Considered the second most important holiday of the year, Christmas is filled with annual traditions and celebrations.
Tradition has always been important in Greece, and when it comes to the holiday season traditions range from ancient times to more recent years with the spreading of Western culture. During Christmas, also known as The Feast of the Nativity of Jesus, traditions range from singing, to wooden bowls, to what type of cookies to bake. The Christmas season lasts twelve days, beginning on December 25 and ending on January 6, or Epiphany Day. This time celebrates the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem, the baptism of Jesus Christ, and the biblical miracle of turning water into wine.
Shall We Sing?
One of the biggest traditions of Christmas in Greece is the singing of Kalanda. Children go around from house to house singing Christmas carols, known as Kalanda in Greek. Normally this occurs on January 5 and the children set out with triangles, drums, or other types of instruments to accompany their singing. The family which is receiving the kalanda gives the children small gifts like chocolates, pastries, or money. The songs consist of popular songs like “Silent Night” which are translated into Greek, or local songs like the “Kalanda Song.”
Bowls vs. Trees
An older Greek tradition was to place a wooden bowl with water in it inside the house. A piece of wire would dangle from the rim of the bowl, and on the end of the wire would be a small wooden cross with a piece of basil wrapped around it. The family would then sprinkle water in each room of the house. It is said that this would prevent Killantzaroi or goblins from entering the house. Killantzaroi is a Greek myth who only appears during the twelve days of Christmas. He travels from house to house coming down chimneys and climbing through windows in order to spread mischief.
Within the last few centuries, the Western custom of the Christmas tree has spread to Greece and replaced the tradition of the bowl in some households. Both real and artificial trees can be found decorated in homes. Before the tradition of the tree had spread to Greece, little boats would be decorated instead.
Leading up to Christmas, Greek Orthodox Christians participate in a forty-day fast which is then followed by a large feast on Christmas. The main dish of the feast is typically pork, lamb, or goat meat, but in more recent years Turkey has also become very popular. The ancient tradition was for families in the village to raise a pig and then slaughter it on Christmas Eve so that they could eat it for the feast. After the feast, they would use the leftover pig to make many other meals for weeks. The area was poor in meat, so the pork at Christmas was not something that was supposed to go to waste.
The feast today typically consists of a type of meat, Christopsomo (Christ’s bread), other Greek dishes, and Melomakarona or Kourambiethes cookies.
What makes Christopsomo special is the shape that the baker decides to make it into. Typical shapes are a circle, an x, or a cross on top of it. It is made the day before Christmas and then eaten once the fast has ended.
In Greece there are also two types of cookies that are made around this time: Melomakarona and Kourambiethes.
Melomakarona cookies are honey cookies that are made solely for Christmas. They often have spices like cinnamon, cloves, and orange. Kourambiethes are Greek butter cookies covered in powder. They were previously a New Year’s tradition, but are now often made at Christmas.