Top 15 Greek Christmas and New Year Customs and Traditions


Little Kook Cafe - Psirri - Athens - Photo  Amazing Greece  - Incroyable Grèce - Facebook
Little Kook Cafe - Psirri - Athens
Photo  Incroyable Grèce - Facebook

Every culture has its own unique, sometimes quirky, customs and traditions.

Greece is no exception and seems to have more than its fair share of Christmas and New Year celebrations. 

Greek Father Christmas is not Saint Nicholas, but Saint Basil (or Vasilis), being Greek and true to form, he arrives late, a week late; on New Year’s Eve.

Saint Vassilis, or Agios Vassilis, has much in common with Saint Nicholas;

 Both are known for their compassion, kind heartedness and their commitment to helping the unfortunate, both bring gifts around Christmastime, one, just a little later than the other.


Christmas trees were introduced to Greece in the 1830s by King Otto, but didn't really become popular until about the 1940s.

The Greek equivalent of the Christmas tree, is the Christmas boat, a wonderful tradition, which after falling out of favour, I'm glad to say, is making a come back...big time!

For the observant Orthodox Greek, the forty day fast, for Christmas, know as the advent fast, ends on Christmas day, with the breaking of 'Christopsomo', Christ's bread, which was baked the day before, on Christmas Eve.


Saint Nicholas - Santa Clause
Saint Nicholas - Santa Clause


Here’s a list of 15 most popular Greek New Year customs and traditions:


1. Ta Kalanda (Carol singing)


Greek Kalanda singers 1950s
Greek Kalanda singers 1950s

Children are up and about, bright and early on New Year’s Eve and go from house to house, singing the KALANDA, Greek Christmas Carols, usually only the one, same song,  accompanied by a triangle.

2. Card playing.

Paul Cezanne  "The Card Players"
Paul Cezanne
"The Card Players"

As New Year is considered a lucky time, it’s the perfect excuse for a card-playing marathon, and I mean marathon!

The games go on for hours, starting early evening, and lasting until midnight, usually at home, but there are organised games in the “Kafenion” (Coffee shop) and clubs.


3. Pomegranate smashing.


Pomegranate  Gatya Kelly
Pomegranate

Gatya Kelly

A POMEGRANATE, an ancient symbol of prosperity and good luck, is hung above the door throughout Christmas.

  At midnight, on New Year’s Eve, the lights are turned out and  the pomegranate is then hurled to the floor, or at the door, where it smashes, spilling out its seeds, the more seeds the better!

This helps ensure luck, health, happiness and prosperity for the coming year.

4. The big onion


Squill or Sea Onion -  Skeletoura- in Greek, The Big Onion!
Squill or Sea Onion -  Skeletoura- in Greek, The Big Onion!

Now this is a custom I had not heard of, neither had MGG (My Greek God), but, on seeing a picture of the skeletoura, (Squill, sea onion), I realised I had seen them hanging about in Greek houses, at New Year, usually with the bulb part wrapped in foil.

A large onion, skeletoura, Scilla Maritima, the squill bulb or sea onion, used by Greeks in ancient times to worship Pan, God of the wilds and of nature, is hung above the door.

This onion, even when uprooted, will continue to grow layers and blossom; it’s said to have magical powers and is the symbol of rebirth.

At midnight, it is taken down, and in the morning, the children of the family are whacked on the head with it, in order to wake them up, so they can attend the church service for Saint Vassilis!

Well I never!

This onion is kept in the house until the next New Year, to bring longevity, health and luck.


5.  The Renewal of Waters



Two Women of Ancient Greece Filling Their Water Jugs at a Fountain (women of Corinth) Painting by Henry Ryland
Two Women of Ancient Greece Filling Their Water Jugs at a Fountain (women of Corinth).
 Painting by Henry Ryland

Another custom I’m not familiar with, on New Year’s Day, all water jugs in the house are emptied and refilled with “Saint Vassili’s” water” or “Saint Basil’s water”

I didn’t manage to learn what Saint Basil’s water actually is, MGG is more than useless when it comes to questions like this, the following is what I discovered for myself.

Saint Basil's water, is simply water collected on Saint Basil's Day, sometimes blessed by a priest, some say this is done to keep evil spirits away from the house.

The ceremony is often accompanied by giving offerings or gifts  to Naiads (Water nymphs).


6. The Hairy or Mossy Pebble


Mossy pebbles
Mossy pebbles



Things are becoming stranger by the minute!

This, I have heard of, it actually means a stone covered with moss, or, depending on who you ask, it only needs to be wet.

A stone, preferably covered with moss, is collected from a beach, a river, a pond, basically anywhere there is water, taken home, and left outside the door.

Here, again, things become rather vague, some say, the stone is to be put inside the house.

