Christmas is linked all around the world to the ancient tradition of decorating trees with countless ornaments and beautiful lights. However, an old traditional custom on Greece’s islands and its coastal regions dictates that people should decorate a boat rather than an evergreen tree at Christmastime.
Despite this, nowadays, almost every Greek city and household does decorate a Christmas tree, but there are still a number of public spaces in Greece where one can see a Christmas boat right next to a tree.
The tradition of the “Karavaki,” which is Greek for “small boat,” is deeply rooted in the folkways of a country with a symbiotic relationship to the sea.
In fact, it is safe to say that on many Greek islands, the boats decorated for Christmas still remain the most popular symbol of this beautiful holiday season.
One thing that is sure is that there is no known reason why many Greeks traditionally decorate a boat at Christmastime rather than a tree.
Origin of the Greek tradition of Karavaki
The most plausible explanation would be that the residents of the southern islands of the Aegean Sea were simply not used to trees at all.
Their islands are dry, arid places where the only trees that can be found are short, scrubby bushes or perhaps an odd, wild-growing olive tree.
Hence, what would be more natural for them to decorate—something they know well, such as a boat, or something else? Greece is a nation which has, since antiquity, been immensely proud of its sailors and intrepid captains, making these men the very symbols of local and national identity.
In the past, nearly all men of the islands would be away for months at a time, and their families back home would anxiously await their return.
Meanwhile, the wives, mothers, and daughters of these seamen spent the cold and dark winter months with their hearts and minds on the sea.
Somewhere out there, their men were battling the stormy seas during the holiday season in order to be able to bring back home their much-needed cargoes of fish. These were months full of expectation, hope, and prayer for the sailors’ safe return.
The joy of finally seeing the boats of their loved ones returning and nearing familiar shores made the island women celebrate in relief.
This is perhaps how the sailboat became a symbol of honoring those brave men during the year’s most beautiful season.
Of course, there are a number of other explanations about why Greeks who live close to the sea decorate boats at Christmastime.
One of the most widely-accepted explanations is that boats are decorated due to the celebration of Saint Nicholas on his feast day, which is December 6th. Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, making the occasion of his celebration a good reason to decorate boats.
However, what really matters is not the reason why this beautiful tradition began, but that it has somehow managed to survive these many centuries and is still kept alive in many parts of the country.