St. Nicholas is important in Greece as the patron saint of sailors. According to Greek tradition, his clothes are drenched with brine, his beard drips with seawater, and his face is covered with perspiration because he has been working hard against the waves to reach sinking ships and rescue them from the angry sea. Greek ships never leave port without some sort of St. Nicholas icon on board.
Christmas ranks second to Easter in the roster of important holidays. Yet there are a number of unique customs associated with Christmas that are uniquely Greek. On Christmas Eve, village children travel from house to house offering good wishes and singing kalanda, the equivalent of carols. Often the songs are accompanied by small metal triangles and little clay drums. The children are frequently rewarded with sweets and dried fruits.
After 40 days of fasting, the Christmas feast is looked forward to with great anticipation by adults and children alike. Pigs are slaughtered and on almost every table are loaves of christopsomo (“Christ Bread”). This bread is made in large sweet loaves of various shapes and the crusts are engraved and decorated in some way that reflects the family’s profession.
Christmas trees which were once rare in Greece are becoming more popular. In some parts of Greece (mainly villages) almost every home the main symbol of the season is a shallow wooden bowl with a piece of wire is suspended across the rim; from that hangs a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross. A small amount of water is kept in the bowl to keep the basil alive and fresh. Once a day, a family member, usually the mother, dips the cross and basil into some holy water and uses it to sprinkle water in each room of the house. This ritual is believed to keep the Kalikatzaroi away from the house.
Gifts are exchanged on St. Basil’s Day (January 1). Although times are changing rapidly here in Greece and now children are opening gifts on Christmas Day and then again on New Year’s Day.
People greet one another by saying Hronia polla (many happy years).
Kourabiedes – Crunchy cookie but melts in your mouth. Some recipes have walnuts or almonds in them. They are covered with powdered surger.
Melomakarona – A traditional Christmas cookie, very soft in syrup with sprinkles of nuts on top.
Vasilopita – St. Basil bread – A sweet bread (cake) type with powder sugar on top. It is baked with a coin inside. Consumed on January 1st. Anyone who gets the piece with the coin in it will have good luck for that year.
Christmas celebrations end on Epiphany (renewal of the waters), January 6. On this day, priests dip crucifixes in the nearest lake or river to sanctify the waters.