Greek and Cretan
Kala Christouyenna! Merry Christmas!
Christmas decoration in Sfakia
At least 95
percent of all Greeks claim membership in the Greek Orthodox
church, part of the Eastern Orthodox church. Until 1054, the
Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches were one body. Theological,
political, and cultural differences split the church in two, and
those differences were never completely reconciled. Despite the
power religion holds over everyday life, Greeks are not devout churchgoers.
Aside from the special Easter celebrations, services are
attended mainly by old women and young children. And the Greeks
often defy their church's teachings by clinging to old 'superstitions'
or their own beliefs from cultural heritage.
are alive and Christmas, Easter and the Assumption of The Virgin
(15th August) are considered to be the greatest of religious feasts.
To members of the Eastern Orthodox Church Christmas ranks second
to Easter in the roster of important holidays.
Nativity of the Theotokos
Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple
Christmas (Nativity of Jesus Christ)
Epiphany (Baptism of Christ)
Presentation of Christ in the Temple
from year to year
Days after Easter
Days after Easter
Transfiguration of Christ
Dormition of the Theotokos (Kimissis)
The determination of the date of Easter is governed
by a computation based on the vernal equinox (the point at
which the ecliptic intersects the celestial equator, the sun
having a northerly motion) and the phase of the moon. According
to the ruling of the First Ecumenical Synod in 325, Easter
Sunday should fall on the Sunday which follows the first full
moon after the vernal equinox. If the full moon happens to
fall on a Sunday, Easter is observed the following Sunday.
The day taken to be the invariable date of the vernal equinox
is March 21.
The Greek Orthodox
Church is celebrating Christmas
on December 25th,
on the same date as the Catholic and Protestant Churches.
That Greek date for Christmas was picked because on the same day in
the Mediterranean area they used to celebrate a Persian god, Mithras,
who was the god of the Sun. And, because the difference between
light and darkness is such an important aspect of the December month,
all our Greek traditions and customs are still based on that contrast
of darkness and light.
tends to be a quiet, solemn, season. In some areas, the holiday
is preceded by a time of fasting. For Greece, the season is
in full swing by December 6th, the Feast of St. Nicholas when
presents are exchanged, and will last through January 6th, the
Feast of Epiphany. Nicholas (and every Greek Nikos) have their
so called name
day on 6th December.
On the day and evening before Christmas and New Year's, children
sing the equivalent of carols (kalanda) from house to house.
These kalandas bless the house. Often the songs are accompanied
by small metal triangles and little clay drums. The children are
frequently rewarded with sweets and dried fruits.
The word carol
comes from a Greek dance called a choraulein, which was accompanied
by flute music. The dance later spread throughout Europe and became
especially popular with the French, who replaced the flute music
with singing. People originally performed carols on several occasions
during the year. By the 1600's, carols involved singing only, and
Christmas had become the main holiday for these songs.
St. Basil's Day (New Year's Day) is a time for parties and
gift giving. St. Basil is the Santa Claus of Greeks.
is important in Greece as the patron saint of sailors. According
to Greek tradition, his clothes are drenched with brine, his beard
drips with seawater, and his face is covered with perspiration because
he has been working hard against the waves to reach sinking ships
and rescue them from the angry sea. Greek ships never leave port
without some sort of St. Nicholas icon on board.
40 days of fasting, the Christmas feast is looked forward to with
great anticipation by adults and children alike. Pigs, lambs and
goats are slaughtered, women usually bake ceremonial pastries during
this time for the big family meal, served after church services
on Christmas Day. Melomakarona are honey-dipped cookies often stuffed
with nuts. Kourambiedes are cookies dusted with powdered sugar and
very white, Diples are fried dough cookies, dipped in honey.
On almost every table are loaves of Christopsomo ("Christ Bread").
It is a round loaf, decorated on the top with a cross, around which
people will also make symbols shaped in dough that represent whatever
it is they do in life. If people live on an island and they're fisherman,
they will decorate the bread with fish. If they have a lamb farm,
you'll see little lambs.
are not commonly used in Greece (but this is changing rapidly).
