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Old and New Christmas Traditions in Greece

Karavaki
The Christmas tradition of the ”Karavaki,” in Greece, is deeply rooted in the folkways of a country with a symbiotic relationship with the sea. Credit: RobW/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

One of the most important celebrations in the Christian calendar is the annual commemoration of the birth of Christ. Each country has its own unique traditions and each region of Greece has a different history, along with different myths and beliefs.

However, the atmosphere is the same everywhere and Christmas is always full of joy and happiness.

Christmas festivities often revolve around children and they give adults the opportunity to become children again as well.

Christmas Traditions in Greece

One of the strangest traditions of all is that of “Kalikantzaroi” (goblins).

According to ancient myth, the Kalikantzaroi dwell underground but come to the surface during the twelve days of Christmas between December 25 and January 6. Their purpose is to make things as difficult as they can for everyone.

Greek Tradition of Kalikantzaroi
Kalikantzaroi sawing at the tree of life. Credit: Wikipedia/Public domain.

There is no standard appearance for the Kallikantzaroi, though one common feature is that they are extremely ugly. They are depicted variously, with animal parts, hairy bodies, horses’ legs, or the tusks of a boar, which are sometimes enormous. Others portray them as small humans who smell horribly, while some consider them to be tall, black and hairy.

The kalikantzaroi are creatures of the night. There are many ways to protect oneself during the days when Kalikantzaroi are on the loose. They are apparently afraid of fire, light and the symbol of the cross. Another way to keep them away from your home is to leave a fire burning in the fireplace.

On Epiphany, January 6, they go underground in order to continue their sawing at the Tree of Life, which they are dedicated to sawing down. When they see that the Tree has healed itself, they have to start working all over again. According to the ancient legend this happens every year.

The most famous Christmas tradition is the tree. Since the 20th century it has become common in many city centers and stores. Greeks traditionally used to decorate their homes with ships, although we have now adopted the German custom of decorating a tree. The ship for many symbolizes separation, and is connected with the way that Greek expatriates left their homes, their families and their country.

On the other hand, the tree unites people because we sit around it and talk. Moreover, the tree symbolizes the source of life, inspiration, and creation. The roots of the tree symbolize our past experiences, the foundations which keep us alive and allow us to continue in the battle for survival.

During the last few decades European Christmas Markets have also appeared in Greece in the form of “Christmas Villages.” The first and most popular is the “Oniroupoli” (the Town of Dreams) in Drama, which is the Christmas capital of Greece. For more than a month, the center of Drama is transformed into a Christmas village, bringing joy to children and adults alike.

Oniroupoli Christmas town in Drama
Oniroupoli, Drama. Credit: Theophil/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Fairy tales have an important place at the City of Dreams, and every year they are presented with different “colors.” A new entry in the Greek Christmas market is the “Mill of Elves” in Trikala, Central Greece. The Mill gives children and adults the opportunity to explore the most beautiful Christmas village of all, along with elves, fairies, Scrooge McDuck and Santa himself.

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