What do you want to know about the Greek Christmas season in Greece?
Christmas in Greece can surprise you. The Greek Christmas table might overwhelm you. And Greeks will wholeheartedly welcome you at their Christmas feast.
In this guide you’ll find the most significant, traditional and fun things to say, write, do, celebrate and share with your Greek friends and family.
From writing or saying your wishes in Greek to cutting Vasilópita like a pro;
From singing the Greek carols (κάλαντα) to knowing when to leave cookies and milk for Santa... or should I say Áyio Vasíli? (hint: it’s not on the 25th!);
...This is your ultimate guide if you ‘re spending Christmas in Greece or if you’re simply curious to find out more about this special Greek holiday.
#1 The Christmas holidays
“Τι θα κάνετε τα Χριστούγεννα;”: What are you doing for Christmas?
When a Greek asks about Christmas, they don't necessarily mean the Christmas day.
Rather, it's the holiday season starting from the Christmas Eve (December 24th) to the Epiphany Eve (January 5th).
This is called the 12 days of Christmas and includes three major celebrations: Christmas (τα Χριστούγεννα), the New Year (η Πρωτοχρονιά) and the Epiphany (τα Θεοφάνεια/τα Φώτα).
It’s the season to meet friends and family and eat lots of delicious Greek food. Music, theatre, indoor and outdoor events are frequent; Greeks love spending time outside.
By the way, did you know there are over 20 different carols?!
While celebrations are more or less the same, every region (and in many cases even different places in the region) can have different customs such as different carols or special dishes.
Greece is a tiny country with tons of variety; this is why you love it, right?
Bonus info: Name days.
If you have a Greek in your life named Christina or Fotini for women, Vasilis or Christos for men... :
On Christmas day it’s the name day of all Greeks named Χρήστος (Christos for men) and Χριστίνα (Christina for women).
The New Year’s day is the celebration of Άγιος Βασίλειος or commonly, Άι-Βασίλης (Saint Basil). It’s the name day of everyone called Βασίλης (Vasilis for men) and Βασιλική (Vasiliki for women).
Άγιος Βασίλης is also the Saint who brings the presents to children; so January 1st is a day much anticipated.
Lastly, the Epiphany is the name day of Greeks named Φώτης (Fotis for men) and Φωτεινή (Fotini for women).
So go ahead and wish “Χρόνια Πολλά” to the Greeks in your life who happen to have these names! (see below more about this wish).
Surprise: You won't really hear “Merry Christmas” on Christmas day.
You see, Merry Christmas in Greek is “Καλά Χριστούγεννα” but we say this to each other until the Christmas day.
On Christmas day, we say “Χρόνια Πολλά” which literally means “Years many” (Years many to live and prosper is probably the message here).
We tend to use the “all-purpose” wish “Χρόνια Πολλά”, in birthdays, on name days and religious celebrations.
Why? Well, because when we wish using the adjective “good”: καλός, καλή, καλό (with the proper ending each time), it is usually for things or events that haven’t happened yet. Once they happen, they belong to the past.
An example is “καλό κούρεμα” (happy haircut - yes, there's a wish for that) Once you have your hair cut, there’s no need to say “καλό κούρεμα” anymore, right?
Καλά Χριστούγεννα actually means “Have a good Christmas day”. Once the day is here (and Christ is already born), “Χρόνια Πολλά” takes its place.
The same with the wish “Καλή Πρωτοχρονιά”: Have a Happy New Year’s day. Once the day is here, the year has started so we switch to “Καλή Χρονιά”: Happy New Year instead.
Of course, when we meet people for the first time and it’s still January, or when we simply want to wish Happy New Year, we can keep the wish “Καλή Χρονιά”.
For the Epiphany, simply say one more time “Χρόνια Πολλά” on January 6th.
Bonus info: Wish to your Greek friend on the phone.
How about calling your Greek friends and family on the phone to wish them in Greek?
A call is very much appreciated by Greeks - on name days and celebrations, the phone is ringing non stop.
# 3 Greek Christmas food
Isn't this everyone’s favourite part?
From savoury to sweet, traditional and local to non-traditional, Greek Christmas food is something that brings beautiful, warm memories. It’s not just about the food, but about the gatherings and the sharing.
But what’s so special about Greek Christmas food, compared to other days or celebrations?
On Christmas day pork, greens, salads, roast potatoes and the large variety of Greek pies is what Greeks have traditionally.
The special bread we make and set on the table is named “Χριστόψωμο”: Christ’s bread and it’s a bread made with honey, spices and nuts, decorated with shapes made out of dough.
The turkey dish has been added to the Greek festive table the last few decades. It can be the traditional dish for many families nowadays.
The family gets together on December 25th and the Christmas lunch starts the same time as lunch does in Greece; around 2 pm or even later.
