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Christmas in Greece
Christmas (Xristougenna), the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus is one of the most joyful days of the Greek Orthodox Church. Traditionally, the Christmas holiday period in Greece lasts 12 days, until January 6, which marks the celebration of the Feast of the Holy Theophany (Epiphany). There are many customs associated with the Christmas holidays, some of which are relatively recent, “imported” from other parts of the world (like eating turkey on Christmas day and decorating the Christmas tree). In the past, Greeks decorated small Christmas boats in honour of St. Nicholas and today, they are increasingly choosing to decorate boats, instead of trees, reviving this age-old Christmas tradition.
• "Kalanda" or Carols
The singing of Christmas carols (or kalanda) is a custom preserved in its entirety to this day. On Christmas and New Year Eve, children go from house to house in groups singing the carols, accompanied usually by the sounds of the musical instrument "triangle," but also by guitars, accordions, lyres and harmonicas. Until some time ago, children were rewarded with pastries but nowadays they are usually given money.
• Christmas Elves
Greece’s hobgoblins are called "kallikántzari”, friendly but troublesome little creatures which look like elves. Kallikantzari live deep down inside the earth and come to surface only during the 12-day period from Christmas until Epiphany. While on the earth’s surface, they love to hide in houses, slipping down chimneys and frightening people. Throughout Greece, there are various customs and rituals performed to keep hobgoblins away. Kallikantzari disappear on the day of Epiphany when all waters are blessed, and they return to the earth’s core.
• Sweets & Treats
Traditional culinary delights symbolize good luck in the New Year and adorn the white-clothed tables. "Melomakarona" (honey cookies) and "kourabiedes" (sugar cookies with almonds) are the most characteristic and they characterize the beginning of Christmas festivity. Another traditional custom that dates back to the Byzantine times is the slicing of Vassilopita (St.Basil’s pie or New Year’s Cake). The person who finds the hidden coin in his slice of the cake is considered to be lucky for the rest of the year.
Christmas in Greek Literature & Poetry & Christmas Celebrations
Easter in Greece
The Feast of all Feasts
Considered the most important holiday on Greek calendar and one of the richest in folklore, the celebration of Orthodox Easter (Pascha) is unique throughout Greece. From Crete to Macedonia, Easter customs become a herald of the spirit’s and nature’s rebirth, while Easter celebrations constitute a vivid aspect of the folk culture, rich in meaning and symbolism.
Easter is a moveable holiday. Its celebration falls on the first Sunday after the full moon of the spring equinox. All over Greece, a plethora of customs and traditions are observed during the week prior to Easter, the Holy Week. The preparations for the celebration of the Resurrection start on Holy Thursday. On that day, housewives traditionally prepare special cakes named tsourekia, biscuits and red color eggs. The use of egg is a symbol of rebirth while the red color stands for the blood of Christ. In the past, in many households, people used to place the first red egg on the icon stand of the house in order to cast out evil spirits.
Friday is the most sacred day of the Holy Week, the day of the culmination of the passion of Christ with the deposition from the cross and Christ’s burial. Because it is a day of mourning, housewives avoid doing housework. Women and children go to church to decorate the Epitaph (Bier of Christ) with flowers, while in the evening the Epitaph procession takes place. On Saturday morning, preparations start for the festive dinner and a special soup is cooked called “maghiritsa”.
Shortly before midnight, people gather in church holding white candles which they light with the “Holy Light” distributed by the priest. When the latter chants “Christ is risen” (Christos Anesti), people exchange wishes and the so-called “Kiss of Love”. With the “Holy Light” of the candles they make three times the sign of the cross on the door post over the front door of their houses for good luck. Then they all gather around the table, they crack red eggs and wish one another Christos Anesti. On Sunday morning, mainly in Greek countryside, lamb is prepared on the spit and people eat and dance usually until late at night.
Easter is by far the holiest of Greek holidays, but it is also the most joyous, a celebration of spring, of rebirth in its literal as well as figurative sense. As Greeks leave the cities in droves to spend Easter in the countryside, food is central to all festivities.
The Easter table is a reflection of tradition combined with the seasonality of Greek cuisine. The ingredients, the seasonings, and the dishes might differ from place to place, there is always one rule surely followed: nothing must be wasted.
The most typical dishes are whole lambs on a spit, slowly roasting; red-dyed eggs; braided sweet breads (tsoureki); Easter soup (magiritsa) and grilled tripe roll (kokoretsi).
Travelling in Greece during Greek Orthodox Easter offers visitors the opportunity to enjoy the Greek countryside and to experience some traditional and festive atmosphere.
• Visiting the Ionian island of Corfu during Easter is ideal, since the town hosts the most splendid and melodic celebrations in the country, with the city’s philharmonics in full action. On Holy Saturday morning, one of the highlights is the dropping of ceramic pots "botides" full of water from the windows onto the cobblestone streets.
• In the Aegean island of Chios, another custom takes place where residents of the village of Vrontados revive the tradition of "the rocket war." After Resurrection, Vrontados breaks into a pandemonium of fireworks lighting up the midnight sky.
• In the Cycladic island of Tinos, on Holy Friday, parishioners of both Orthodox and Catholic churches carry the Holy Sepulchers of their churches to the port, where they join forces in chanting hymns, before each Sepulcher follows its own itinerary through neighborhoods.
