How do Greeks celebrate the festive season?
New Years Eve
New Year’s Eve is a bigger celebration than Christmas in Greece, it's the night that families gather together and children wait for presents from “Ai Vasili”- the Greek father Christmas!
Ai Vasili, or St. Basil doesn't live in Lapland, but in Caesarea which is now part of Turkey. And our portly St. Nick doesn’t bring presents to children in Greece, but protects boats and sailors. This is why traditionally Greek people wouldn’t decorate a Christmas tree, but rather a boat, to signify the safe return of their loved ones. Christmas trees weren’t a thing in Greece until we got a German King in 1833!
Families traditionally stay at home and play card games on New Year’s eve, which is why this year might be the perfect time to try celebrating New Year like a Greek!
As with most Greek holidays, it's all about food and spending time with your family. If you are going out with your friends, you’d usually wait until after midnight, when you cut the “Vassilopita” to find out who will have the best luck for the New Year!
Vassilopita is an orange sponge cake with a coin hidden in one of the pieces. When cutting the cake, the host traditionally starts by cutting a piece for Jesus Christ, then for the Virgin Mary, then for the house. The rest is then cut according to age, starting with the eldest, and pieces are also cut for absent family and friends. If you find the coin in your piece then you will have good luck for the new year. We might put two in this year.
Forget your Cadbury’s selection boxes- for me Christmas always started when my dad made Kourabiedes and much like our capitalist overlords, I’ve managed to sneak this tradition forward every year, so these days dad gets baking before the first tin of Quality Street hits the streets! Kourabiedes are like shortbread biscuits made with almonds, and buried under a heap of icing sugar until they look like snowy peaks.
While turkey is becoming more popular in Greece these days following Western tradition, back in the day, families would buy a pig in spring and feed it up all year to be slaughtered on Christmas eve. That’s why lots of Greek festive recipes involve pork, grilled on a spit, stewed in lemon, or even wrapped in cabbage leaves! Pagan traditions also carried into Christian ones and the slaughter was almost a ritual, with parents drawing the sign of a cross in pig’s blood on their children’s foreheads to protect them from headaches. These days we just take paracetamol.
He loves me not
You won’t find mistletoe in a Greek house at Christmas, but- you guessed it- an olive branch! People would make a wish to Ai Vasili, think about their crush, and throw olive leaves on the fire. If the leaves jump out and make a noise- if sparks fly- then sparks will fly!
Greek children go around the village singing Christmas carols called “Kalanda” - this is pronounced like a Geordie saying “calendar.” Children are given money, which they give to charity, and sweet treats.
The Greek Christmas period ends on the 6th of January when Greeks celebrate the baptism of Jesus. They celebrate this in a ceremony where the priest blesses the water by throwing a cross into the sea. The men then dive into the sea to find the cross, and the first one to find it will get good luck for the year! Although if you ask me, the lucky ones are the women watching from the shore.
Lots of Greek traditions from this time of year involve making sure you have good luck for the next year, so I'm sure you're all listening closely now. An easier one to follow might be making sure that you put your right foot first when stepping into your house for the first time on New Year's day!
Finally if you want to wish somebody a Happy New Year in Greek, you can say “Kali Chronia” or “Chronia pola.”
If you enjoyed this post then please share and subscribe using the form below.
If you would like to celebrate New Years Eve like a Greek, check out my 3 course New Years Eve feast for two which includes a free bottle of Prosecco for just £45...