After Christmas, the children impatiently await the New Year (Protohronia ) because that’s when St. Basil ( Ayios Vasilis ) delivers their gifts.
In Greece it is the custom to exchange gifts on the New Year instead of Christmas. The presents are delivered by Saint Basil (Agios Vasilis). Agios Vasilis is the Greek Santa Claus.
On New Year’s Eve in Greece it is customary for most people to gather in the town’s center, or plaza, for last minute shopping or just a pleasant stroll. On the main roads, teenagers and other young ones create a maniacal scene by declaring a bloodless war on each other, using plastic clubs, giant plastic hammers, foam spray and whistles as «weapons.»
Later, all the friends gather at one of their houses to ring in the New Year together.
CARDPLAYING ON NEW YEAR’S DAY
Because Greeks consider the New Year lucky, it is the custom to participate in games of chance on the first day. In addition to the state lottery which raffles 10 million euros on New Year’s Day, people play cards and roll dice in coffeehouses, clubhouses and homes throughout the country.
In the homes it is also the custom for cards to be played on New Year’s Eve while waiting for the year to change. The betting sums are usually kept low, so as to offer a friendly diversion without upsetting the losers.
THE NEW YEAR CAKE (VASILOPITA) WITH THE GOLDEN COIN
The cutting of the vasilopita is one of the few primordial customs still surviving. In the Kronia (the celebration of the god Kronos, who was worshiped in Greece) and the Saturnalia of Rome, sweets and cakes would be prepared with a coin inside. The one who received the piece with the coin would be the lucky one of the group . . .
The Orthodox tradition combined this custom with the New Year cake. On New Year’s Eve everyone gathers around waiting for the vasilopita to be cut as the new year rolls in. When the time comes the father, in a solemn ceremony, starts to cut the cake. The first piece is for Christ, the second for the house, and then pieces for everyone present. The one who gets the piece with the coin will be the lucky one of the year!
EVENING ENTERTAINMENT ON NEW YEAR’S EVE
During the entire holiday period attendance in bars and clubs is much higher as people go out at night to celebrate. On New Year’s Eve especially, you can’t get a foot in these nightspots after midnight , and the streets are so crowded that the cars move at a snail’s pace. The fun and excitement continues until sunrise.
FIREWORKS ON NEW YEAR’S EVE
In recent years elaborate firework displays have been established in the central squares of the cities throughout Greece . They are organized responsibly by the various municipalities, who also put up festive decorations and sponsor musical events for the Eve’s celebrations.
Many people pay particular mind to the good/bad omen regarding who will first enter their home in the new year ( pothariko). On New Year’s Eve they will ask a close friend or relative, whom they consider lucky, to be the first to come into their house the following day. Often, a child is preferred for this special practice because children are considered innocent and their hearts free of malice and envy.
THE KALI HERA
It is the custom for money (kali hera) to be given to children visiting on New Year’s day – usually grandchildren or nieces and nephews.
Several decades ago, the money was the only gift the children received on New Year’s Day. And, in many cases, the gift was just sweets or pastries, as money was scarce and toy shops were almost non-existent.
THE SQUILL (SEA-ONION) FOR LUCK
The Squill (scilla maritima) is a common plant in Crete , which grows wild and looks like a large onion. The animals don’t eat it because it is poisonous, and it can cause a rash if it comes in contact with the skin.
Even when pulled from the soil, it continues to bloom and produce new leaves. People believe that its long surviving power can be transmitted to humans, as well as inanimate objects, and for this reason a sea onion would hang in the home at the New Year.
It is an ancient good luck custom which has been around since the 6 th century B.C., but it has more or less been abandoned today.