A story of elves, boats, carols and Christmas trees
It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
Yes yes yes it’s almost Christmas time and despite the harsh situation that we are all getting through, we can pretend for a while that there is no lock down, nor virus or all this weird situation (always respecting the rules imposed in each and every area, social distancing and all the other measures etc) and travel to Greece to experience and see how Greeks celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ! I know, for most of us Greece is sunny beaches, whitewashed houses under dazzling light, romantic sunsets and sweet summer nights but let me tell you that Greece is amazing all year round!
Even if from a religious point of view Eastern time is more spiritual, atmospheric and important, Greeks being Christian orthodox love and celebrate Christmas time too! From the smallest villages on top the mountains in the mainland of Greece, to the big cities and the picturesque towns on the Greek islands Christmas time is a period of joy, love and family and there are some traditions that everybody follows!
First of all Christmas celebrations in Greece officially last for 14 days, starting on Christmas Eve, that’s when schools close for the winter break as well, and ending on Epiphany (6 January) with the ‘Great Blessing of Water’. But dear visitor, you have to know that that’s the time of the year when the “kalikantzaroi” wander on earth and you have to be careful! What are the kallikantzaroi? Greece’s hobgoblins are called “kallikantzari” and they are friendly but troublesome little creatures who look like elves; cute elves! According to the Greek legend, these creatures’ origin and permanent dwelling is the centre of the earth where they live having their mission to chop at a huge tree trunk that symbolizes the earth’s foundations. During Christmas time though they love to hide in people’s houses slipping down the chimney. Being extremely naughty, the elves do things to frighten people, like devouring Christmas food or overturning furniture. Throughout Greece, numerous rituals are performed to keep these hobgoblins away. In some places mothers sprinkle holy water in every room of the house to scare the “kallikantzari” away but the easiest trick to keep them away is to keep the fireplace burning all day and night long, after all is cold outside!
Around the 6th of December – Saint Nicolas day, in most of the households the mother of the family together with the kids decorate the Christmas tree. Even if the first Christmas tree ever decorated in Greece was in 1833, when the Bavarian king Otto ruled and his court introduced and decorated the first one in the palace, the decoration of the Christmas tree probably trace its origins to an Ancient Greek tradition. It is known that December was the month when the Ancient Greeks used to celebrate the birth of the god Dionysus, calling him “Savior” and divine “infant.” You can imagine the big parties people were throwing in order to welcome the god of wine on Earth! Together with Dionysos another god, Apollo, was honored during December. Why Apollo? Because Apollo is the god of light and in this way the Greeks used to celebrate the triumph of light as the days start getting gradually longer after the winter solstice! A little bit before Christmas time and at the end of the annual harvest the ancient Greeks used to do something that reminds us of Christmas tree: the kids of the family were taking an olive tree brunch and they were decorating it with hanging nuts, dried fruits, small vases containing honey, olive oil and bound with purple or white wool called ειρεσιώνη, a name that derived from the word ἔριον “wool” in reference to the woolen bands. That was a way to express their gratitude for the annual agricultural production and pray for a happy new year! A young boy would carry the «ειρεσιώνη» around the city chanting a special song, very similar to our cherished Christmas carols that the kids still sing around the streets and the houses of the villages on Christmas Eve. Really thats one of my most favorite moments of the year! Every single year I can’t wait to listen to the door bell ringing at 7:00 in the morning and see the first group of kids holding their musical triangles and stand at the doorstep waiting for permission to begin singing the traditional song. The housewives would treat them with candies, mandarins, dried fruits and nuts and of course with giving them a symbolic amount of money for the good news that they bring in their house: Jesus Christ is born and for the nice worlds the kids said to the house owner.
But if the first tree ever decorated in Greece was in 1833, what did Greeks use to decorate before? Truth is that for the next few decades after the decoration of the first one, Christmas trees were only seen in upper-class households and the custom only became widely popular after World War II when the majority of the population immigrated from the countryside and the villages to the big cities. Until then, it was much more common for Greek households to decorate a small boat called καραβάκι – karavaki. Being a maritime nation, Greece has a long naval heritage and the illuminated boat symbolises a love and respect for the sea, as well as the anticipation of reuniting with seafaring relatives and welcoming loved ones home. After all, sea voyages were coming to end more or less during this time of the year and that was the first time after a long period apart that the family would get gathered all together again!
Well, these are some of the customs that are widely performed all over Greece in this magical time of the year. What about you? Have you decorated the Christmas tree? Are there any special decorations apart from this one in your country? Are you afraid of the Christmas elves?!
Stay tuned because the next step of our Christmas preparation is of course Christmas sweet baking! In our next blog post our screens will be filled with the smell of cinnamon, vanilla and butter and we will “taste” all the traditions related to Christmas and New Year season! Till then take care and stay safe!
Lots of love,
Your Santorini guide 😉