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The Ancient Greek Roots of Christmas Traditions

ancient Greece christmas greek
Christmas has many links with ancient Greek celebrations. Credit: Greek Reporter

Christmas is one of the most important, and perhaps the most treasured, celebration of Christianity, and is a day filled with joy and love. Surprisingly, many elements of Christmas celebrations have their roots in ancient Greece.

Every country celebrates with different customs that have deep roots within history and tradition.

We can find a variety of similarities in the commemoration of the birth of Christ and Dionysus between ancient and contemporary Greece.

If we look at the ancient Greek history and the traditions within, we will see that some of our customs have their roots in ancient Greece.

In fact, many elements of holiday customs can be traced back to pagan celebrations from across Europe.

Many Christmas traditions have roots in ancient Greece

In December, the Ancient Greeks celebrated the birth of Dionysus, calling him “Savior” and divine “infant.” According to Greek mythology, his mother was a mortal woman, Semele, and his father was Zeus, the king of the Gods.

The priest of Dionysus held a pastoral staff, as did the Good Shepherd. On December 30, ancient Greeks commemorated his rebirth.

The most well-known custom throughout the Christian world is the singing of Christmas carols, a tradition that has roots in ancient Greece. Specifically, Homer — during his stay on the island of Samos, along with a group of children — composed a series of carol-like hymns.

In ancient Greece, these carols symbolized joy, wealth and peace, and the children sang the carols only in the homes of the rich. Children would go from house to house, holding an olive or a laurel branch adorned with wool (a symbol of health and beauty) and different kinds of fruits.

The children brought the olive branch to their homes and hung it on the doors, where it remained for the rest of the year.

The Christmas tree

The Christmas tree appeared for the first time in Germany, of course.

It became globally known in the 19th century, when Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria, almost single-handedly brought the tradition of the Christmas tree to the British Isles.

In Christianity, the Christmas tree symbolizes the rejoicing over the birth of Jesus Christ and the renewal of life, as He was resurrected after His death. The tree was adorned first with fruits and later with candies and sweetmeats.

Ancient Greeks also used to decorate the ancient temples with trees, symbolizing the divine gift offering. The Christmas tree tradition made its way to Greece in 1833, when the Bavarians decorated the palace of King Otto.

Santa Claus, who travels around the world on Christmas Eve delivering gifts in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, is another impressive similarity. A similar tradition also existed during the celebration of Dionysus in ancient Greece, who resembled light. Then, the chariot transformed into a sleigh and horses transformed into deer.

The Vasilopita, or Greek New Year’s cake, is also the evolution of an ancient Greek custom. Our ancestors used to offer Gods the “festive bread” during the rural festivals, like the Thalysia or the Thesmophoria.

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