Christmas -New Year΄s Eve - Epiphany in Greece
Christmas in Greece
In Greece when we talk about “holidays” we are referring to the holiday period of Christmas, New Year and Epiphany, which lasts 12 days. There are many customs associated with the “twelve day of Christmas”, some very old and others relatively recent. Historically, in 354 A.D. it was arranged for the birth of Christ to be celebrated on December 25, the same day that they celebrated the birth of the ancient god Mithra, known as the “invincible sun god” and god of all solar deities in idolatry. With the changes, and the turning of people towards other gods, the popularity of the “invincible sun god” dropped and Christ took his place.
Christmas in Greece, or “the holidays”, are not what they were 40 years ago. Over the years a universal culture developing is noticed and western European customs spread all over the world.
Today Christmas in Greece appears more impressive, glossier and more glamorous. Store windows are decorated almost a month in advance, and in the cities the streets and town squares are lit with colourful lights. Also, many people now travel either abroad or around Greece to places which offer winter holidays.
On Christmas Day, all family members gather at the festively set dinner table.
In olden times, Christmas was simpler, warmer, perhaps much closer to the true spirit of the holiday. Many of the traditions of eons ago continue to exist unchanged, so Christmas in Greece maintains its originality and many of the customs.
Fasting at Christmas
In Greece, fasting period starts 40 days before Christmas. While the fasting was predominately for religious reasons, many considered the period to be a healthful practice as well. The faithful don’t eat meat, dairy and eggs.
As Christmas drew near, preparations began so all would be ready for the big holiday. Houses would be cleaned with extra care, and a few days before Christmas housewives would prepare the Christmas cookies, which would be eaten on Christmas Day when the fasting ended. In the past the honey cookies (melomakarona) were made exclusively for Christmas, while sugar cookies (kourabiedes), were prepared for the New Year. Today, though, that distinction is not observed and both melomakarona and kourabiedes are prepared and consumed during the Christmas and New Year holidays period.
Greek Christmas carols (Kalanda)
The singing of Christmas carols is a custom which is preserved in its entirety to this day. The Children still go from house to house singing the carols, while accompanied by the sounds of the triangle, even guitars, accordions, lyres or harmonicas. The homeowners offer children holiday sweets and give them some money.
Today almost everyone buys and decorates a Christmas tree in Greece, whether it is real or artificial. Usually they are decorated a few days before Christmas and remain in homes until Epiphany.
The Christmas tree, assumed to be foreign, may even have some Greek roots. Use of decorated greenery and branches around New Year is recorded as far back as in Greek antiquity. In older times, in Greece, instead of Christmas trees decorated small boatsand this tradition has continued to the present day.
New Year’s Day in Greece (Protoxronia)
After Christmas, the children impatiently await the New Year (Protohronia) because that’s when St. Basil (Agios Vasilis) delivers their gifts.
On New Year’s Eve in Greece it is customary for most people to gather in the town’s center, or plaza, for last minute shopping or just a pleasant stroll.
Cardplaying on New Year’s Day
As New Year is considered lucky in Greece, it is the custom to participate in games of chance on the first day. In addition to the state lottery which raffles 10 million euros on New Year’s Day, people play cards and roll dice in coffeehouses, clubhouses and homes throughout the country.
The New Year pie (Vasilopita) with coin
The cutting of the vasilopita is one of the few primordial customs still surviving. The pie is always beked with a coin. The one who receives the piece with the coin will be lucky in the New Year!
On New Year’s Eve everyone gathers around waiting for the vasilopita to be cut as the new year rolls in. When the time comes the father, in a solemn ceremony, starts to cut the cake. The first piece is for Christ, the second for the house, and then pieces for everyone present.
Entertainment on New Year’s Eve
During the entire holiday period, attendance in bars and clubs is much higher as people go out at night to celebrate. The fun and excitement continues until sunrise.
Fireworks on New Year’s Eve
In recent years elaborate firework displays have been established in the central squares of the cities throughout Greece. They are organized responsibly by the various municipalities, who also put up festive decorations and sponsor musical events for the Eve’s celebrations.
First foot or first step (Pothariko)
Many people pay particular mind to the good/bad omen regarding who will first enter their home in the New Year (pothariko). On New Year’s Eve a friend or relative, who is considered a good-natured, lucky person, comes first into their house the following day in order to bring good luck to the house. Often, a child is preferred for this special practice because children are considered innocent, good souls.
Epiphany in Greece
Τhe celebration of Epiphany or Theophania or Fota is celebrated on January the sixth.
The first sanctification of the Epiphany (The Enlightenment) takes place in church on the eve of the holiday. Afterwards, the priest goes from house to house holding a cross and a basil branch. As he walks through each house, he uses the basil to sprinkle (bless) all the areas of the home. This is the special occasion when many daring young Greek men brave the chilly waters to dive for a cross after it has been blessed by a priest and thrown into the water. For his gallantry, the first man who recovers the cross is said to have good luck throughout the coming year. In the past, the “winner” walked through each house with the cross collecting money for himself or for charity. In some parts of Greece, this custom remains to our day.