Traditionally the Christmas holiday period lasts 12 days in Greece. There are many customs associated with the «twelve day of Christmas,» some very old and others relatively recent, like the decorated tree and the turkey on the Christmas-day table.
Historically, in 354 A.D. it was arranged for the birth of Christ to be celebrated on December 25, the same day that they celebrated the birth of the ancient god Mithra, known as the «invincible sun god» and god of all solar deities in idolatry. With the change, and the turning of people towards other gods, the popularity of the «invincible sun god» dropped and Christ took his place.
Christmas in Greece, or «the holidays,» are not what they were 40 years ago. Over the years we notice a universal culture developing as the western European customs spread more and more change. In some cases, it caused the elimination of local customs in certain areas – even entire countries.
Today Christmas in Greece appears more impressive, glossier and more glamorous. Store windows are decorated almost a month in advance, and in the cities the streets and town squares are lit with colourful lights. Also, many people now travel either abroad or around Greece to places which offer winter holidays.
Greeks will party at clubs, at bouzoukia, which have almost disappeared in Crete, or stay at home and watch some impressive holiday show on television. But on Christmas Day, all family members gather at the festively set dinner table.
The name days of Manolis or Emanuel or Manos or Emanuela are all celebrated on Christmas Day, and friends and relatives will stop by to wish them «many happy returns» or «hronia pola».
In olden times, Christmas was simpler, warmer, perhaps much closer to the true spirit of the holiday. Many of the traditions of eons ago continue to exist unchanged, so Christmas in Greece maintains its originality and many of the customs.
In Greece, a fasting period would start almost 40 days before Christmas. While the fasting was predominately for religious reasons, many considered the period to be a healthful practice as well. The faithful would not eat any animal or its related products, i.e. meat, dairy or eggs.
As Christmas drew near, preparations began so all would be ready for the big holiday. Houses would be cleaned with extra care, and a few days before Christmas housewives would prepare the Christmas cookies, which would be eaten on Christmas Day when the fasting ended.
In the past the honey cookies (melomakarona) were made exclusively for Christmas, while sugar cookies, or kourabiedes (kourabiethes, th as in this), were prepared for the New Year. Today, though, that distinction is not observed and both melomakarona and kourabiedes are prepared and consumed during the Christmas and New Year holidays period.
In olden times in Crete it was the custom for each family in the village to raise a pig, or «hog» (hiros in Greek), which would be slaughtered on Christmas Eve and served as the main holiday dish the next day.
On the second day of Christmas the villagers would cut up the pork meat and make:
- Apakia – the pork is cut into chunks and then smoked
- Pihti – the hog’s head is boned and all the meat is boiled. Then the stock, after special preparation, is made into a delicious gelatin mold with pieces of the meat in it.
- Siglina – the pork meat is cut into small pieces, then cooked and stored, covered with lard, in large pots. This way the meat could be kept for many months
- Omathies – the pig’s intestines are stuffed with rice, raisins and bits of liver
- Tsigarithes – pieces of lard cooked with spices and eaten with leaven bread for the mid-morning meal when they picked olives
The Christmas hog was the basic source of meat for many weeks. Of course, we are referring to a diet particularly poor in meat – the famous Cretan (Mediterranean) diet which provided Cretans of yesteryear with good health and longevity.
Nothing was wasted from the Christmas hog, as there was a use for each piece of the animal. Even the bladder, or «balloon» as it’s known, would be washed out and cleaned, then blown up and used as a ball – a precious gift for the children of that day.
In many areas around Greece in the past, parts of the pig would be used as a basis for several home remedies, while other pieces were used for sooth-saying. The slaughterer, or one on the elders in a diviner role, would study and interpret the animal’s entrails. Then he would make predictions of the future for such things as the home, the harvest and the weather.
The custom of the turkey for Christmas arrived in Europe from Mexico in 1824 A. D. It is now widely used in Greece and has almost replaced the pork meat for holiday fare – but not completely.
The folklore writer Kostas Karapatakis, in his book «The Christmastide, Old Christmas Customs and Traditions,» reports that the Romans would sacrifice pigs to the gods Dimitra and Kronos so they would favor them in cultivating the land. This would take place from December 17 through 25, which was also the period for slaughtering the animals until a few years ago.
GREEK CHRISTMAS CAROLS
The singing of Christmas carols is a custom which is preserved in its entirety to this day.
Children still go from house to house in twos or more singing the carols, while accompanied by the sounds of the triangle, even guitars, accordions, lyres or harmonicas.
A very old custom which remains today practically unchanged is the Greek Christmas carols, which is called calanda in Greek. Children, in groups of two or more, still make the rounds of houses singing carols, usually accompanied by the triangle or guitars, accordions or harmonicas.
The children go from house to house, knock on doors and ask: «shall we say them?» If the homeowner’s answer is yes, the kids sing the Christmas carols for several minutes before finishing up with the wish, «And for the next year, many happy returns.» Years ago the homeowners offered the children holiday sweets and pastries, but today they usually give them some money.
The carols are sung on the eves of Christmas, New Year and Epiphany, and they are different for each holiday.
The word calanda stems from the Latin calenda, which translates as «the beginning of the month.» It is believed that the history of caroling goes deep into the past and connects with ancient Greece. In fact, they have even found carols written in those distant past days which are similar to the ones sung today. In ancient times the word for carols was Eiresioni , and children of that era held an effigy of a ship which depicted the arrival of the god Dionysos. Other times they held an olive or laurel branch decorated with red and white threads, on which they would tie the offerings of the homeowners.
In this house we came of the rich-landlord
May its doors open for the wealth to roll in
The wealth and happiness and desired peace should enter
And may its clay jugs fill with honey, wine and oil
And the kneading tub with rising dough.
Following are the Greek carols for each of the three holidays: Christmas Carols, New Year Carols and Epiphany Carols.
GREEK CHRISTMAS CAROLS
Good day lords
If it’s your bidding
Of the Christ’s divine birth
I will tell in your manse
Christ is being born today
In the town of Bethlehem
The heavens rejoice
And all creation delights
In the cave he is born
Within the horse manger
The king of the heavens
And Maker of all . . .
GREEK NEW YEAR CAROLS
First of the month and first of the year
My tall rosemary
Let our good year begin
Church with the holy throne
It is the beginning when Christ
Holy and spiritual
Will walk on earth
And cheer us up
St. Basil is on his way
And will not deign on us
You’re a Lady milady
GREEK EPIPHANY CAROLS
Today is the lights and the enlightment
The happiness is big and the sanctification
Down the Jordan River
Sits our Lady the Blessed Virgin Mary
She carries an organ, a candle she holds
And pleads with St. John.
St. John lord and Baptist
Baptize this divine child of mine
I shall ascend to the heavens
To gather roses and incense
Good day, good day
Good day to you master and the missus.
THE CHRISTMAS TREE IN GREECE
Today almost everyone buys and decorates a Christmas tree in Greece, whether it be real or artificial. Usually they are decorated a few days before Christmas and remain in the homes until Epiphany.
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.
In older times, this custom did not exist in Crete and in some other parts of Greece they would decorate little boats instead.