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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Yes, Virginia, Hellenes Have Christmas Traditions

Two decades ago, Ann Landers did a column about how various cultures celebrate Christmas.  Halfway down her list was this gem: “If you are Greek Orthodox, your sect celebrates Christmas on January 7.”  Several people wrote back that 1) the Orthodox church is not a sect – it is the original church from which the Catholic one split after the Schism of 1054 and 2) only the so-called Old Believers track Christmas by the Julian calendar.

I was reminded of this when I was leaving work two days ago, and a colleague asked, “Should I wish you Merry Christmas?  I heard you Greeks don’t celebrate it like we do.”  As readers of this blog know, I’m an atheist who misses many of my culture’s old customs, particularly those that thrum with pagan echoes. So I’m going to put my tour guide’s hat briefly on, and tell you what we Hellenes do around the time of the winter solstice.

The holiday lasts two weeks, from December 25 to January 6.  At the three punctuation points (Christmas, New Year’s, Epiphany) children make the rounds of the neighborhood houses, singing songs called kálanda.  These remain unchanged from the Byzantine era; they’re different for each of the three days and the kids sing them to the accompaniment of hand-held metal triangles – and more rarely, small bodhrán drums.  During these two weeks, people thought that mischievous spirits (kallikántzaroi) prowled the dark.  These obvious descendants of fauns and satyrs take a solstice break from trying to cut down the world tree that holds up the earth.  During the interruption the tree heals, leading to infinite annual repetitions.

People decorate their homes and start the feast preparations on Christmas Eve – and the original focus of the activities was not a pine or fir tree (a recent import from Northern Europe) but a small ship.  After all, we were seafarers even before Iáson sailed Arghó to the Sea of Azov in search of the Golden Fleece.  The main dishes vary regionally, but ham is not on the list.  Piglet, kid and lamb on the spit are, as is hen stuffed with chestnuts and raisins – turkey is too bland for Hellenic palates. The ubiquitous sweets are finger-sized melomakárona (honey macaroons) and kourabiédhes (butter almond cookies).

On December 31, families gather for the countdown, nibbling finger food – and at midnight, the ship horns can be heard from harbors and seashores, ushering in the new year.  Presents are put under the ship or tree when it is decorated but they get opened on January 1, either right after midnight strikes or in the morning.  The gifts are not brought by Santa Claus (Nicholas) who in the Hellenic hagiology is the patron saint of sailors.  Our giftbearer is Saint Basil, based on a real person: Vasílios the Great Hierarch, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia in the 4th century.  From a wealthy and influential family, he took time between arguments about dogma to succor the poor and needy, spending his entire inheritance on charity.

On the night of December 31, a candle is left burning next to a goblet of wine and a small plate that holds a golden coin (flourí).  On New Year’s Day the coin, presumably touched by Saint Vasílios, is baked into a rich bread pudding (vasilópita), which is later cut into named sections.  Whoever gets the coin will have an exceptionally good year.  On the same day, the youngest child of the family is the first to walk through the front door for good luck – often bearing a just-budding wild onion bulb, or cracking open a pomegranate… old, old symbols of wealth and fertility from the time when the virgins giving birth were called Isis, Astarte, Pótnia.

Epiphany, which rounds out the holiday, is also called The Lights.  On that day the priests go to each house, blessing it with a sprig of basil dipped in water.  Afterward, the priests from every coastal city, town or village throw a cross into the sea.  Young men dive to retrieve it, and whoever brings it back is blessed.  Just so did priests and priestesses of other religions also appease the oldest goddess of all – Tiamat, Thálassa – by offering her rings and other treasure instead of crosses.  The custom was retained by the Doges of Venice, the city state that owed its existence to the sea.

A few years ago Mr. Snacho and I found ourselves in Tarpon Springs, Florida, at the turn of the year.  The city was founded by sponge divers from the island of Kálymnos.  They still throw the cross into the sea.  Young men still compete for the honor of retrieving it.  And I, an exile by choice who’s often homesick for the place I left almost forty years ago, wept at the sight.

Images: 1st, Iríni Vasileíou, The Christmas Ship; 2nd, kids singing kálanda; 3rd, photo by Mithymnaíos.

19 Responses to “Yes, Virginia, Hellenes Have Christmas Traditions”

  1. Asakiyume says:

    Thanks so much for this tour of Christmas and New Year’s customs in Greece. How great that the custom of diving into the sea for a token has continued from pre-Christian days, through Christianity, and remains to this day.

    What you say about Venice–so do they have a similar custom there?

    The old photo of the kids singing kalanda–is it from your own past (do you know the people in it)?

  2. Athena says:

    You’re very welcome, Francesca! Holidays cannot help but make us nostalgic.

    The Venetian Doges (rulers — the word is derived from dux, military leader, the root also of Italian duce and English duke) threw a ring into the lagoon as a token that the Serenissima was wedded to the sea. The kálanda photo is from the late fifties or early sixties, but not from my own personal past.

  3. eilidh says:

    I wasn’t aware of the origin of the custom of throwing a cross in the sea. It makes good sense, though. And I get the similar questions regarding Christmas celebrations in Greece too, sometimes, although I suppose the confusion can be to some degree justified.

    I also don’t celebrate Christmas personally, and I find myself somewhat annoyed with how it is interpreted as an occasion where one is forced to buy, buy, buy. Coming home from work I pass through Zappeio, where a fair is held these days; small tent shops, a skating ring, couple of merry-go-rounds. It would be relatively harmless if it weren’t for the loud Christmas-y songs booming from loudspeakers, sung with synthetic chipmunk-sounding voices. Quite grotesque, really.

