Christmas and New Years
The Greek customs of Christmas and New Years are very indicative of the way we people in Greece live and of our culture. Although nowadays Christmas has become a global commercial celebration and this fact has had its impact in Greece, many traditional customs of my father’s and my grandfather’s time, or even much older, still exist and have their unique significance during Christmas.
The Christmas boat
I should start first of all by saying that the first day of the year is much more important as a holiday in Greece than Christmas day itself. The Christmas tree is now in almost every Greek house, but In fact this is not a traditional custom but one that was brought to Greece from abroad in the 20th century.
Earlier, Greeks traditionally used to construct a small wooden boat and decorate it. This was more or less a New Years tradition, but in many places it was also used during Christmas Nevertheless, the custom declined with time, but still It has not yet been forgotten.
Carols are sung by the children in three different occasions, during Christmas Eve, during New Year’s Eve and during Epiphany Eve. Traditionally children would take the Christmas boat and go from house to house and sing the carols. People would then give them a treat, mostly with Christmas sweets like “kourabies” and “melomakarono”.
Later on and up to present, children would go out and sing the carols from home to home and store to store, using also some kind of musical instrument, without taking the Christmas Boat and only asking for money, no longer for treats like they did in the past. From my personal experience I would say that it is a very profitable custom for children…
The traditional sweets
Some sweets are purely related to Christmas and New Year in Greece. I’m mostly referring to “koubabies”, a sweet made of flour, butter and almonds and covered in powdered sugar and “melomakarono”, a sweet made of olive oil, flour and walnuts and covered in syrup. These sweets are found in every Greek house during Christmas holidays and most women bake them themselves to follow the tradition.
It’s rather quite uncommon to find those two sweets any other time of the year. Diples is another festive sweet in some places around Greece and mainly in Crete, which incidentally is my home place. Diples are made of dough and fried in hot oil like donuts are cooked, but diples are much thinner and are then covered in honey.
Although it is not a sweet but a type of bread, “Christopsomo” is also a typical Greek Christmas recipe. We would translate it to English to something like Christ’s bread. It symbolized the bread Jesus gave his students during the Last Supper and it also symbolizes the unity of the Greek family. Christopsomo is consumed during Christmas day. It’s a tradition mostly found in Sparta, Crete, Kefallonia, Thrace and some other areas of Greece.
In the villages of Northern Greece, the landlord brings home the most beautiful piece of wood he can fiend in the fields. This is called “Christoxylo” (Christ’s wood) and is destined to burn for twelve days during Christmas and New Year holidays in the fireplace. Before Christoxylo is brought home, women clean the fireplace well to make sure there is not even the slightest trace of previously burnt ashes.
They also clean the chimney, so it is more difficult for goblins and demons to use the fireplace in order to enter the house during Christmas. So, the night before Christmas, when the whole family is gathered around the fireplace, the landlord of the house lights the fire with Christoxylo. People believe that as Christoxylo burns, baby Jesus gets warm, and so everyone tries to keep the fire burning at least until Epifany.
Various other customs
Once more, every place in Greece has its unique Christmas customs. The most famous are “Momogeri of Drama” with people getting dressed as goblins, also called gourounochara, in Thessaly where every house buys a small pig in May and raises it for about 6 months in order to slaughter it, cook it and eat it during Christmas, “foufoudes” in Kavala where people barbeque on the streets and offer all passers grilled meat and local red wine, and many others.