek Christmas - Nativity Icon

Greek Orthodox Icons of Nativity

Created by another Greek Squidoo-er, this lovely page introduces you to the magic of Greek Orthodox Christmas iconography.

The Icon of Nativity

Greek Christmas Traditions, The Boat
Greek Christmas Traditions, The Boat

Oh, Christmas Tree! Oh, Christmas Boat!

Christmas In Greek Tradition Uses Many Symbols

The tradition of Christmas trees decoration was launched in the 19th century, following the Greek Revolution against the Ottoman empire and the coming of a Bavarian kingly family to reign over the newly-independent Greek state. King Otto and Queen Amalia brought along the customs of their Northern home. Because decorating homes with branches of evergreen shrubs was a deeply rooted pagan custom (as it is in many parts of the world), firs, which are used as Christmas trees, quickly came in vogue - and this is how Christmas trees were introduced in Greece.

We should not forget, though, that Greece is a country encircled by water and that the sea always played a major role in Greek economy and way of life. Children in the Greek islands used to sing the Christmas carols (cálanda) by carrying about a paper or wooden decorated boat, in which they received the traditional Christmas treats.

While there are people supporting the use of the Christmas tree over the Christmas boat and vice versa, the more likely truth is that both respond to the Greek psyche - and both traditions can be reconsiled for the celebration of such an important holy day.

(On the use of Christmas trees throughout the world)

On the morning of Christmas Eve, groups of children go from door to door, asking "Shall we say them?" When the housewife accepts, they usually sing the most popular form of the carols, which goes as follows:

Good evening, lords

If it's your bidding

Of the Christ's divine birth

I shall tell in your mansion

Christ is being born today

In the town of Bethlehem

Heavens rejoice

The whole creation delights

In the cave He is born,

Within the horses' manger,

The King of heavens

And Maker of all

...(continues)

This still happens in every big city and little village of Greece. Children sing the Christmas carols and are rewarded with money and sweets. Then, they wish 'Many happy returns' (something like 'To next year' in Greek) and run to the next home, in order to gather as many treats as they possibly can on this special day.

Traditionally, Christmas carols are sung with the accompaniment of a metal triangle, a basic musical instrument that even the youngest of children can hold and ring while they're singing.

Listen to Greek Christmas Carols - Traditional carols from various regions of Greece

Greek Christmas Traditional Food and Recipes

Greeks have their own Christmas recipes - with lots of sweets, of course!

Greek Traditional Christmas Honey Buns

A traditional Greek recipe contributed by the author of this page. I make them every Christmas!

Loukoumades: Greek Epiphany Sweets

These are to keep away the Kalikantzari (see below for more info). Take it from me, Kalikantzari know a good recipe when they see one!

Greek Christmas Traditions - Kalikantzari
Greek Christmas Traditions - Kalikantzari

Christmas Goblins in Greece: Kalikantzari

The kalikantzari are hairy, filthy, nasty, messy creatures.

According to Greek tradition, all year long the kalikantzari gnaw at the Tree that supports the Earth. Then, during the Dodekahimeron (12/25-01/06), they leave their job unfinished (actually, they are pretty close to taking down the tree, but they are not famed for their brains) to surface the earth and bring as much chaos and mischief among humans.

The kalikantzari delight in harassing people - this is why nobody wants to be out at night during those days. They also love messing homes, storehouses and other human retreats. They sully everything they can get their hands on - specializing in food and drinkable water.

Housewives and landlords take extra precautions for avoiding the kalikantzari hazard. All fireplaces burn non-stop (kalikantzari hate fire) or are trapped using screens and other devices. Of course, little gluttons can blame empty jars and pastries on the kalikantzari - and who is to contradict them?

On the day of the Epiphany (6th of January), when Christ was baptized within the river Jordan, the priests bless the waters and kalikantzari run shrieking back to their dark refuge - where the Tree that supports the Earth is renewed once again.

Wherever you are.

Christmas Wishes - We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

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    • profile image

      tonyleather 3 years ago

      Interesting Post!

    • endamclarnon profile image

      Enda McLarnon 4 years ago from Belfast, Ireland

      You have goblins and we Irish have of course the Christmas fairies and I don't like the sound of either of them. I was in Italy for Christmas last year and they also have fascinating traditions. Thanks for this interesting hub and teaching us about other cultures.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Your articles always teach me something new. Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year...which are coming up fast once again. :)

    • EileenSmith LM profile image

      EileenSmith LM 5 years ago

      Oh, the Kalikantzari! Deliciously evil. A really interesting look at a new set of Christmas traditions, thanks.

    • waldenthreenet profile image

      waldenthreenet 5 years ago

      Yep, knowl something about the Greek Tradition of Chrismas. Have Greek American Friend and the Eastern Orthodox different from Roman Chatholic. Thousand year history of two branches of Christianity, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. Appreciating your topic. Thanks. Congrad on reaching level 54 on Squidoo. Just got there myself. Hello Greece !

    • Phillyfreeze profile image

      Ronald Tucker 5 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

      Excellent lens that has all the educational and traditional significance of the celebration of Christmas the Greek way! I will be sure to watch out for the Kalikantzari...wishing you and yours a Merry Cristmas and a prosperous and Happy New Year!