  On entering the house for the first time, on New Years Day, you must step on the stone.

This, supposedly, brings luck and good fortune.


7. Kalo Podariko (First footing)



Right foot first for good luck
Right foot first for good luck

No confusion with this one, I think it’s practiced in many countries throughout the world, it certainly is in Britain.

At the stroke of midnight, someone considered lucky, or a child, due to the fact they are pure and innocent, are sent outside and ordered to re-enter, right foot first, to bring good luck for the following year.

All windows are thrown open to let out the Kallikantzaroi, evil spirits, or mischievous Christmas goblins.


8. Kali Hera (Good Hand)


Kali Hera  Good Hand
Kali Hera - Good hand


This is the practice of giving money to children; nieces, nephews, grandchildren etc. who may be present after midnight on New Year’s Eve, or, on New Years Day when they come to visit.


9. The Vassilopita. (Greek New Year’s cake)

Vassilopita  Greek New Year's Cake
Vassilopita - Greek New Year cake


Every Greek family has its VASSILOPITA, the New Year’s cake, concealing a lucky coin.

 After midnight, the Vassilopita is sliced and handed round by the head of the family.

A cross is scored over the surface, the first slice is for Jesus Christ, the second for The Virgin Mary, the third for Saint Vassilis, the fourth for the house and then, for each member of the family, starting with the oldest.

Whoever finds the lucky coin has good luck and good fortune for the rest of the year.


10. Agios Vassilis - Saint Basil (Greek Santa Claus)


Agios Vassilis  Greek Santa Claus
Agios Vassilis - Greek Santa Claus



Ho Ho Ho, it’s New Years’s Eve, and Santa’s arrived with his sack full of presents.

Even though he has a different name, and arrives a week later, Agios Vassilis looks a lot like Christmas!

Like SAINT NICHOLAS that is, a jolly, red-clad, chubby chap, sporting a long white beard.


11. Greek Sweet Christmas treats



Traditional Greek Christmas Sweets
Traditional Greek Christmas Sweets

It wouldn't be Christmas without something deliciously sweet and fattening!

I think you would be hard put to find a Greek house at Christmas time which wasn't overflowing with traditional, Greek Christmas sweets.

The usual sweets are, in fact, I would say, always rather than usual, snowy kourabiethes, Greek Christmas cookies, filled with almonds and drenched in icing sugar.

Melomakarana, Sticky sweet and soaked in honey, with a tang of spicy cloves.

Diples, thin strips of dough, folded and fried, sprinkled with chopped nuts and honey.

And, of course, baklava, layers of phyllo pastry, filled with chopped nuts, covered in sweet syrup.


12. Feeding the Fountain



Spring water - Kalarrytes - Ioannina -Photo by Dimtze on flickr
Spring water - Kalarrytes - Ioannina
Photo by Dimtze on flickr

In Thessaly, central Greece, on Christmas Eve, at the stroke of midnight, young women make their way, in complete silence, to the nearest fountain or spring, to collect 'speechless water'.

Whilst making a wish, to ensure a sweet year ahead, the young women 'feed' butter or honey to the spring.

The girl who arrives first at the spring, will have the most luck.


13. The Flaming Yew



Burning branches - Photo © Rui Almeida Photography
Burning branches - Photo © Rui Almeida Photography

A Christmas and New Year custom in Epirus, Northern Greece.

 On their way, in the black of night, to visit baby Jesus, the three kings, gathered dry yew branches, set them alight, and used them as torches to light  the way.

Today, in small villages of Epirus, people can still be seen at Christmas time, walking about with a flaming yew branch, wishing a merry Christmas to one and all.


14. The marriage of Fire



Burning wood - the marriage of fire Greek Christmas custom
Burning wood - the marriage of fire
Greek Christmas custom
Photo by szefi on flickr

On Christmas Eve in Edessa, Northern Greece, locals gather branches of wood, girls take wood from female trees, such as cherry, and the boys, from a male tree, a sort of thorny briar wood called Vatos.

The branches are laid in the fire place, in the shape of a cross, and set alight.

 Depending on how the wood burns, quickly, or slowly, with or without flames, noisily or quietly, someone with the knowledge of the custom, can predict how the year ahead will turn out, if the crops will do well, how the weather will be, and, in general, whether it will be a good year.

In Thessaly, central Greece, on returning from church, girls burn ceder wood, and the boys, wild cherry, whoever's branch burns first, is the one who shall marry first.


15. Spordisma (The burning of leaves)



Olive leaves
Olive leaves


On the island of Thassos, burning embers are removed from the fire and put onto a heat - proof surface, then, whilst making a wish, olive, or oak leaves, are spread over the hot embers.

The one whose leaves curl the most, will have their wish come true. 


