Every region of Greece has its own traditions regarding Christmas. Some of them are common to most regions some of them are only specific to one region. Some of them go so much back in time that have their roots in ancient Greece, some of them are more recent.
Whatever the tradition, if you happen to be in Greece for Christmas one things it is certain: Chances are that you will eat till you drop dead and you will have a great festive time.
Let’s see some of the most known traditions below.
The Christmas tree
This is a recent tradition in Greece that came from Bavaria. People decorate a Christmas Tree in their houses usually a few days before Christmas and they keep tit decorated till the Epiphany.
Kallikantzaroi are fictitious creatures associated with Christmas in many regions of Greece. They are considered to be ugly, black, tall with long thin legs, hairy beings with red eyes, demonic in nature that supposedly live in the depths of Earth all year long, trying to cut the tree holding the earth still. But on Christmas Eve and although they have cut through most of the earth tree trunk, they decide to come to the surface to cause troubles and play pranks on human beings. They stay on the earth’s surface till the Epiphany when they return underground to find that the earth tree trunk has completely healed, and they have to start sawing again.
In all regions of Greece, children go out on the morning of Christmas Eve, knocking on each door and asking “Να τα πούμε;” (Can we sing them?). The house occupants always reply yes and then the children start singing the Christmas Kalanta (=carols). Nowadays, the costume is that the house owners give the children an amount of money they consider fair (usually a few euros), but in earlier times, people used to give the children sweets and other homemade treats they had in their house. The Kalanta are usually sang with the Trigono, a triangle musical instrument that makes metallic sounds. Every region of Greece has its own song for Kalanta.
“Χριστόξυλο” or Christ’s wood is a piece of wood that the house occupants, usually in the region of Macedonia and in general the Northern part of Greece, put in their fireplace on Christmas Eve night and try to keep it burning for twelve days. They choose for that purpose the sturdiest and more difficult to burn kind of wood. The fire burning from the wood is supposed to warm the little Christ in His manger in Bethlehem. On Epiphany, the ashes of the wood are scattered around the surroundings of the house.
“Χριστόψωμο” or Christmas bread is a tradition in many parts of Greece like for example in Crete or Kastoria. It is a bread usually prepared a couple of days in advance of Christmas day. It is decorated with different symbols that have different meanings in the different regions of Greece.
“Μωμόγεροι” is a sort of traditional folk theater that revives in some villages where there are refugees from Pontus like Sitagroi or Platania. The protagonists of these theatrical performances make imitation motions with their faces that resemble the expressions elders do. They go around the villages for twelve days singing the Christmas Kalanta. They wear animal fur or are dressed in armed uniforms with swords. They are considered to bring luck for the New Year. When two theatrical gangs meet, they fake war between them until one team wins. In the area of the prefecture of Evros these gangs have different names, such as Rugatsia, Babaliaroi, Baboutsariai, etc.
Variations of the same custom occur in the villages of Kozani and Kastoria, called Ragoutsaria. There they wear big bells and roam the villages making deafening noise. It is a custom that symbolizes the purging and expulsion of demonic beings.
Before the tradition of Christmas tree comes to Greece, especially in the houses of sailors, they used to decorate a Christmas boat. It used to symbolize the safe cruise to life after the birth of Christ and the hope of the families of sailors to meet with their people. Nowadays, a lot of prefectures decide to decorate a boat in central squares instead of a Christmas tree.
“Γουρουνοχαρά” used to refer to the tradition of slaughtering the pig. Each household in the region of Thessaly that could afford it used to have a pig to be slaughtered during Christmas holidays for meat purposes. The process of preparing and culling the pig was done with special care. Larger animals required 4-5 men. Fat was melted and stored in large oil containers for use after being frozen in their meals during the year.
“Ανναμένο πουρνάρι” or burning yew is another tradition mainly found in the region of Epirus.
It is said that when Christ was born and the shepherds went to worship, the night was very dark. But they found a dry holly tree and cut off its branches. Each one of them took a branch in his hand, put it on fire and filled the dark mountain with joyful fires. This custom used to exist in many villages in Epirus and anyone who went to his neighbor's house to wish happy holidays held a branch of yew or of some other plant that was burning.
Even today in some villages this custom is observed. Some hold in their hand a few bay leaves or other plants, which they throw to the fireplace of their friends when they visit them, wishing them good things.
In many cities and villages, group fires are lit up to drive out evil spirits and, in some cases, like in Kastoria, they bang bells around them.
Many other traditions are observed in Greece throughout the Christmas holidays. Just visit to see by yourself and have a good time!
“Χρόνια πολλά και καλά Χριστούγεννα” (Happy many years and Merry Christmas)!