On Christmas Eve, children go from home to home in their neighborhood to sing kalanta, Greek Christmas carols, to give their best wishes to the neighbors. They are usually rewarded with sweets, dried fruits and small change in a Greek version of the North American trick-or-treating on halloween.
Don’t be surprised to find an illuminated small wooden boat in the homes of Greeks during Christmas. With a maritime history since antiquity, Greek wives and children used to decorate small boats to show their thankfulness for their husbands and sons coming back from the sea and having been spared from disaster. The tradition still stands today.
The Christmas tree was introduced in the country by King Otto in the 1830s, but really made its first true appearance in the homes of everyday Greek families in the 1940s. The trend really caught on but the Christmas tree never managed to eclipse the Christmas boat, and recent surveys show that Greeks are actually returning to the Christmas boat full-stop.
Just like anywhere in the world, Greece has also excelled in celebrating the pre-Christmas fast with a range of great traditional dishes. On top of delicious soups and meat dishes, baked goods such as the well-known and scrumptious kourabiedes (almond cookies) and melomakarona (tasty soft cookies dipped in syrup) are typical at this time of year. Vasilopita (served on New Year’s Day) or the christopsomo (Christ bread) are a few of the food items made especially for the holiday season.
On the 1st January, some Greek families also proceed with an old tradition, that of the renewal of waters, where all the water jars are emptied and filled with new water; many families pair this ritual with offerings to the naiads.
As the Christmas season lasts from Christmas Eve to the Epiphany, January 6th, the day of gift-giving traditionally falls on January 1st, St. Basil (or Agios Vasilios) Day – although many families now also exchange gifts on Christmas Day.
Tradition has it that during the 12 days of Christmas, little mischievous goblins known as kallikantzari come to tease people and create havoc in their homes. They are said to disappear when priests come to bless the devotee’s houses on the day of the Epiphany, January 6th.