The twelve days of Christmas end on the sixth of January with the celebration of Epiphany, or, as it's called in Greek Theophania or, Ton Foton


And there you have the makings of  Christmas and New Year; 

Greek style!

Xronia Polla, (Χρόνια Πολλά)

 Happy New Year.

Yiamas (Cheers)

Greek Christmas Customs & Traditions - Vasilopita - Greek New Year's Cake


The gorgeous Gogo's Carrot cake/Vasilopita  Made by Mamatsita with meraki!
The gorgeous Gogo's Carrot cake/Vasilopita - Made by Mamatsita with meraki!

One of the marvellous things. about living in Greece, is I get to celebrate Christmas twice.

Greeks do celebrate Christmas on 25th December, but as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

 Santa Claus, who, in The Greek Orthodox Church, is Agios Vassilis - Saint Basil, and not Saint Nicholas, arrives with his sack of presents at New Year.

 (The first of January is Saint Vasilios, or Agios Vasilis’s Feast Day.)



Agios Vasilios or Saint Basil.
Agios Vasilios or Saint Basil - The Greek Santa Claus -Visits at New Year


Albeit living in Greece for thirty eight years, I just can’t give up my English Christmas, hence the double celebration, which does have its pros and cons, twice the fun, twice the work.

This also means two Christmas cakes, traditional English and the Greek Vasilopita.


The Vasilopita, Greek Christmas or New Years’s cake, takes its name from Saint Vasilios, Bishop of Caesarea.



Saint Vasilios  Bishop of Caesarea
Saint Vasilios

Bishop of Caesarea

 Legend has it, that, back in the fourth century, Saint Vasilios, known for his kindness and compassion, was racking his brains, trying to come up with a way to distribute money to the needy of Caesarea, without embarrassing them.

The idea, of concealing coins in specially baked bread, sweetened and distributed to the citizens of Caesarea, as a symbol of sweetness and joy for the coming year, seemed as good an idea as any to him.

This custom, with its wonderful story, is still observed today, in every Greek home.

Down the years, Vasilopita has evolved from simple sweetened bread, into any type of cake, simple or luxurious, (containing a lucky coin, the Flouri in Greek) to be traditionally cut at midnight on New Year’s Eve, by the head of the family.


Vasiliopita
Vasiliopita - Greek New Year's cake with Flouri (Lucky coin)


Vasilopita is not cut into any old way, the protocol is as follows:

The Vasilopita is scored with the sign of the Cross; the first slice goes to Jesus Christ, the second to The Virgin Mary, the third to Saint Vasilios, the fourth to the family house, and, from then on, in order of age, to each member of the family.

Whoever finds the coin, will be blessed with good luck, health and happiness for the coming year.

Constantinato or Flouri - Lucky gold coin


Our family Vasilopita is usually a boring Madeira cake, dusted with icing sugar, but this year, I’m going to try something new.

I love carrot cake, and when I spotted the gorgeous Gogo’s brilliant idea of making one for her New Year’s Vasilopita, I was hooked!


Mamatsita's delicious carrot cake/Vasilopita
Mamatsita's delicious carrot cake/Vasilopita


Gogo, also known as Mamatsita, famous all over Greece, for her informative and enjoyable cooking show; "Let's Eat Together", aired on  Greek national television,  is a mother, forever on the go, cooking up a storm, be it on the streets for festivals, in supermarkets for promotions or at home, for her wonderful family.


The Gorgeous Gogo  AKA Mamatsita
The Gorgeous Gogo -AKA Mamatsita


I don’t know where Gogo finds the time to charge her batteries, along with all the above, Gogo also runs the tremendously successful food blog “Mamatsita”.

Have a look at  MAMATSITA, (Find the recipe for Gogo's carrot cake here) you’ll love it, simple, easy to follow, everyday recipes, that time and time again, turn out perfect results, and I can vouch for that, I’ve tried more than a few.

For “Non Greekers”, don’t worry, just "right click" with your mouse and translate with Google, not perfect, but, you’ll understand enough to create Gogo’s mouth-watering dishes.

Once again, thank you Gogo, for your delightful recipes, I’ll let you know how my carrot cake/Vasilopita goes down with my family, I have no doubts at all about it being a hit.


Mamatsita  Carrot cake/Vasilopita
Mamatsita - Carrot cake/Vasilopita


 Have the best New Year, Gogo, hope you get  the "Flouri"!

Xronia Polla

(Happy New Year…Greek style)

Learn about more Greek Christmas customs and traditions at the links below:




My Greek Christmas Part IV - Christmas Cake - The Proof Of The Pudding Is In The Eating


The Rabbit's Christmas Party.  The Meal Beatrix Potter
The Rabbit's Christmas Party -The Meal -Beatrix Potter

If you have been following my Christmas cake rigmarole (Parts I, II and II, links at the end of this post), you may have already guessed, I’m eating Christmas cake, morning, noon and night.

