Wherever there is a long history, there are strong local traditions. Greece is a country with a legacy that goes back to the ancient world. Seafarers, strong conquerors, creators of art and founders of sciences- they are the Greeks. Therefore when Christianity reached the Greek islands in the 1st century CE (became official in the 4th century CE), the locals had to colour its rituals with their own long established tradition. Hence, Greece is a country where Christmas has its own special flavour.
Not a Christmas tree but a wooden bowl
The Fir tree, more known today as the Christmas tree, is the most iconic symbol of Christmas around the world. However, there is something more popular for traditional Greeks, that is the wooden bowl that keeps killantzaroi at bay. In fact, nothing represents the festive season more for the Greeks than the shallow wooden bowl with a wire suspended across the rim, from which hangs a wooden cross with sprigs of basil. The bowl holds little water, enough to keep the basil fresh. Once a day, the mother dips the cross (with the basil wrapped around) into the water and sprinkles each room of the house to keep the Killantzaroi away. The Killantzaroi, which are believed to be species of goblins or sprites supposedly appear only during the 12-day period from Christmas to the Epiphany (January 6). While most people around the world entertain the belief that Santa descends into their homes through the chimney, the traditional Greeks believe it’s the Killantzaroi that enter houses through chimneys, and therefore the hearth needs to keep burning for the 12 days. These creatures are not thought of as particularly evil but more mischievous; they extinguish needed fires, braid horses’ tails, and sour the milk. The wooden shallow bowl with the hanging cross and basil keeps the menacing creatures at bay all year long. Now we can understand why the Killantzaroi or the ritual they impose, is more important for traditional Greeks than the Christmas tree.
Not Santa Claus (St. Nicholas) but St. Basil
When it comes to Greece, St. Basil, not St. Nicholas (more commonly known as Santa Claus), is the real star of the festive season. While the chimneys are protected against the Killantzaroi, the Greeks still exchange gifts, but on St. Basil’s day. Basil of Caesarea is an important saint in the Greek Orthodox tradition and is celebrated on the 1st of January; this is when Greeks exchange their Christmas gifts. He doesn’t only bring gifts but he is responsible for the vasilopita, St. Basil-pie. The vasilopita is New Year’s bread or pie with a hidden coin. The person who receives the piece with the coin enjoys a fortunate year. This tradition stems from a 4th century legend where the town of Caesarea was supposedly under a threat of a siege, and the offenders asked for ransom. Therefore Basil, the town’s bishop then, raised the ransom money from the citizens who donated gold and jewellery. When the town was miraculously spared, Basil couldn’t return the goods to the people because he was not sure which pieces belonged to whom. Therefore, he decided to bake loaves of bread and hide the goods within the dough – he then distributed the bread among the benevolent citizens of the town. Today, centuries later, the tradition is still followed for good fortune. So visit Greece for the New Year and try the vasilopita, perhaps you would be the lucky receiver of the coin.
Again how relevant would the Fir tree be to the country of seafarers and conquerors? Given their history, it is no surprise that the traditional Greeks decorate ships rather than trees. The cities of Greece are lightened by the most beautiful and elegantly embellished ships; homes and restaurants have their smaller but equally enticing versions too. And it is no coincidence that St. Nicholas who is celebrated on the 6th of January, happens also to be the patron of sailors. In other words, the Greeks managed to impose their passion for their waters unto Christmas. Fun doesn’t end there. ‘The blessing of the waters’ is another Christmas tradition in which local priests throw consecrated crosses in lakes and rivers, and young men dive into the cold waters to find them and enjoy their blessings all year long.
While Greece is a popular destination for many Egyptians mainly during the summer, its Christmas seems to offer much. Greek Christmas ornaments speak of traditions and tell tales. So maybe it is high time to visit Greece during Christmas, roam through its villages, unravel its mysteries and enjoy a unique flavour.