In almost every home the main symbol of the season is a shallow
wooden bowl with a piece of wire that is suspended across the rim; from
that hangs a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross. A small
amount of water is kept in the bowl to keep the basil alive and
fresh. Once a day, a family member, usually the mother, dips the
cross and basil into some holy water and uses it to sprinkle water
in each room of the house. This ritual is believed to keep the Killantzaroi (Kallikantzaroi
or Karkantzaroi) away from the house.
about the Kallikantzaroi vary from region to region,
but in general they are half-animal, half-human monsters,
black, hairy, with huge heads, glaring red eyes, goats'
or asses' ears, blood-red tongues hanging out, ferocious
tusks, monkeys' arms, and long curved nails, and commonly
they have the foot of some beast. "From dawn till sunset
they hide themselves in dark and dank places .., but at
night they issue forth and run wildly to and fro, rending
and crushing those who cross their path. Destruction and
waste, greed and lust mark their course." When a house
is not prepared against their coming, "by chimney and
door alike they swarm in, and make havoc of the home; in
sheer wanton mischief they overturn and break all the furniture,
devour the Christmas pork, befoul all the water and wine
and food which remains, and leave the occupants half dead
with fright or violence." Many like or far worse pranks
do they play, until at the crowing of the third cock they
get them away to their dens. The signal for their final
departure does not come until the Epiphany, when the "Blessing
of the Waters" takes place. Some of the hallowed water
is put into vessels, and with these and with incense the
priests sometimes make a round of the village, sprinkling
the people and their houses.
this ecclesiastical purification there are various Christian
precautions against the Kallikantzaroi - e.g., to mark the
house-door with a black cross on Christmas Eve, the burning
of incense and the invocation of the Trinity - and a number
of other means of aversion: the lighting of the Yule (=
Christmas time) log, a large log of wood called a skakantzalos,
the burning of something that smells strong (sometime the
Greeks will also burn old shoes, the smell of which keeps
the wicked elves away), and - perhaps as a peace-offering
- the hanging of pork-bones, sweetmeats, or sausages in
as men are sometimes believed to become vampires temporarily
during their lifetime, so, according to one stream of tradition,
do living men become Kallikantzaroi. In Greece children
born at Christmas are thought likely to have this objectionable
characteristic as a punishment for their mothers' sin in
bearing them at a time sacred to the Mother of God. In Macedonia
people who have a "light" guardian angel undergo
the hideous transformation.
attempts have been made to account for the Kallikantzaroi.
Perhaps the most plausible explanation of the outward form,
at least, of the uncanny creatures, is the theory connecting
them with the masquerades that formed part of the winter
festival of Dionysus and are still to be found in Greece
at Christmastide. The hideous bestial shapes, the noise
and riot, may well have seemed demoniacal to simple people
slightly "elevated," perhaps, by Christmas feasting,
while the human nature of the maskers was not altogether
forgotten. Another theory of an even more prosaic character
has been propounded that the Kallikantzaroi are nothing
more than established nightmares, limited like indigestion
to the twelve days of feasting. This view is taken by Allatius,
who says that a Kallikantzaros has all the characteristics
of nightmare, rampaging abroad and jumping on men's shoulders,
then leaving them half senseless on the ground."
theories are ingenious and suggestive, and may be true to
a certain degree, but they hardly cover all the facts. It
is possible that the Kallikantzaroi may have some connection
with the departed; they certainly appear akin to the modern
Greek and Slavonic vampire, "a corpse imbued with a
kind of half-life," and with eyes gleaming like live
coals. They are, however, even more closely related to the
werewolf, a man who is supposed to change into a wolf and
go about ravening. It is to be noted that "man-wolves"
is the very name given to the Kallikantzaroi in southern
Greece, and that the word Kallikantzaros itself has been
conjecturally derived by Bernhard Schmidt from two Turkish
words meaning "black" and "werewolf."
The connection between Christmas and werewolves is not confined
to Greece. According to a belief not yet extinct in the
north and east of Germany, even where the real animals have
long ago been extirpated, children born during the Twelve
Nights become werewolves, while in Livonia and Poland that
period is the special season for the werewolf's ravenings.
who wish to pursue further the study of the Kallikantzaroi
should read the elaborate and fascinating, if not altogether
convincing, theories of Mr. J. C. Lawson in his "Modern
Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion." He distinguishes
two classes of Kallikantzaroi, one of which he identifies
with ordinary werewolves, while the other is the type of
hairy, clawed demons above described. He sets forth a most
ingenious hypothesis connecting them with the Centaurs.
from Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan,
by Clement A. Miles, London: T. Fisher Unwin, 2nd Ed. 1913,
are a number of beliefs connected with the Killantzaroi, who appear
only during the 12-day period from Christmas to the Epiphany
(January 6). These creatures are believed to emerge from the center
of the earth and to slip into people's house through the chimney.