    (On the plus side, they didn’t put up that horrible giant wire tree on Syntagma square. I guess they’re afraid it’ll get burnt down again!)

    I think one thing that made up for all this was coming across two bands of caroling kids on Christmas Eve. One from the first band carried a small drum, another from the others a guitar. As they met, the first boy struck a beat provocatively. The other at once strummed his guitar in response. I loved their spunk. 🙂

  4. Athena says:

    Welcome, Eleni! I don’t like the frantic commercialization of holidays either, Christmas in particular. Among other things, the forced cheerfulness depresses people. Fairs are almost meant to be chintzy — but muzak drives me crazy, no matter where/when I hear it (it’s everywhere now, from automated phone replies to dentists’ offices; talk about water torture…).

    I’m glad the kálanda still endure, though!

  5. Sophy says:

    I enjoyed reading about this tradition with the Christmas ship and the kálanda. In Hungary many traditions are mixed, but we also start Christmas on the 24th by putting up the tree and keep it until January 6th.

  6. Athena says:

    Sophy, I think putting the tree up (increasingly) early is confined almost exclusively to contemporary US. Most European cultures seem to observe the two-week holiday from December 24 to January 6.

  7. Sophy says:

    Yes, at least the cultures I’m familiar with observe the two-week holiday. I’ve been here for so long that I seem to forget that at times.

  8. intrigued_scribe says:

    The comparison of muzak to water torture is absolutely right. (Makes me think of comparing the garish ad campaigns accompanying commercialized holidays to a shrill whistle in the ear.)

    Thanks for sharing this vivid description of Greek Christmas and New Year’s traditions with us.

  9. Athena says:

    The shrill whistle comparison is very apt, Heather!

  10. Seraphim Bell says:

    Thanks for the article. It brings back good memories. When my family and I lived in Thessaloniki, our children (who didn’t speak Greek) noticed the Greek children going from house to house singing the kalanda. What caught their attention was the gift of money given to the children after the singing was over. Quickly my son gathered a couple of his friends and off they went singing English carols from house to house. The delighted homeowners rewarded them as well, and my son has never forgotten the experience.
    By the way, among the so-called Old Believers who celebrate Christmas on the Julian calendar are those of the Russian Orthodox Church, Serbian Church, Georgian Church, Jerusalem Church, and Mt. Athos in Greece. In other words, over 90 % of the Orthodox world.

  11. Athena says:

    Many of the orthodox churches follow the revised Julian calendar for fixed holidays, which is roughly in accord with the Gregorian. Also, when I was a kid there were few official believers in the USSR, and the Landers article was written while that system was still with us. For more than half of my life, Greeks were the majority of the “legal” orthodox world.

  12. Seraphim Bell says:

    Please forgive me Athena. I’m not at all trying to be argumentative. Maybe you mean “free” rather than “legal” since it was legal to be Orthodox pretty much everywhere, even behind the Iron Curtain (where it was legal, but persecuted) and the Greek Church was and is pretty small compared to the Churches in Romania, Russia, and Serbia. Outside of Greece, only in America and Australia has the Greek Church been in the majority. Here in the States it vastly outnumbers other jurisdictions, but overall it has always been rather small.

  13. Athena says:

    Since, as you say, the Greek orthodox vastly outnumber all others in that category in the US, Landers was still off in her column.

    For the rest, this discussion is veering off-topic and into semantics, so I suggest we let it go.

  14. Angelus says:

    “Old Believers” refers to a schismatic sect of the Russian Church that rejected 17th century reforms meant to conform the Russian Church to Byzantine practice. Believe it or not, one of the main issues was how many fingers to use in making the sign of the cross. I’m not sure which calendar they use. The canonical Russian Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar. The Greek, Romanian, and Bulgarian churches, and the ancient patriarchates (save Jerusalem), use the Revised Julian Calendar developed by geophysicist Milutin Milankovic (ironically, the Serbian Church doesn’t use it). The Revised Julian is actually more accurate than the Gregorian.

  15. Athena says:

    There’s a small number of Old Believers in Greece as well who follow the Julian calendar — hence my comment in the article. I recall the issue about how to make the sign of the cross (I came across it when reading the background of Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina, about a rebellion against Peter the Great supported by Old Believers and Streltsy guards). But most religious disputes are like that. Hence “angels dancing on the top of a pin”.

  16. Sue Lange says:

    Thanks for this tutorial!

  17. Athena says:

    I was just feeling nostalgic! The country I carry in my head is long gone — in some ways, for the better. But I still think that the homogenization and commercialization of this holiday is a great loss. It coincides with a major season turn, if nothing else. That has been lost in the rush to buy, the awful muzak and the coma-inducing good cheer.

  18. Angelus says:

    Ah, my mistake. Usually those people are called “Old Calendarists.” They actually have parishes here in the USA, too. They have a reputation for being extremely conservative.

    I’m surprised that you’re optimistic about Greece right now though. I haven’t been recently–in fact I was only there in the early 90’s–but it seems that the take on modernity there isn’t working too well…

  19. Athena says:

    It’s easy to romanticize the past. Besides, modernization was not really an option once Greece joined the EU. I’m not necessarily optimistic about the nation’s prospects — though its decline is greatly exaggerated (as is its debt: the UK and the US are as badly off, to say nothing of Iceland, Ireland or Spain). I simply said that many of the changes since I lived there were for the better. For example, there is no longer de jure discrimination against women.