This festive season, I have an exciting plan for us: we are celebrating Christmas in Greece!
Let's find a boat and sail together along the friendly Mediterranean waters. Wouldn't that be magic? Read on, and let your imagination take you on this adventure. Smell the salty breeze. Listen to the enchanting melodies of Greek carols (Kalanta). Stare at the luminous Karavaki, greeting you impatiently from the shore. Read on, and learn how to keep the spooky Killantzaroi goblins away. Join in, and receive a surprise gift from St Vassilis. Jump into the cold water, and catch the lucky cross for an extraordinary year ahead.
Whether you are familiar with the Greek language or not, you will discover interesting facts, such as how the English word 'Xmas' originated from the Greek alphabet.
To participate in the jolliness and make a good impression on Greek people, these are the season's greetings you'll need to learn:
Merry Christmas = Kala Christougenna (Καλα Χριστούγεννα)
Happy Holidays = Kales Yiortes (Καλές γιορτέ)
Happy New Year = Kali Kronia (Καλή Χρονιά)
Happy New Year’s Eve = Kali Protohronia (Καλή Πρωτοχρονιά)
And these are the key event dates to consider:
November 15th: marks the start of a 40-day Nativity fast during which Greek must abstain from eating meat, dairy or eggs
December 6th: aka Saint Nicolas' Day (protector of sailors) brings display of festive decorations such as Karavaki
December 24th: children visit homes and sing carols (Kalanta); family feast dinner and the end of the fasting period
December 25th: Christopsomo sweet bread is eaten
January 1st: aka St Vasilis Day / St Basil's Day, when gifts are exchanged and families play card games together
January 6th : aka Blessing of The Waters / Feast of the Epiphany (Theophania).
When it comes to decorations, the visual identity of the Greek Christmas is defined by images of the Karavaki, ships decorated with lights.
With Greece being an ancient maritime country, the tradition of Karavaki dates back hundreds of years when the majority of Greeks worked as seamen. During the dark winter months of ferocious, stormy and dangerous seas, the women of the Greek islands spent their days fretting over fathers, husbands and sons, praying for their safe return. On spotting the ships returning to harbour, the Greek women would joyfully rush home to celebrate, by decorating small wooden boats as a welcome to the weary seafarers. The boats were arranged on the floor, or next to the fire, with their bows pointing inwards, symbolizing the homeward journey.
The Wooden Cross & Basil Decoration: This decoration is made by Greeks at home, wrapping a sprig of basil around a wooden cross and suspending it over a bowl of water. Greeks believe this water is blessed and acts as 'holy water' keeping evil spirits (and goblins) away during the 12 days of Christmas.
Greek children sing carols, which are called Kalanta, accompanied by drums and metal triangles, and sometimes a string instrument called Bouzouki. Young Kalanta singers often also carry model boats decorated with nuts which are painted gold.
There are separate Kalanta songs for Christmas, New Year and Ephiphany's Day.
Listen to this Christmas Kalanta, Καλήν Ημέραν Άρχοντες (Good Day Noble Men)
This is also a very famous Kalanta song to celebrate the New Year.
The lyrics translate as follows:
"It is the dawning of the year in our town
and all the children in the street gather round
listen to the noise
we wish you all the joys of a long, long life with the singing of our blessing"
Beautiful and delicate melodies, aren't they? These Kalanta carols were written in a form of Greek language called Katharevousa, conceived in the early 19th century. This form of Greek language was widely used both for literary and official purposes until it was abolished in 1976.
Delicious loaves of 'Christopsomo' (Christ's bread or Christmas bread) can be seen decorating the Greek tables. This round sweet bread is flavored with cinnamon, orange and cloves. The top is decorated with a cross and walnuts. The bread is made on Christmas Eve ready to be eaten on Christmas Day.
The two most popular Greek desserts during Christmas are Melomakarona and Kourabies, pictured together below.
Melomakarona are soft cookies, baked dry and then dipped into a syrup made from honey, orange, cinnamon and cloves. Ιn Ancient Greece honey was a symbol of fertility and welfare, therefore the Greek people have connected Melomakarona to the desires and wishes that they have, and with the hope that the coming year will make them come true!
The word 'Melomakarona' is a combination of 2 words:
a) meli = honey
b) macaroni, which comes from the word “Makaria”, a dish served in memorial services in ancient Greece.
Kourabies, also called “the snowy sweets”, are very delicious, with their velvet taste of butter and hints of rosewater. Yummy! Or Nóstima (νόστιμα ) as our Greek friends would say.
The word 'Kourabies' is a combination of 2 words:
a) kuru = dry
b) biye = cookie
PRESENTS ON NEW YEAR'S DAY
In Greece, presents are often brought to children by Aghios Vassilis / Άγιος Βασίλης (Saint Basil The Great) on the 1st January. Families and friends gather for dinner on the 31st, and after midnight they go out to celebrate or if they stay home they may play cards.
Vasilopita ( βασιλοπιτα ) is a cake that is eaten on New Year's Day. Before the cake is baked, a coin covered in foil is placed in it. The New Year is written on top of the cake with almonds. The person who cuts the cake makes the sign of the cross three times above it and then starts serving the pieces, one to each person, the house, Christ, The Virgin Mary and Saint Vasileios. Whoever has the coin in his piece of cake will have luck for the rest of the year.
BLESSING OF THE WATERS ON 6th OF JANUARY
People in Greece also celebrate Epiphany on the 6th January. In the Greek Orthodox Church, Epiphany celebrates Jesus's baptism when he was a man. It's also known as 'The Blessing of the Waters'. There are many events throughout the country where young men dive into really cold lakes, rivers and the sea to try to be first to get a cross which has been blessed by a priest and thrown into the water. Whoever gets the cross first is meant to have good luck during the coming year. Epiphany festivals also include blessings of boats & ships, music, dancing and lots of food.
There are a number of beliefs connected with the Killantzaroi, which are a species of goblins or sprites who appear only during the 12-day period from Christmas to the Epiphany's Day. This tradition is based on the legend that the "waters aren't christened" since Christ has not yet been baptized. The goblins are renowned for their ugliness and their impishness These creatures are believed to emerge from the center of the earth and to slip into people's house through the chimney. More mischievous than actually evil, the Killantzaroi do things like extinguish fires, ride astride people's backs, braid horses' tails, and sour the milk. To further repel the undesirable sprites, the hearth is kept burning day and night throughout the twelve days.
You may have noticed that the word 'Christmas' is often written as 'Xmas' in the English language.
However, “X” in “Xmas” is, in fact, not the English letter “ex”. It is an abbreviation of the Greek name of “Christ”, Χριστός, which starts with the Greek letter Chi (X). Abbreviating “Christ” as “X” can be traced many centuries back, with some written documents dated as early as 1100 AD.
ONLINE RESOURCES FOR GREEK LANGUAGE LEARNERS