The fireplace is kept burning day and night throughout the twelve
days, to keep the spirits from entering by the chimney, a curious
inversion of the visit of Santa Claus and Saint Nicolas in
other countries! By the way, these two are not the same:
original Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, was born in Turkey in the 4th
century. He was very pious from an early age, devoting his life
to Christianity. He became widely known for his generosity for the
poor. But the Romans held him in contempt. He was imprisoned and
tortured. But when Constantine became emperor of Rome, he allowed
Nicholas to go free. Constantine became a Christian and convened
the Council of Nicaea in 325. Nicholas was a delegate to the council.
He is especially noted for his love of children and for his generosity
for them. He is the patron saint of sailors in Sicily, Greece, and
Russia. He is also, of course, the patron saint of children. The
Dutch kept the legend of St. Nicholas alive. In 16th century Holland,
Dutch children would place their wooden shoes by the hearth in hopes
that they would be filled with a treat. This custom is still alive,
without the wooden shoes that is, and is celebrated on the evening
of December 5, the night before St. Nicholas' birthday on the 6th,
when both children and adults exchange presents. The Dutch spelled
St. Nicholas as Sint Nikolaas, which became corrupted to Sinterklaas,
and finally, in Anglican, to Santa Claus. In 1822, Clement C. Moore
composed his famous poem, "A Visit from St. Nick," which was later
published as "The Night Before Christmas." Moore is credited with
creating the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly fat man in a
red suit. Note the difference of St. Nicholas and his celebration
on December 5 and Santa Claus, who now is connected to Christmas,
December 25. Both are dressed in red and have a white beard. St.
Nicholas is dressed like a bishop and comes on a gray horse and
has nothing to do with reindeer. Now it's told he comes from Spain.
gives way to Saint Basil: gifts are exchanged on St. Basil's
Day (January 1). On this day the "renewal of waters" also takes
place, a ritual in which all water jugs in the house are emptied
and refilled with new "St. Basil's Water." The ceremony is often
accompanied by offerings to the naiads, spirits of springs and fountains.
the Western Church, Epiphany (6th of January) is dedicated
to the commemoration of three events: (1) the baptism of Jesus;
(2) the visit of the Wisemen to Bethlehem, and (3) the miracle
of Cana (the changing of the water into wine), by which the
Church celebrated the manifestation of Christ to the world and
His power to perform miracles. In the Orthodox Church, the
after being introduced from the West, was designated to be observed
also on December 25th, probably by the heretic Arians in Antioch.
This happened about fifty years after Epiphany, the anniversary
of the baptism of Jesus Christ, was designated. In fact, St.
Basil and St. Gregory had attempted to differentiate
the two celebrations by imposing the name "Theophany" on the Birth
of Christ, December 25th, and keeping the name "Epiphany" for
the celebration on the 6th of January. However, they were unsuccessful.
Greek Festival of Epiphany, or 'The Blessing of the Waters',
is held every year on January 6 throughout all of Greece.
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. The
day long festival also features the blessing of small boats
and ships, and later on affords entertainment, music, dancing
and food to all those present.
This abbreviation for Christmas is of Greek origin. The word for
Christ in Greek is Xristos. During the 16th century, Europeans began
using the first initial of Christ's name, "X" in place of the word
Christ in Christmas as a shorthand form of the word. Although the
early Christians understood that X stood for Christ's name, later
Christians who did not understand the Greek language mistook "Xmas"
as a sign of disrespect.
Greek Christmas: Christmas was never considered much of
a holiday in Greece compared with Easter, but things have
slowly changed and
now it has become a much cherished celebration. The traditions
have become simplified, but still Christopsomo bread is served
big Christmas meal. Many people deplore the secularization of Christmas.
For instance, now you'll find Christmas in Greece celebrated
lavish decorations and lights strung across most of the streets
in major cities and towns. Athens in particular has responded
the revival of Christmas where its former flamboyant mayor, Dimitris
Avramopoulos, has added new colour to the festivities by
erecting the largest
Christmas tree in Europe.
1st, 2005 - Christmas cheer
Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis yesterday
announced the program of Christmas events for the city
center, which is to open
on December 15 when the lights on the Christmas tree in
Syntagma Square will be switched on. This year's Christmas
program will include a «Gift City» at Kotzia
Square, an ice rink at the Zappeion Mansion and carousels
at Omonia Square, Bakoyannis said. A total of 1.3 million
euros is being spent on this year's festivities, she said.
