The Christmas season in Greece spans twelve days, beginning on December 25th, Christmas, and ending on January 6th, Epiphany.
One Greek Christmas tradition is the singing of kalandas or kalantas, Christmas carols. Children go door-to-door singing their songs and playing their instruments, which include triangles, drums, lyres, and guitars. If they sing well, they’re rewarded with change and small snacks like nuts, candy, pastries, dried fruit, and other sweets. This tradition is also done on New Years Eve and the eve before Epiphany.
The first known Christmas tree was introduced in Greece by King Otto in 1833. Although Christmas trees have been becoming more popular in Greece as of late, Greeks have their own traditional, more popular decorations.
One such decoration is a sailing ship. In antiquity, Greek wives and children would decorate small boats to celebrate the safe return of their husbands and sons from their sea voyages. This tradition has carried on to the present, and it has become customary to decorate the house with a ship or boat, decorated with lights and other ornaments, around Christmastime.
Each December, in the Aristotelous Square in the city of Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, a huge Christmas tree and three masted sailing ships are erected. You can find similar boat displays in other large Greek cities like Athens.
Another decoration is a wooden bowl with a piece of wire dangling across the rim, which holds a small wooden cross with basil wrapped around it. Water is kept in the bowl, keeping the basil alive and fresh. Once a day someone, usually the mother of the family, dips the cross into holy water and uses it to sprinkle water into each room of the house to help keep the kallikantzaro away.
The kallikantzaroi are mischievous little goblins that only appear during the 12 days of Christmas. They come from the center of the earth and enter through the chimney, creating havoc wherever they go. Having a fire during throughout these 12 days is another effective means of keeping them away.
Devout Christian Greeks prepare for Christmas by participating in a 40-day Advent fast. After a midnight mass service on Christmas Eve, they break this fast with a hearty feast.
Traditionally, the main dish is lamb, pork, or goat meat roasted in an oven or over an open flame, although turkey is becoming popular as well. This main dish is served with sides of spinach and cheese pies, various salads, and vegetables.
Common desserts include baklava, a sweet pastry made of filo dough, filled with chopped nuts, and sweetened with syrup or honey, katafi, a pastry made from shredded filo dough and flavored with nuts and cinnamon, theeples, a fried pastry eaten for breakfast or as an appetizer, melomankarono, an oblong shaped biscuit made from flour, olive oil, and honey, rolled in chopped walnuts, and kourambiethes, butter cookies covered in powdered sugar.
The most notable Greek Christmas dessert, however, is the christopsomo, or Christ’s Bread; a round sweet bread flavored with cinnamon, orange, and cloves. The top bears a cross, and can be decorated however the baker pleases.
In Greece, presents are exchanged on January 1st, which is known as St. Basil’s Day. An old tradition on this day is the Renewal of Waters, where all the water jars are emptied and filled with new water. This ritual is said to banish the kallikantzaroi for good.
To celebrate Epiphany, events are held where young men dive into cold bodies of water and race to retrieve a cross which has been blessed by a priest and thrown into the water. Whoever gets the cross will have good luck in the coming year. Other festivities include the blessing of boats and ships, music, dancing, and lots of food.