How to do Christmas & New Year the Greek way
Christmas is a huge holiday in Greece. It’s a time of joy, reflection, and celebration, blending religious observance, cultural traditions and the warmth of family and community. Here’s everything you need to know about a Greek Christmas (and New Year)!
Why is Christmas so important to Greeks?
Christmas is a significant holiday for Greeks, primarily due to the country's historical and cultural ties to Christianity. Most Greeks are Eastern Orthodox Christians, and the birth of Christ is central to the Christian faith. For the faithful, Christmas is a time for spiritual reflection, prayer, and attending church services.
When do they celebrate Christmas in Greece?
Celebrations for the Holiday Season in Greece start on December 25th, when Jesus Christ was born, and end on January 6th on Epiphany Day, when Jesus Christ was baptized. The whole period is called Dodekaimero (12 days) as it lasts 12 days. In Greece, New Year isn't just a time to mark the start of a new calendar year but part of Christmas religious tradition.
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How do the Greeks celebrate Christmas?
🎄Religious Observance: Greeks attend church services, with the most significant being the midnight liturgy on Christmas Eve. The service is known as the "Divine Liturgy of the Nativity," and it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ.
🎄Christmas lent: Many people fast for 40 days leading up to Christmas, breaking their fast with a festive meal after the church service on Christmas Eve.
🎄Public Events and Festivities: Many towns and cities organize public events and festivities during the holiday season. Public spaces are often decorated, and Christmas markets may be set up, providing a festive atmosphere for locals and visitors alike.
🎄Decorations: Homes, public spaces, and streets are adorned with festive decorations, including Christmas trees and lights, ornaments, and nativity scenes. You may also see a Christmas tree placed in the town square.
❔ Did you know - Decorating Christmas trees is not a traditional custom in Greece. The first Christmas tree was decorated in Greece by Otto, a Greek King of Bavarian origin, in 1833 at his palace. The custom caught on in the mid 1900s.
Traditionally, Greeks decorate Christmas boat ornaments. The "karavaki" (small ship) is a traditional Greek Christmas decoration resembling a small boat or ship. It symbolizes the boats used in the Epiphany tradition of blessing the waters on January 6th. Greek homes often decorate these small boats with lights, ornaments, and sometimes even small gifts. They're placed prominently in homes as a reminder of the maritime traditions and the blessings associated with the sea.
🎄Caroling and Music: Groups of children and sometimes adults go door-to-door singing Christmas carols, known as "kalanda." It is customary for households to offer treats, coins or small gifts to the carolers.
🎄Family Gatherings: Christmas is a time for families to come together. Family members often travel long distances to spend the holiday with their loved ones. The emphasis is on unity and togetherness.
🎄Gift-Giving: The tradition of exchanging gifts is an essential part of Greek Christmas celebrations. Children eagerly anticipate the arrival of "Agios Vasilis" (Saint Basil), who is somewhat equivalent to Santa Claus in Greek tradition. Gifts are traditionally exchanged on New Year's Day on the feast of St. Basil. However In modern times exchanging gifts on Christmas day is very common.
New Year's Day Celebrations in Greece
Greeks celebrate New Year's eve as everyone - counting down to midnight to welcome the New calendar year. But there's more to it and St. Basil is what it's really about. New Year's Day, January 1st, marks the feast of St. Basil and it’s a significant part of the Greek holiday season. Families gather for a special meal, and it is customary to cut a cake known as "Vasilopita," which contains a hidden coin. Read on to find out more about Vasilopita.
❔ Did you know - In Greece it is customary to break a Pomegranate for good luck at New Year!
In Greek mythology the pomegranate symbolizes fortune, fertility and prosperity. Traditionally, pomegranates are displayed as Christmas decorations around the home and on the doors of houses to invite fortune.
After the clock strikes midnight at New Year, it is customary to break a pomegranate by throwing it on the entrance doorstep. Yes it's another messy custom, but according to belief if the seeds spread on the floor it signifies happiness and health to the family.
Greek Christmas Holiday foods
Christmas Day is marked by a festive feast that includes various traditional dishes. Roast meats, sweets, and other special treats are prepared and shared with family and friends. Greek Christmas cuisine is rich in traditional dishes that are enjoyed by families during the festive season. Here are some common traditional Greek Christmas foods:
✨Christopsomo (Christ's Bread): This is a sweet, festive bread prepared for Christmas. It is often enriched with honey, orange zest, and various spices. The bread is usually decorated with a cross or other symbolic patterns.
✨Melomakarona: These are honey and walnut cookies, shaped like ovals and soaked in honey syrup. Melomakarona are a beloved sweet treat during the Christmas season and are often homemade.✨Kourabiedes: These are buttery shortbread cookies, typically shaped into crescents or rounds and dusted with powdered sugar. Kourabiedes are often made with almonds or walnuts and are a favorite Greek Christmas cookie.
✨Roast Lamb or Pork: Roast meats, such as lamb or pork, are commonly featured in Greek Christmas feasts.
✨Spanakopita and Tyropita: These are savory pastries filled with spinach and feta cheese (spanakopita) or a mixture of cheeses (tyropita). They are often served as part of the Christmas meal.
Learn more about the most popular Greek pies in our article here.
✨Avgolemono Soup: While not exclusive to Christmas, avgolemono soup (egg-lemon soup) is a comforting dish that may be served during the holiday season. Soup is a great way to gently break the 40-day lent. It is made with chicken or lamb broth, eggs, and lemon juice, creating a velvety and tangy soup.
✨Vasilopita: A special cake prepared for New Year's Day, Vasilopita is named after Saint Basil (Agios Vasilis), and a coin is hidden inside the cake. The cake is cut and pieces assigned as follows: 1 for Christ, 1 for Virgin Mary and then 1 each for family members and guests from the oldest to the youngest. If someone isn't there you can assign them a piece. The person who finds the coin is believed to have good luck for the coming year.
These dishes, along with regional specialties, contribute to the festive and delicious Christmas celebrations in Greece. Families often gather to enjoy these traditional foods and share the joy of the holiday season.
Greeks love festivities (and feasts). For us holidays are a time to recount our blessings, connect and share precious moments with people we love.
Greek From Greece wishes everyone Happy holidays!