CHRISTMAS COUNTDOWN - December 5, 2006
of Athens to spend 1.5 million euros on events for festive
City of Athens will spend 1.5 million euros on decorating
the city center and organizing events for Christmas,
Athens Mayor Theodoros Behrakis said yesterday. The outgoing
mayor said that the lights on the Christmas tree in Syntagma
Square will be switched on in nine days. A 120-year-old
carousel will also be set up in the square for children
to ride. A smaller carousel will operate in Kotzia Square
from December 16. A giant snowman in front of Zappeion
Hall will house the “workshop of fun,” Behrakis said. The municipality
has also organized three New Year’s Eve concerts
at Syntagma, Kotzia and Klafthmonos squares.
Yuletide joy - 6 December, 2007
festivities in Athens, including open-air concerts and
other cultural events, are to begin on December 13 and
continue until January 6, City Hall officials said yesterday.
Central Syntagma Square will be the focus of most activities
while the National Garden will be transformed into a «magical village» with
guides dressed as elves showing visitors around, officials
said. Activities are also planned for several other squares
including Omonia, Karaiskaki and at the Panathenaic Stadium.
Christmas on Syntagma Square, Athens 2007
Christmas tree brings glitz to capital - 14 December, 2009
A couple embraces under the Christmas tree in Syntagma Square after a lighting ceremony on Friday. The lights there, and in other roads and squares, gave the city a much-needed facelift as municipal workers started gathering piles of trash from the streets. Workers ended three weeks of strike action after a court deemed it illegal.
Christmas Athens 2010
The event "Christmas - New Year 2013-2014", organized by the Municipality of Chania
and pork are roasted in ovens and open spits and there are large
family dinners. The Western tradition
of sending Christmas cards to all your friends and family slowly
gets adopted. Last year we received the first Christmas cards
friends from Crete! And traditionally Christmas Eve we are sitting
by the telephone waiting for seasonal greetings from Chora Sfakion
and we have a Raki together, with 2700 kilometers inbetween.
Christmas bread - Christopsomo
There is no better bread to bake for the holiday season than this delicious Greek Christmas Bread - Christopsomo, a slightly sweet, light, buttery bread, infused with cinnamon, orange and cloves, all the warm flavours of Xmas.
It has a lovely melt in your mouth texture, and is a great bread to make to have for Christmas breakfast or as a snack, whatever your religion.
Christopsomos in Greek literally means Christ's bread.
Like all Greek religious holidays, there are special foods that are made just for those occasions.
Some of the celebratory foods made at Christmas in Greece are favourites such as Kourabiethes and Melomakarona, although of all foods, bread has the most religious significance in the orthodox church.
In fact there are many different breads made in Greece especially for religious holidays, such as Tsoureki for Easter.
Christmas bread is made the day before Christmas, and there is a lot of care and attention put into the baking of it, the best quality, fresh ingredients are bought especially to make it. It is then eaten traditionally, on Christmas Day.
The Christmas bread is usually round in shape, the top is decorated from the dough with a byzantine cross flavoured with aniseed, the ends of the cross swirling around golden walnuts.
Other variations with decorating the loaf, can be to use the dough to make a family crest or shapes representing the family's profession.
There are many, many variations to this recipe all over Greece. For example, the Christopsomo Sfakiano - is a particular recipe from Sfaka in Crete. They cover this bread with sesame seeds.
• 2 pounds of flour
• 1 piece yeast
• 1 1/2 cup of olive oil
• 3 cups of tea sugar
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1 1/2 teaspoon cloves crushed
• 1 teaspoon crushed mahlepi *
• 1 teaspoon anise
• 1 teaspoon coriander
• 2 vanilla
• 2 pieces of gum (crushed with a little sugar)
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1 cup of orange juice
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 4 nuts
• 1 cup of sesame
How to make it:
In a bowl, dissolve the yeast with two tea cups of lukewarm water, add half the flour and a little oil. Work the mixture to absorb the liquid and become a little thin dough. Cover with warm cotton towel and leave in a warm place. Boil half a cup of water with coriander and anise, strain and let cool down. When the dough has doubled in volume add the sugar, salt, spices, the remaining olive oil, the juice from the cooked coriander and anise, orange juice and finally the remaining flour, which you mix with the baking powder. Knead the mixture with quick and powerful movements (if you put it in the mixer, set it to work on medium speed). If the dough is too thin, add a little flour on top. To work easier, dip your hands every so often in warm water. When you obtain a smooth and homogeneous dough, cover with two cotton towels and leave in a warm place until it doubles in volume. Divide the dough into quarters for 4 pieces of round Christopsoma. Place in the center on top a nut and sprinkle with plenty of sesame. Bake the loaves onto two oiled sheets for 45 to 55 minutes at 180° C, until gold brown.
