Ah, it's Christmas in Greece. That means it's kourabiedes time again, and the mellow aroma of melomacarona cookies will soon be filling Greek kitchens worldwide.
Christmas Travel in Greece
For the traveler to Greece at Christmas, remember that many offices, businesses, restaurants, and other amenities may be closed or keeping unusual hours during the Christmas season. Turkeys have invaded Greek Christmas customs, and so travelers from the U.S. will find this bird prepared for Greek Christmas feasting.
In some areas, the holiday is preceded by a time of fasting. For Greece, the Christmas season is in full swing by December 6th, the Feast of St. Nicholas, when presents are exchanged, and will last through January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany.
Christmas Displays in Greece
In general, don't expect quite as many Christmas displays, lights, or other Western decorations, except of course in the windows of expatriates and the ever-increasing number of Greeks who have adopted Western customs. Greece has been an oasis of non-commercialism when it comes to Christmas, though some lament that this is changing now. In recent years, the City of Athens has sponsored extensive Christmas displays and events in Syntagma Square and elsewhere in Athens. hHowever, as the crisis has lingered, these celebrations remain somewhat toned down as Greece attempts to recover from its financial crisis.
But Christmas in Greece is a traditionally a solemn, religious holiday.
Throughout the festivities, there is never any question about whether Greece is remembering the Christ in Christmas. Beautiful Christmas carols called kalandas have been handed down from Byzantine times and add to the reverent quality of the celebration.
Greek Christmas "Elves"
While other cultures have Christmas elves, the Greek equivalent is not so benign.
Mischievous and even dangerous sprites called the Kallikantzari (or Callicantzari), prey upon people only during the twelve days of Christmas, between Christmas itself and Epiphany on January 6th. Descriptions of them vary, and in one area they are believed to wear wooden or iron boots, the better to kick people, while other areas insist that they are hooved, not booted. Almost invariably male, other regions see in them the forms of wolves or even monkeys. In folktales, the twelve days of their power figure in a "wicked stepmother" story where a young girl is forced to walk alone to a mill through the twelve days, because her stepmother is hoping that the Kallikantzari will snatch her away.
The Greek Yule Log
Some households keep fires burning through the twelve days, to keep the spirits from entering by the chimney, a curious inversion of the visit of Santa Claus in other countries! The "yule log" in this case used to be a massive log set on end in the chimney, burning or at least smouldering for the entire period.Protective herbs such as hyssop, thistle, and asparagus were suspended by the fireplace, to keep the Kallicantzari away. Other households, perhaps less devout, were reduced to simple bribery and would put meat out for the Kallikantzari - again, this seems to be a more substantial snack than the milk and cookies put out for Santa.
On Epiphany, the ceremonial blessing of the waters by the local priest was believed to settle the nasty creatures until the next year. Some local festivals still include representations of these entities, which may be a survival from Dionysian festivals.
More on Christmas in Greece:
A Greek Christmas
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