Christmas is celebrated in different ways around the world, varying by country and region. It’s about time to learn a little bit more about the Christmas traditions in Kefalonia. You have to know the customs and traditions of a place to be able to fully understand its people. So, let’s have a look at the Christmas customs and traditions of the island, most of which are of religious nature and others stem from paganism.
St. Nicholas is an important figure to the members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as are most Greek Christians, as the patron saint of sailors and is celebrated on December 6. While in the rest of the world Father Christmas is St. Nicholas/Santa Claus, in Greece Aghios Vasilis or St. Basil is the one who brings presents to children on New Year’s Day.
- Kalanta (Christmas Carols)
On Christmas Eve, in every village of the island, small children and teens travel from house to house offering good wishes and singing kalanta, the equivalent of Christmas carols. Often the songs are accompanied by small metal triangles and little drums. The children are frequently rewarded with small amount of money and sweets.
- Christmas tree
The Christmas tree is a Western custom that was adopted by the Greeks and each year steadily gains popularity as a new Christmas tradition. In the past, in order to honor St. Nicholas, every household used to decorate small wooden Christmas boats and until today, many choose to decorate boats, instead of trees, reviving this age-old Christmas tradition.
- Kallikantzari (Mischievous spirits)
Emerging from the center of the earth, more mischievous and malicious than dangerous, are the sprites called Kallikantzari who prey upon people and pull various pranks during the twelve days of Christmas, between Christmas and Epiphany on January 6th. It was believed that all year long they saw the root of a huge trunk on which rests the foundations of the world and stop for the 12 days of Christmas to play tricks on the housewives. When they returned to the center of the earth to continue their ‘job’ after Christmas, they found out that the trunk was whole again. A Christmas miracle!
- Christmas cuisine and delicacies
Traditional culinary delights that characterize the Christmas season in Greece are melomakarona (honey cookies with nuts) and kourabiedes (sugar cookies with almonds) and the Christopsomo or ‘Christ bread’ (special decorated loaf of various shapes). After the traditional 40 days of fasting, the Christmas feast is looked forward to with great anticipation by adults and children alike and the table is filled with traditional dishes like lamb or pork, roasted in an oven or over an open spit and served with various salads, vegetables and potatoes.
It is said that Christmas ranks second to Easter in the roster of important holidays for the Greeks. But that doesn’t mean that it is any less grand or majestic. It is the most wonderful time of the year and each and every unique Greek custom and tradition associated with Christmas makes it even more special!
The New Year’s Traditions
New Year’s Day is an extravagant celebration throughout the world. It is celebrated differently in every country and unique with its various characteristics. In Greece, there are many customs and traditions associated with this time of the year and each and every one of them marks the new upcoming beginning. Let’s find out the most well-known Greek customs about the New Year’s Day.
- Aghios Vasilios (St. Basil)
Unlike other European countries, where Father Christmas is Saint Nicholas and comes every Christmas, in Greek tradition, Father Christmas is supposed to visit children and give them presents on 1 January. His name is St. Basil or Aghios Vasilios and comes from Caesarea and not North Pole. He was known from the Byzantine times for his kindness towards the small and the poor and his memory is celebrated on New Year’s Day.
- Kalanta (New Year’s Eve Carols)
In every village and city of Greece on New Year’s Eve, you will see children running up and down the streets, travelling from house to house, offering good wishes and singing kalanta, the equivalent of carols. Often the songs are accompanied by small metal triangles, little drums, guitars, accordions, lyres and harmonicas. and the children are rewarded with small amount of money and sweets.
- ‘Ta Phota’ (The Epiphany)
The Greek Christmas celebrations conclude with the feast of ‘Phota’, as the Epiphany is called. In the Orthodox Church this feast is known as the baptism of Christ and is associated with the blessing of the waters. On the day of Epiphany there is the great “Aghiasmos” service in the every church of the country and in most islands and ports the priest throws a cross into the sea. Young men will dive into the cold waters to retrieve it and the one who catches the cross is considered to be blessed.
- New Year’s Day treats
One of the most anticipated culinary customs in Greece is the slicing of Vasilopita (St.Basil’s pie or New Year’s Cake) that dates back to the Byzantine times. The head of the house must cross the cake with his knife and then cut the first slices for God, Christ, Virgin Mary and the house and after for each member of the family starting with the eldest. This special cake contains a ‘flouri’ or lucky coin and the one who finds it, is considered to be lucky for the rest of the year. At the meal table there is also a special decorated round loaf called ‘Vasilopsomo’ or St. Basil’s bread.