On the New Year’s eve everyone - and I mean everyone, adults and kids alike - stays up until at least midnight.
This is the moment to cut the “βασιλόπιτα”: Saint Basil’s pie. In this special pie (which can be a cheese pie or even a vanilla cake) we hide a coin.
Whoever finds it in their piece has good luck for the whole year. Or so we like to hope!
Bonus info: Cut the pie.
Surprise the Greek in your life and cut βασιλόπιτα like a pro; Don’t laugh, I know you can do it.
Here’s how: First, make the symbol of the cross 3 times over the pie with the knife.
Over is important. Don't spoil the fun by revealing the coin.
Then, start cutting the first piece and say “για τον Χριστό”: “for Jesus Christ”, continue with the next one “για την Παναγία”: “for Mother Mary” , the next one “για τον Άι-Βασίλη”: “for Saint Basil”, then “για το σπίτι”: “for the house” (which means the house you’re at the moment) and then - and only then! - start saying the names of the family and friends who are with you starting from the oldest to the youngest.
Members of the family who are not present, they always have a piece dedicated to them as well.
(Do you start wondering if you'll actually get a piece yourself? You will, you will. Just cut the first pieces smaller. Shhh. I didn't say that.)
Time for ...more dessert!
The most popular Greek Christmas treats are “κουραμπιέδες”: sugar cookies, “μελομακάρονα”: honey biscuits and “δίπλες”: this one is fried dough in a folded shape thus the name, which means exactly that; folded.
Based on honey, nuts, olive oil or butter and spices, these treats are made of the very best ingredients Greece has to offer.
In Greece, you can find them during Christmas time only. Greeks make tons of them to offer to family and friends and bakeries sell them in abundance. As you can imagine, everyone ends up with large quantities of treats.
Bonus info: ...
(I guess the only “bonus” here is the pounds we gain?)
# 4 Carols
“Κάλαντα”: the carols are traditionally sung by groups of children visiting house after house and shop after shop on Christmas Eve and on New Year’s Eve, always in the morning. On Epiphany Eve you might listen to carols as well, but this is less common nowadays.
There are different carols for every region and even in the same region there can be different variations. Worry not, we do have a common to all version, which you can download (and sing!) here:
Since “Άγιος Βασίλης”: Saint Basil is celebrated on New Year’s day, these carols are dedicated to him.
Gradually however, the "man in the red suit" has taken the place of Saint Basil in kids’ stories and decorations; Rudolph, North Pole and elves have also been added to the stories about the Saint - who seems to be coming from two different places and traditions.
(I tried to explain this to my daughter when she was 5. We ended up saying that the Saint first visits Canada on Christmas day and by the time he gets to Greece it's January 1st. Parenthood is not easy.)
Bonus info: Money for carols?
A bit like the “trick or treat” in the US and Canada, children in Greece can’t wait to sing the Christmas carols.
They don’t get treats, they get money (a few coins but for a child it's of course a fortune) so they are eager to wake up early and sing until the afternoon.
Did I sing κάλαντα as a kid? Of course I did. With a musical triangle of course - a must!
# 5 How to celebrate
If you’re spending the holidays in Greece this year, here are a couple of things that might help you get oriented easier:
Decorate a tree a few days before Christmas and keep it until the Epiphany. Before the tree decoration which started around the 19th century in Athens, Greeks didn't decorate; a miniature boat was often displayed at homes or a simple candle was lit.
The boat decoration has been revived the last years and many squares have large light decorations in the shape of a boat.
Stories about the mischievous spirits who manage to surface from underground, the "καλλικάντζαροι": (kallikantzari) goblins, are told by the fire; this time of the year I remember my grandfather, who was an excellent storyteller. His stories would send a chill down our spines for days.
Breaking a pomegranate open on New Year's day in front of the main door is a tradition in some areas to this day; pomegranate is considered to bring luck and prosperity.
And lastly, on Epiphany day, the blessing of the water takes place; the priest throws the Cross in the sea, lake or river and swimmers dive to catch it.
Aside tradition, so many events happen in cities and towns, day and night. And they all take place in public squares and open spaces.
Be prepared to spend lots of time outside and why not, enjoy Greeks’ favourite pastime; going out for a coffee. Not the quick, one shot kind. Slow your pace and enjoy a good conversation or your book or simply the view.
If you’re invited to a Greek’s home, it is common to buy dessert or flowers or wine. Don’t be surprised if the host offers what you bought or made for them to you and everyone else; food and drinks are honoured when shared.
With all my heart, I wish you:
Καλά Χριστούγεννα και Καλή Πρωτοχρονιά!
What’s your favourite Greek Christmas tradition? I'll be happy to read it in the comments.
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