Greek News Agenda: Greek Orthodox Easter & Around Greece & Northern Greece
Apokries: The Greek Carnival
Greece’s Carnival season known as "Apokries" is mainly a period of masquerading, but also eating, drinking and dancing. Traditionally, it begins ten weeks before Greek Orthodox Easter and culminates on the weekend before "Clean Monday," (Ash Monday) the first day of Lent. "Apokria", literally means “goodbye” to the period of meat-eating, or abstinence from meat (Apo-kreo, meaning away from meat).
Carnival officially begins on a Saturday evening with the "opening of the Triodion," the Lenten Triodion, as it is called - which a liturgical book of the Orthodox Church that contains hymns with three odes and begins to be chanted on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee through Holy Saturday.
The following week is a fast-free week until Meatfare Sunday which is the last day before Easter for eating meat. On Thursday of this week which is known as Tsiknopempti- Charred, Smoky or Barbeque Thursday- because of the smell of the grilled meat in the air, family and friends gather in taverns or homes to eat large quantities of charred meat and celebrate, just ten days before the beginning of Lent.
The last Sunday of the Carnival period is known as Cheesefare Sunday or Tyrofagos as only dairy products can be consumed on this day. Cheesefare Sunday is the final day of pre-Lent, as the Monday following -known as Clean or Ash Monday- marks the beginning of Great Lent. During the weekend preceding Clean Monday, carnival celebrations around Greece culminate with vigorous parades, masquerade parties, reviving many traditional customs in different parts of the country, and proving that carnival in Greece is closely related to the cultural heritage of each region.
Clean (or Ash) Monday is a public holiday in Greece which marks the end of the carnival festive season and the start of Lent or the period of fasting until Easter. Weather permiting, people spend Clean Monday outdoors, organizing picnics while children fly kites. Since it marks the beginning of the fasting period special food is eaten on this day. Eating red meat, poultry, fish or dairy products is not permitted. However, a host of other dishes and delicacies is available: lagana (a special unleavened bread eaten only on this day), taramasalata (a fish roe spread), dolmadakia (vine leaves stuffed with rice), grilled octopus, gigantes plaki (oven-baked broad beans), seafood salads and shellfish as well as a special semolina pudding known as halvas are just some of them.
• Patras: The King of Greek Carnivals
The port city of Patras hosts the biggest carnival in Greece, and one of the biggest in Europe. The "king" of Greek carnivals begins in January with an announcement by the town crier, and reaches its peak in the last weekend of carnival. Patras carnival features a variety of events: balls, parades, street theatre, and much more. The carnival reaches its apogee on the last weekend of Triodion: Saturday evening brings the walking parade (with participants taking the streets holding torches), while the phantasmagorical floral, artistic, and satirical floats parade on Sunday, with the Carnival King and Queen in all their splendor. But Patras carnival is mostly the thousands carnival-goers of all ages, participating spontaneously to the events taking place everywhere in the city -homes, bars, streets - turning the whole city into a gigantic party.
• Xanthi: The Folk Carnival
The Thracian city of Xanthi hosts one of the most popular carnivals in the country. Xanthi carnival started in 1966 as an urban event but has incorporated many traditional elements, based on the city’s multicultural character that renders it the most folklore of urban carnivals. The highlight is the Folk Parade on Saturday before Ash Monday: bringing together cultural associations from all over Greece, the troupes go singing and dancing through the neighborhoods of the picturesque Old Town and merge in an all-night Balkan folk music fiesta in the main square. Cheesefare Sunday leads to the custom of Burning the tzaros, a human effigy placed on top of a pile of brushwood.
• The "Old Men" of Skyros
The carnival in the Aegean island of Skyros comes alive with the sounds of clanging goat bells. These are worn around the waists of the island men who take part in the carnival playing the role of geros (old man), a figure dressed in a hooded black cape and hanging goat skin. The "old men" run through the streets individually or in groups, singing, dancing and making as much noise as possible, while locals and guests must always toast, drink and dance with the "old men".
• “Flour War” in Galaxidi
In Fokida Prefecture, the town of Galaxidi is one of Greece’s top destinations especially during carnival season. The picturesque small town impresses visitors with its tranquil charm and its rich maritime heritage, notably the old captains’ mansions, the so-called kapetanospita. During Carnival, the town revives the unique custom of "alevromoutzouromata" dating back to the heyday of the town’s merchant fleet, as a fun event for departing sailors at the end of the Carnival. On Clean Monday, Galaxidi is transformed into a battlefield as hundreds of people pelt mercilessly one another with large quantities of flour and dance around the fires – the most daring even jump over them!
Carnival Season in Greece & Traditional Festivities & The Greek ‘Mardi Gras’
Did you know?
- In Greece, people celebrate the “name day” of the saint that bears their name rather than their own birthday.
- There are over 4000 traditional dances that come from all regions of Greece. There are also Pan-Hellenic dances, which have been adopted throughout the Greek world.
- In Greece, people celebrate the name day of the saint that bears their name.
- Greeks do not wave with an open hand. It is considered an insult to show the palm of the hand with the fingers extended.