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December 23, 2010

Christmas In Greece

In Greece, there are many Christmas customs that are similar, yet slightly different from the West.

While other cultures have Christmas elves, the Greek equivalent is not so benign. They are called "Kallikantzaroi" and are monkey-like mischievous black almost invariably male creatures.

There are a number of beliefs connected with these spirits, which are supposed to be a species of goblins that appear only during the 12-day period from Christmas to the Epiphany (January 6). These creatures are believed to come from the center of the earth where they try to cut the tree that supports the earth with a hand-saw and to slip into people's house through the chimney at night. More mischievous than actually evil, the "Killikantzaroi" do things like extinguish fires, ride astride people's backs, braid horses' tails, and sour the milk. Descriptions of them vary, and in one area they are believed to wear wooden or iron boots, the better to kick people, while other areas insist that they are hooved, not booted. In folktales, the twelve days of their power figure in a "wicked stepmother" story where a young girl is forced to walk alone to a mill through the twelve days, because her stepmother is hoping that the "Kallikantzaroi" will snatch her away.

Some households keep fires burning through the twelve days, to keep the spirits from entering by the chimney. A "yule log" in this case used to be a massive log set on end in the chimney, is burning or at least smouldering for the entire period. Protective herbs such as hyssop, thistle, and asparagus were suspended by the fireplace, to keep the "Kallikantzaroi" away. Other households, perhaps less devout, leave the kitchen strainer out so the Kallikantzaroi will spend the whole night trying to count its holes or trying to bribe them, would put meat out for the them . On Epiphany, the ceremonial blessing of the waters by the local priest was believed to settle the nasty creatures until the next year. Some local festivals still include representations of these entities, which may be a survival from Dionysian festivals.

It is the custom on Christmas Eve for children to travel from house to house offering good wishes and singing 'kalanda', the equivalent of Christmas carols. The children accompany the songs using small metal triangles and little drums. Afterwards, the children are usually given sweets and money in appreciation.

In Greek Christmas, the feast itself becomes the main attraction by both adults and children alike. Pork, roasted, in the oven used to be the traditional meal but in the last decades especially in the cities they have turkey stuffed with minced meat, chestnuts, rice and pine-cone seeds and on every table are loaves of 'christopsomo' ('Christ bread'). This bread is usually made in large sweet loaves of various shapes and the crusts used to be engraved and decorated in some way that reflected the family's profession. Nowadays are decorated with the cross.

In Greek homes, Christmas trees were not commonly used in the past, but the last half of the century every house decorates a Christmas tree with a shining star on top in remembrance of the Bethlehem star and usually at the bottom there is a manger with Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus. Decorations with missletoe and colourful lights adorn the balconies and gardens .

On New Year’s Eve children go around the houses singing New Year’s carols "kalanda" using metal triangles and they are offered sweets and money.

At exactly midnight on December 31 the father or the older person in the household turns off the main power switch so "new light" will come with the New Year. Then a special kind of cake called "vassilopita" containing a coin is cut along the members of the family and friends. Every person and even the pets of the household are entitled to one piece. One piece is dedicated to Jesus and one to the house itself. Whoever finds the coin in his piece is considered to be lucky for the whole year. Gifts, are exchanged at that moment or on the following morning , St. Basil's Day (January 1).

The festive season ends on Epiphany day (January 6) when the Church celebrates the baptism of Jesus and the priests throw a cross in the sea, rivers, lakes or even water reservoirs. In the islands young men dive to retrieve the cross and the person, that catches, it is considered blessed. In the other areas the cross is tied on a ribbon and retrieved back by the priest.


Until recently, Christmas in Greece was a quiet family holiday. While that is still true in many places, more and more public celebrations, such as the Christmas in Athens events, are making it feel very familiar for expatriates in Greece for the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

Christmas in Greece offers an array of homecooked specialties, many of which are easy to make and a few of which have even become Christmas traditions in other countries. The nutty pale white cookie covered in powdered sugar? That's Greek.

Bigger cities and towns, such as Athens and Thessaloniki, will have many civic events for Christmas and New Year's. Athens provides a Christmas tree in Syntagma Square surrounded by a marketplace and child-friendly activity areas. On the islands, keep an eye out for decorated boats. Many villages will have a banner of lights stretching over the main road.


For more on Greek Christmas, see here.