Christmas in Greece is entering a new era. The decorations, food and customs are becoming increasingly globalized and resembling Christmas in western Europe or North America and where once Christmas was a quiet spiritual time with little commercialization, there is now an increased tempo and flashiness, at least in the urban centres. Despite this, Greece retains many unique customs from its past.
A penetential Advent season in Greece, the Fast of the Nativity, begins on November 17 but preparations for Christmas accelerate on December 6, the feast of St Nicholas. Nicholas in many countries is a quaint gift-giver; in Greece he is the national patron saint and the special protector of sailors who perform devotional ceremonies to him on his day. Christmas trees, which were once rare in Greece, are now becoming more common (though often artificial) and are set up in mid-December. (Before the popularity of the tree many Greeks decorated model ships at Christmas time or kept a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross.)
Christmas baking is important in Greece and are number of productions are indispensable: loukoumathes, honey dough balls, kourabiedes, sugar-coated shortbread, melomakarona, dipped in syrup and rolled in ground nuts, and Christopsomo, the round Christmas bread that is the centre-piece of the Christmas Eve meal. Kouloures are Christmas breads that are made to indicate the family’s profession: a plough shape for a farm family, a sheep for shepherds, etc.(Some of these cookies are saved for the children who go door to door singing kalandas, the beautiful Greek carols which are often accompanied by the sound of the triangle and drum. )
Where it was once customary for most Greeks to open their presents at the New Year, many are now following the western custom of doing so on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. The main course at the Christmas meal is changing as well. Roast pork was once the invariable highlight with many rural families raising the pig themselves for just this purpose but nowadays the turkey is making its appearance on Greek tables. Disappearing too are the rituals of the pig slaughter and the marking a cross on the children’s foreheads with the animal’s blood. The Christopsomo though remains an unchanged and essential element of the meal.
On New Year’s Eve more carolling takes place as children sing hymns to St Basil (whose feast is January 1) and are rewarded with treats and money. St Basil’s cake, the spongy Vassilopitta, is eaten after a ceremonial division in which portions are ritually allocated to the saint, various family members and the poor. A coin is baked into the cake and the finder is considered lucky for the coming year — if it is found in the piece for the poor the coin is given to charity. The next day gifts are distributed, a sumptous meal is served and the “Renewing of the Waters” takes place when new “St. Basil’s Water” replaces the old year’s water in jugs.
January 6 is the last major celebration of the Christmas season in Greece and marks the Theophany of Jesus, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon him at his baptism. Greek bishops carry out the Great Blessing of the Waters by carrying a cross, tied with a sprig of basil, and throwing it into a river, lake or sea in token of Christ’s birth and baptism. The cross will be retrieved by a diver; sometimes there will be competition for the honour of finding the cross as luck accrues to the one to return it to the bishop.
No account of Christmas in Greece would be complete without a mention of the folk belief in the Kallikantzaroi. These are subterranean monsters who emerge during the Twelve Days of Christmas to torment humans — they are angry that their year-long work to gnaw away at the tree that supports the world is thwarted by the birth of Jesus at Christmas. In their rage they will come down the chimney and perform little acts of nastiness, such as souring the milk, urinating in the fire or forcing folk to dance to exhaustion. They can be deterred by keeping the Yule log burning throught the period, burning old shoes, or hanging hyssop and a pig’s jaw. The Blessing of the Waters finally drives them back underground for another year.