Top 15 Greek Christmas and New Year Customs and Traditions

Little Kook Cafe – Psirri – Athens
Photo Incroyable Grèce – Facebook


Every culture has its own unique, sometimes quirky, customs and traditions.

Greece is no exception and seems to have more than its fair share of Christmas and New Year celebrations.

Greek Father Christmas is not Saint Nicholas, but Saint Basil (or Vasilis), being Greek and true to form, he arrives late, a week late; on New Year’s Eve.

Saint Vassilis, or Agios Vassilis, has much in common with Saint Nicholas;

Both are known for their compassion, kind heartedness and their commitment to helping the unfortunate, both bring gifts around Christmastime, one, just a little later than the other.

Christmas trees were introduced to Greece in the 1830s by King Otto, but didn’t really become popular until about the 1940s.

The Greek equivalent of the Christmas tree, is the Christmas boat, a wonderful tradition, which after falling out of favour, I’m glad to say, is making a come back…big time!

For the observant Orthodox Greek, the forty day fast, for Christmas, know as the advent fast, ends on Christmas day, with the breaking of ‘Christopsomo’, Christ’s bread, which was baked the day before, on Christmas Eve.

Saint Nicholas – Santa Clause


Here’s a list of 15 most popular Greek New Year customs and traditions:

  1. Ta Kalanda (Carol singing)
    Greek Kalanda singers 1950s

Children are up and about, bright and early on New Year’s Eve and go from house to house, singing the KALANDA, Greek Christmas Carols, usually only the one, same song,  accompanied by a triangle.

  1. Card playing.

Paul Cezanne
«The Card Players»

As New Year is considered a lucky time, it’s the perfect excuse for a card-playing marathon, and I mean marathon!

The games go on for hours, starting early evening, and lasting until midnight, usually at home, but there are organised games in the “Kafenion” (Coffee shop) and clubs.

  1. Pomegranate smashing.


Gatya Kelly

A POMEGRANATE, an ancient symbol of prosperity and good luck, is hung above the door throughout Christmas.

At midnight, on New Year’s Eve, the lights are turned out and  the pomegranate is then hurled to the floor, or at the door, where it smashes, spilling out its seeds, the more seeds the better!

This helps ensure luck, health, happiness and prosperity for the coming year.

  1. The big onion

Squill or Sea Onion –  Skeletoura- in Greek, The Big Onion!

Now this is a custom I had not heard of, neither had MGG (My Greek God), but, on seeing a picture of the skeletoura, (Squill, sea onion), I realised I had seen them hanging about in Greek houses, at New Year, usually with the bulb part wrapped in foil.

A large onion, skeletoura, Scilla Maritima, the squill bulb or sea onion, used by Greeks in ancient times to worship Pan, God of the wilds and of nature, is hung above the door.

This onion, even when uprooted, will continue to grow layers and blossom; it’s said to have magical powers and is the symbol of rebirth.

At midnight, it is taken down, and in the morning, the children of the family are whacked on the head with it, in order to wake them up, so they can attend the church service for Saint Vassilis!

Well I never!

This onion is kept in the house until the next New Year, to bring longevity, health and luck.

  1. The Renewal of Waters

Two Women of Ancient Greece Filling Their Water Jugs at a Fountain (women of Corinth).
Painting by Henry Ryland

Another custom I’m not familiar with, on New Year’s Day, all water jugs in the house are emptied and refilled with “Saint Vassili’s” water” or “Saint Basil’s water”

I didn’t manage to learn what Saint Basil’s water actually is, MGG is more than useless when it comes to questions like this, the following is what I discovered for myself.

Saint Basil’s water, is simply water collected on Saint Basil’s Day, sometimes blessed by a priest, some say this is done to keep evil spirits away from the house.

The ceremony is often accompanied by giving offerings or gifts  to Naiads (Water nymphs).

  1. The Hairy or Mossy Pebble

Mossy pebbles


Things are becoming stranger by the minute!

This, I have heard of, it actually means a stone covered with moss, or, depending on who you ask, it only needs to be wet.

A stone, preferably covered with moss, is collected from a beach, a river, a pond, basically anywhere there is water, taken home, and left outside the door.

Here, again, things become rather vague, some say, the stone is to be put inside the house.

On entering the house for the first time, on New Years Day, you must step on the stone.

This, supposedly, brings luck and good fortune.

  1. Kalo Podariko (First footing)

Right foot first for good luck

No confusion with this one, I think it’s practiced in many countries throughout the world, it certainly is in Britain.

