Christmas Traditions in Greece
Although most of us think of Greece, and the island of Lesvos, as summer holiday destinations, there’s lots to see and do all year round, and Christmas is no exception. Here we will explore some of the traditions around a Greek Christmas. If you’re tempted to visit Lesvos in winter then Real Lesvos have some wonderful accommodation, open all year round, and the island is beautiful in winter, with snow on the mountain tops and clear, crisp days by the sea!
Many Greek Christmas traditions are deeply rooted in the Orthodox church, whilst also being influenced by western culture and Greece being close to the Balkans and Turkey. It is a big celebration with a magical holiday spirit and some lovely traditions that aren’t found elsewhere in the world!
Christmas in Greece is called Christougena which is Greek for the birth of Christ (Gena means birth in Greek). It is the second most important cultural and religious celebration in Greece after Easter.
A boat not a tree?
St Nicholas is the patron saint of the sailors and protects ships at sea, so in Greece it is traditional to decorate a boat with festive lights instead of a tree. This is often done on December 6, St Nicholas Day. Karavaki (little boat in Greek) is a Christmas symbol, often displayed in windows as a good omen to fishermen. This tradition continues especially in fishing villages and harbours, but often in the capital, Athens, too where a boat can be seen in Syntagma Square, twinkling with pretty lights in December. Decorated trees and nativity scenes are a relatively modern addition to a Greek Christmas!
Father Christmas - Saint Basil
In Greece, Santa Claus is called Agios Vassilis (Saint Basil). He was a tall, thin man, with a dark beard, so very different to the round Santa Claus with his white beard, and he was a bishop known for helping the poor. In Greece, name days are celebrated on saints days, and St Basil or St Vassilis Day is January 1, so that is traditionally when he brings gifts for all the children. This is also when most Christmas presents are opened (although many families now open gifts on the December 25)
Greek Christmas Food
It was traditional in Greece to eat pork at Christmas, roasted or cooked on a spit. Recently turkey has become more popular - but not on Lesvos, where most families still tuck into pork served with vegetables and traditional side dishes like spanakopita (spinach pie) on Christmas Day.
Instead of mince pies or panettone in Greece it’s all about the sweet biscuits called Kourabiedes (a kind of shortbread) and Melomakarona (honey cakes).
Greeks also bake a traditional bread called Christopsomo or Christ’s Bread. These are usually large, round loaves, baked on Christmas Eve and used as a table centrepiece and eaten on Christmas Day. The bread is decorated with a cross. The bread is often flavoured with orange, cloves and cinnamon.
Greeks are very hospitable so if you’re lucky enough to be in Greece over the Christmas period we are certain you will be made very welcome - the Greek spirit of ‘Philoxenia’ which literally means ‘friend to a stranger’, is alive and adhered to all year round.
‘Kala Christougena’ or Merry Christmas!