I had some for breakfast today, and yesterday!

Why, when my family will not entertain this “Great British Christmas Tradition” did I embark on my plan of action?


Nostalgia?  I’ve been having quite a bit of that this Christmas, I’ll put it down to age!


Nostalgia  Thinking and remembering.
Nostalgia - Thinking and remembering.


Things were going along smoothly with my Christmas cake, even though I do think it could have done with less time in the oven, I sliced off the burnt bits, (No one witnessed that), and hid everything under the marzipan, which, I must say, looked very professional.

At this point, I wasn’t too concerned about appearances.

 “Fools and children should never see work half done”

 Right?

I had in mind, something simple and elegant, after spending hours on Pinterest, inspecting photos of the most splendid Christmas cakes, obviously created by master bakers; I plumped for something like this;


The Christmas cake
The Christmas cake in my mind's eye -What was I thinking?


This amazing cake called for fondant icing, something I have never attempted.
Not being as arrogant to think I could manage this with out help, I asked around, the most popular answer being; “Make the easy recipe, with marshmallows”

Did I listen to this advice? No, I’m a purist at heart, and wanted to go by the book, until I discovered the recipe included glucose syrup. 

Bad stuff, so I hear.

 In retrospect, as likely as not, no worse than the huge amount of sugar to be used anyway.

Back to Delia Smith and her royal icing.

Nothing is ever simple is it? Now I need glycerin.

This means sending MGG (My Greek God)MGG (My Greek God) on an errand to the pharmacy.

MGG is so good, he never say’s no, but, he’s a man, he’s not going to produce his little scrap of paper, with “Glycerin” printed clearly in both Greek and English, to the pharmacist, is he?

And so, he asks for Vaseline.

I kept calm and sent him back, saying;

 “It’s an understandable mistake anybody can make”


Glycerin and Vaseline
Glycerin and Vaseline - It took MGG two trips to the pharmacy, but I got my glycerin!


The glycerin brought on another bout of nostalgia; I remembered my mother.

 My mother swore by glycerin and rosewater, to smooth and soften chapped hands, dare I send MGG back to the pharmacy a third time for rosewater?

I have the glycerin, surely it can't be too difficult to cook up some homemade glycerin and rosewater, I must remember to ask Mr. Google about that.


Glycerin & Rosewater
Glycerin & Rosewater - Old remedies are often the best remedies.


I read and re-read the recipe and method for royal icing;

 Dear Delia; 

“Where did I go wrong?”

I did exactly as you told me, but this “Gloop” is never going to stand up in “Fluffy peaks”.

I’ve used up all my icing sugar and now it’s too late to send MGG for more; the shops are closed.



Fluffy royal icing.
Fluffy royal icing -What I was aiming for, not what I achieved.


I’m disheartened, covered in a veil of dusty white icing sugar, as is the whole kitchen; I’m beginning to dislike this Christmas cake intensely.

 “Oh, just put the icing onto the cake, and hope for the best”, my daughter tells me.

The best was not good, my hopes were raised for a couple of minutes, but only until the “Gloop” collected in large pools around the base of the cake, leaving only a thin layer actually on the cake itself.

Tomorrow’s another day, everything looks better after a good night’s sleep;

 I went to bed.

Bright and early, MGG goes off for more icing sugar, whilst I trim snowy pools from around the base of the, by now, “Christmas atrocity”

Extra thick icing was quickly made, and “Fluffed up” on the top of the cake, with not an ounce of enthusiasm.


Royal icing
Royal icing



The sides of the cake were concealed under a shocking pink ribbon, by this time, I didn’t care that it should have been a scarlet, Christmassy red.

A Christmas tree, from some Christmas past, a sweet little deer and a dodgy looking snowman, that were more or less thrown on top of the cake, would be appreciated by my three and a half year old granddaughter, Melina.

And here it is, the fruits of my labours:


Christmas Cake
Christmas Cake

And that is all I have to say about it, It's a Christmas cake.

Christmas Cake
Christmas Cake - Not exactly what I had in mind.

Yes, I have cut it, it needed a chain saw, the icing is rock hard and brittle, so much for the glycerin, the cake, well, it's not bad, the marzipan is delicious.

Only my daughter-in-law was kind enough to try it, I don’t think it was to her taste, but she was polite about it!

I shall be eating Christmas cake until Easter; I had to make the largest size, didn’t I?


My breakfast for the next three months



Will I have this Christmas cake  palaver next year?

 No.

I shall make my lemon drizzle cake, always a winner!

Now, what on earth shall I do with my “I’m not paying that much” top of the range Christmas cake tin?

Read about the run up to this finale at the links below:




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