At the stroke of midnight, someone considered lucky, or a child, due to the fact they are pure and innocent, are sent outside and ordered to re-enter, right foot first, to bring good luck for the following year.

All windows are thrown open to let out the Kallikantzaroi, evil spirits, or mischievous Christmas goblins.

  1. Kali Hera (Good Hand)
Kali Hera – Good hand

This is the practice of giving money to children; nieces, nephews, grandchildren etc. who may be present after midnight on New Year’s Eve, or, on New Years Day when they come to visit.


  1. The Vassilopita. (Greek New Year’s cake)

Vassilopita – Greek New Year cake

Every Greek family has its VASSILOPITA, the New Year’s cake, concealing a lucky coin.

After midnight, the Vassilopita is sliced and handed round by the head of the family.

A cross is scored over the surface, the first slice is for Jesus Christ, the second for The Virgin Mary, the third for Saint Vassilis, the fourth for the house and then, for each member of the family, starting with the oldest.

Whoever finds the lucky coin has good luck and good fortune for the rest of the year.

  1. Agios Vassilis – Saint Basil (Greek Santa Claus)
Agios Vassilis – Greek Santa Claus

Ho Ho Ho, it’s New Years’s Eve, and Santa’s arrived with his sack full of presents.

Even though he has a different name, and arrives a week later, Agios Vassilis looks a lot like Christmas!

Like SAINT NICHOLAS that is, a jolly, red-clad, chubby chap, sporting a long white beard.

11. Greek Sweet Christmas treats

Traditional Greek Christmas Sweets

It wouldn’t be Christmas without something deliciously sweet and fattening!

I think you would be hard put to find a Greek house at Christmas time which wasn’t overflowing with traditional, Greek Christmas sweets.

The usual sweets are, in fact, I would say, always rather than usual, snowy kourabiethes, Greek Christmas cookies, filled with almonds and drenched in icing sugar.

Melomakarana, Sticky sweet and soaked in honey, with a tang of spicy cloves.

Diples, thin strips of dough, folded and fried, sprinkled with chopped nuts and honey.

And, of course, baklava, layers of phyllo pastry, filled with chopped nuts, covered in sweet syrup.

12. Feeding the Fountain

Spring water – Kalarrytes – Ioannina
Photo by Dimtze on flickr

In Thessaly, central Greece, on Christmas Eve, at the stroke of midnight, young women make their way, in complete silence, to the nearest fountain or spring, to collect ‘speechless water’.

Whilst making a wish, to ensure a sweet year ahead, the young women ‘feed’ butter or honey to the spring.

The girl who arrives first at the spring, will have the most luck.

13. The Flaming Yew

Burning branches – Photo © Rui Almeida Photography

A Christmas and New Year custom in Epirus, Northern Greece.

On their way, in the black of night, to visit baby Jesus, the three kings, gathered dry yew branches, set them alight, and used them as torches to light  the way.

Today, in small villages of Epirus, people can still be seen at Christmas time, walking about with a flaming yew branch, wishing a merry Christmas to one and all.

14. The marriage of Fire

Burning wood – the marriage of fire
Greek Christmas custom
Photo by szefi on flickr

On Christmas Eve in Edessa, Northern Greece, locals gather branches of wood, girls take wood from female trees, such as cherry, and the boys, from a male tree, a sort of thorny briar wood called Vatos.

The branches are laid in the fire place, in the shape of a cross, and set alight.

Depending on how the wood burns, quickly, or slowly, with or without flames, noisily or quietly, someone with the knowledge of the custom, can predict how the year ahead will turn out, if the crops will do well, how the weather will be, and, in general, whether it will be a good year.

In Thessaly, central Greece, on returning from church, girls burn ceder wood, and the boys, wild cherry, whoever’s branch burns first, is the one who shall marry first.

15. Spordisma (The burning of leaves)

Olive leaves

On the island of Thassos, burning embers are removed from the fire and put onto a heat – proof surface, then, whilst making a wish, olive, or oak leaves, are spread over the hot embers.

The one whose leaves curl the most, will have their wish come true.

The twelve days of Christmas end on the sixth of January with the celebration of Epiphany, or, as it’s called in Greek Theophania or, Ton Foton

And there you have the makings of  Christmas and New Year;

Greek style!

Xronia Polla, (Χρόνια Πολλά)

Happy New Year.

Yiamas (Cheers)


Original article is available here.

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