Greek Christmas Guide
What you need to know about Christmas Holidays in Greece
Whether you live in Greece or you are planning to spend your Christmas holidays in Greece for the first time, there are a few essential pieces of information you should know about Greek Christmas traditions.
Christmas and New Year is a beloved holiday period for the Greeks. Schools close for 15 days, people start spending their extra salary on gifts and shopping and prepare their houses for the coming celebrations. Christmas is considered a family holiday and Greeks tend to spend it with long meals and traditional feasts at home, with friends and relatives.
Christmas day and New Year day are less intense than Easter Day in Greece – although New Year’s Eve is usually a party-out night. Weather also plays its role in this, since winter is not the best time to be outside, or organize large outdoor feasts with lambs on the spit and kokoretsi, as on Easter.
Greek Christmas = Hristougenna
The holidays officially begin on December 22nd, although the festal atmosphere is evident almost from the beginning of December, when Greeks decorate their houses and plan their holiday activities.
Christmas traditions in Greece are followed by younger and older generations, but traditions range significantly in the different regions in Greece. However, there are many common Christmas customs, such as the Christmas tree, the 40-days fasting before Christmas and the Christmas Carols sung in every neighborhood in Greece these days. Going to the church on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is also common, especially to older people or smaller villages and towns.
In Greece, until a few decades ago, the Christmas tree was not among the traditional customs; people used to decorate a small wooden (even handmade sometimes) boat, which was incorporated to the Greek tradition because Greece is a nautical country and much related to the marine traditions.
Christmas tree became part of the Greek Tradition as Greeks adopted many Western customs and habits, among which the Tree and the colorful lights they put in their balconies or living rooms and windows.
Greeks tend to decorate the windows of their shops as well as their offices at work, in order to add a touch of festive mood and ambience for these holy days. Decorations last till January 7th, on the day of Saint John (Agios Ioannis), the next day of the Epiphany.
Greek Recipes and Foods for Christmas
As mentioned earlier, holiday meals are a big part of the overall Christmas tradition; Greeks make their sweets first of all, because in many areas sweets are associated with happiness and hospitality. Preparation of Christmas sweets starts usually towards the second half of December,, when the festive mood is much more evident.
The most common sweets are melomakarona and kourampiedes a for Christmas and of course the sweet cake Vasilopita made for the New Year.
Vasilopita is cut on the first day of the New Year; a coin is hidden inside Vasilopita and whoever gets the piece with the coin will have a good year – and maybe a gift as well!
On Christmas day, during the family meal, Greeks usually eat roasted turkey with filling of chestnuts, pine seeds, meat and raisins. In some areas they also eat roasted piglet with baked potatoes, salads and soups. Lamb fricassee, a simpler dish, is also popular for the Christmas dinner.
Christmas meal is supposed to be eaten slowly and enjoyed – it is a lovely occasion for family re-unions and friends’ gatherings. This is why wine or other spirits never miss from the Christmas table!
One of the most known Christmas customs, the Christmas Carols or Kalanta in Greek, are sung by children to bless the house and the people living in it.
There are three different carols in Greece, sung on Christmas Eve, on New Year’s Eve and the day before the Epiphany, which are less popular than the previous two. The carols feature different verses, although their common ground is the offer of blessings and wishes to the household.
These days, groups of small children visit the houses early in the morning to sing the Christmas carols. The first carols-singers will come early in the morning and more children will keep coming until noon hours. Christmas carols are a nice way for children to earn some money for their gifts or personal needs.
They will ring your bell and will ask you: “Na ta poume?” (should we sing them?). The answer should be “Peite ta” (Sing them) if you want them to sing, or “Mas ta eipan” (they sung them already), if many groups have passed by already and you are fed up with carols.
When the children are done, a tip of 1-5 € is enough. Once upon a time instead of money people were offering sweets, kourampiedes and melomakarona or even fresh eggs to the children, but you should not try it today, unless you want kids to be cursing when leaving your home.
New Year’s Eve, the Greek Protohronia
Greeks tend to exchange holiday gifts on New Year’s Eve; according to the tradition Santa Claus (Agios Vassilis) for the Greeks brings the gifts and leaves them below the tree for the kids. This is why the Greeks leave a plate full of sweets and other delicacies for Santa. Agios Vassilis is not the same person as Santa Claus though; Agios Vassilis comes from Caesarea not from Northern Europe.
Poker and black jack are the most common games played, and some people even visit the casinos, where there are particular offers and games for the night. If you are invited to a house where card games are played, you don’t need to participate in the game. You can comment on the game, watch the festive shows on the TV, or just mingle with the rest of people who won’t be playing.
If you are invited to the New Year Eve party or celebration, you will definitely need to bring something to the hosts; you can either buy a gift, or bring a nice wine or champagne. In any case, do not bring kourampiedes and melomakarona or vasilopita, because these are the sweets offered by the host. Anything else is pretty much accepted; in some cases when the host is organizing dinner as well you can bring some food – make sure you ask the host first.
Usually there is no dress code for the New Year’s Eve and it depends on the house you are visiting and the composition of the guests, but Greeks tend to dress up a little on that night.
Many Greeks organize parties outside the houses, in bars or restaurants, while other visit musical stages and celebrate there; during the festive days prices are higher due to Table d’hôte, an additional rate added to the regular prices of the club or stage.
Customs of the New Year
Although the most common New Year’s custom for the Greeks is Vassilopita with the coin, there are more customs for this important day. After midnight, when the New Year has come, Greeks break a pomegranate on the ground in the house (usually in a bag because the pomegranate juice and seeds make a mess), as this fruit is associated with luck and prosperity.
If people celebrate New Year’s Eve outside their houses, when they come back they have to enter the house on the right foot, because this is supposed to bring good luck to the household.
When the year changes at midnight, Greeks turn the lights off and turn them on again a few seconds later; this is a move that symbolizes the new beginning. They also open a bottle of champagne, which is a relatively new custom for that night.
On New Year’s Eve and first day, there is no particular food that has to be prepared, although the table should be rich and full – prosperity is always an issue for the coming year and a full dinner table is synonymous to good fortune and richness for the household.
In the mainland and Cyclades islands, Greeks prepare a plate with several goods, including fruits, honey, seeds (almonds and walnuts) and sweets and eat from it on the first day of the Year.
Epiphany, January 6
The Greek Christmas Holidays end with the Epiphany on January 6th. The Epiphany is associated with the blessing of the waters and can be quite spectacular in some towns.
Greece is a country much related to the sea, which has been the main source of income for many thousand years. It is, thus, normal that the beautiful blue sea has its special place in the hearts of the Greeks, who gather on the 6th of January at ports, beaches, banks of rivers and lakes, or even fountains to sanctify the waters to bring them good trips in calm seas, health and prosperity.
Send Christmas Greetings to your friends
If you want to wish your Greek friends for Christmas and New Year, we have prepared a collection of free Christmas Cards with pictures and videos. They are easy to use and spam-free.
This is a very interesting and very complete post. It is so great to learn about how Christmas is celebrated around the world.