Sung also in the days leading up to Christmas, kalanta is the native word for Greek carols. From New Year’s Eve morning, children of the neighborhood go from house to house and ask permission to sing the kalanta, or carols, accompanied by a triangle. This is meant to bring good wishes for the new year ahead.
Considered as one of the most auspicious times ever, New Year’s Eve is a marathon day for many Greeks. As in, a card-playing marathon. The tradition is that families gather around and play cards for hours. Games often start in the early evening and last until midnight. Kafenia and taverna also organize game sessions, and a lot of people also buy State lottery tickets in the hopes of getting lucky.
On New Year’s Day, another tradition is to exchange gifts as the Greeks believe that you are more likely to have a prosperous year ahead if you receive gifts on the first day of the year. The day also coincides with the Agios Vasilis (the Greek equivalent of Saint Nicolas) celebrations, so it is customary for adults to give gifts of money to their children or their youngest relatives.
Agios Vasilis (or Saint Basil), is one of the most important New Year’s figures in all of Greece, as he is considered one of the forefathers of the Greek Orthodox Church and a beacon of hope to those in poverty. Therefore, Greeks honor him by making donations to charities and by setting an extra place at their table. They also exchange gifts to celebrate the occasion.
Another tradition is the Kalo Podariko, or Good Footing. Right before midnight on New Year’s Eve, families turn off all the lights in the house and go outside. One person, considered good or lucky, is chosen to reenter the house with their right foot first. The whole household follows suit, entering also with their right foot first. Traditionally, children are chosen for this honor as they are considered to be innocent and have a good heart. This gesture is meant to bring the whole family luck for the new year ahead.
Stepping on mossy stones is another custom said to bid for a prosperous and happy year. People therefore head to nearby rivers or lakes to collect the fluffy stones and place them in the threshold of their houses before the New Year.
After the first person reenters the house, someone else with a good heart has the honor of smashing a pomegranate (a sign of prosperity, fertility and regeneration) at the door. It is said that the more seeds on the floor, the better and luckier the year will be.
Vasilopita is another important tradition on New Year’s Day, as the cake is only made for New Year with a trinket or coin hidden inside it. The cake is ceremonially cut with a slice for each member of the household in the addition of three symbolic slices, one for Jesus, one for the Virgin Mary and the last one for Agios Vasilios. Slices are then served to each family member from the eldest to the youngest. The lucky person that finds the hidden coin receives a small gift or money. The tradition is held not only in households, but also within companies and organizations.
As a symbol of growth and rebirth, the onion is also the center of another Greek New Year tradition. On New Year’s Eve an onion is hung on the front door to make sure the following year will be one of happiness and prosperity but also new growth.
Just like anywhere else around the world, fireworks are part of the New Year festivities. Whether people gather around in their garden, on their balconies, in public squares, on the beach or on a hill, the rule is to welcome the New Year with a good firework, then head out to the clubs and bars to celebrate in good company.