* Mahlepi (Mahleb in Arabic) is an unusual Greek spice with a distinctive, fruity taste. The finely ground mahlepi powder is made from the inner kernels of fruit pits of a native Persian cherry tree. For many Greeks, the sweet smell of mahlepi always suggests the aroma of freshly-baked tsoureki, a traditional sweet bread with mahlepi baked for Greek Easter. Mahlepi is also used in holiday cakes and cookies.
Boat vs tree: A conflict of Christmas cultures in Greece
Imported tradition’ being abandoned for quintessential
Greeks are increasingly turning to decorating small Christmas
boats instead of trees, considered an imported tradition,
in the mistaken belief they are reviving an old Greek custom.
“We are slowly abandoning Christmas trees, which
are considered a foreign custom, and turning to ships instead,” said
Erika Vallianou, a journalist from the western island of
“It’s part of a general trend to revive old
customs. We are trying to recover the island’s distinct
color that was lost when all our buildings collapsed in
a big earthquake in 1953,” she said.
Cephalonians have even set up a citizens’ group
to promote the boats and its results are already evident. “Every
Christmas, more and more boats appear in banks, hotels
and shops,” Vallianou told AFP. Sparing the island’s
unique population of black fir trees is put forward as
a further argument in favor of the vessels.
The Christmas boats are made of paper
or wood, decorated with small, colorful lamps and a few,
simple ornaments. They are usually placed near the outer
door or by the fire and the bow should always point to
the interior of the
house. With golden objects or coins placed in it, the
ship symbolizes a full load of riches reaching one’s
home. And the Christmas boat is making inroads into mainland
Every December, Greece’s second
city, Thessaloniki, erects a huge, illuminated metal
structure in the shape of a three-mast ship next to the
Christmas tree in its main Aristotelous Square.
“The Town Hall introduced the ship in 1999. Thessaloniki
is a port city and we thought this would show appreciation
for the role the sea played in the city’s economy,” said
Thessaloniki Municipal Councilor Vassilis Gakis.
“Our ship was the first of its kind in Greece. Many
other municipalities are adopting it, but their models
are not as big as ours,” he told AFP.
Even the vast majority of Greeks who continue
to stick to the Christmas tree consider it a foreign
import. The modern Christmas tree entered Greece in the
luggage of the country’s first king, Otto of Bavaria,
who ascended to the throne in 1833 but the tree did not
before the 1940s.
The ship, by contrast, is viewed as a
quintessential Greek symbol. Greeks have been seafarers
for thousands of years and the country is today one of
the world’s mightiest
But scholars are skeptical about the ships’ Christmas
role. “Ships are not Christmas trees,” said
Dimitris Loukatos, one of Greece’s most important
ethnographers, as early as 1975. “Though it is true
that children on the islands sang Christmas carols holding
illuminated model boats in their laps,” Loukatos
For children, they served as a lantern
in the dark or as a box for presents collected in return
for singing carols. “But
in other parts of the country, children held other symbolic
objects, such as miniature models of the Saint Sophia Church
in Constantinople (Istanbul),” said Loukatos.
“Using boats as Christmas ships is a new-fangled
development,” Ekaterini Kamilaki, president of the
Hellenic Folklore Research Center told AFP.
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,
as it is in other pre-Christian cultures.
Tree branches and green bushes called “Christwood” always
had a place in Christian households during the medieval
Byzantine and Ottoman empires. “Whether its enemies
like it or not, it is certain that the Christmas tree existed
in the Byzantine Empire,” Kamilaki said, citing historical
evidence from fifth-century-AD northern Syria. “We
don’t want to ban the Christmas tree. It has roots
in mountainous Greece,” said Gakis, explaining why
the tree and the boat coexist in Thessaloniki’s Aristotelous
Real vs fake trees -
21 December, 2007
Are artificial Christmas
trees more environmentally friendly than real firs? A
Corfu man has asked municipal officials to remove the
tree they have erected in front of his cafe, which serves
organic food and drink. Others claim real trees bearing
the approved seals do in fact benefit the environment,
as they are grown on tree farms, creating a source of
income for mountain villages.