Christmas traditions in the Greek villages
Christmas (Xristougenna), the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus is one of the most joyful days of the Greek Orthodox Church. There are many customs associated with the Christmas holidays, some of which are relatively recent, “imported” from other parts of the world (like eating turkey on Christmas day and decorating the Christmas tree). In the past, Greeks decorated small Christmas boats in honour of St. Nicholas and today, they are increasingly choosing to decorate boats, instead of trees, reviving this age-old Christmas tradition.
There are many customs per region. Some are less familiar. Ellines.com team has gathered some of these customs that are still celebrated in the Greek villages.
The game Nuts is a traditional group game for children. The rules are simple. A child makes a line on the ground. On that line, each player puts a nut. Afterwards, each player by turn and from a distance of 1 or 2 meters from that line, targets the other nuts in the line with his own nut. Each nut the player hits and throws it away from the line, he earns it and try again targeting another nut. If he misses, the next player plays. The game continues until all nuts are out of the line.
The burning kermes oak
When Christ was born and the shepherds went to visit him, the night was dark. They found somewhere a dry kermes oak and cut its branches. Each of them took a branch, light it up and the mountain got brighter. From then and so on, in Artas’ villages, whoever visits a neighboring house to wish Merry Christmas or the married couples that visit their parents’ house, each hold a branch of kermes oak or any other branch. On the road they light them up and they hold them until they reach their destination so as to light up the dark alleys of the village.
Feeding the fount
The girls, on the dawn of Christmas or in some places on New Year’s Eve, visit the closest fount to steal the “Unspoken Water” (Unspoken as they are not allowed to talk during the custom). They cover the founts with butter and honey, wishing as the water flows, their homes and lives to fill with happiness and joy. In order to harvest a good crop, once they reach the fount, they “feed” it with butter, bread, cheese and olive branches. The first girl who reaches the fount will be the luckiest girl of the year. Afterwards, they throw in the pitcher one leaf and three pebbles, they “steal” the water, and return in silence to their homes so as the whole family will drink it. With the same water they spray the four corners of the house and spread in the house the three pebbles.
At Livadi Elassonas, on New Year’s Eve, children rush the streets singing the Christmas carols and shouting “Sourvaso”. On New Year’s Day, the visitors can see on the streets the “Babaliouria”. The “Babaliouria” is a New Year’s Day custom dated back when Dionysus was worshipped and it is still celebrated. They wear white woolen trousers with a white woolen belt, a white shirt and tsarouhia shoes. On the waist, a thick woolen fabric holds many big and heavy bells. On the head they wear a special mask called “foulina”. The mask is white or black and has three openings, two for the eyes and one for the mouth. They hold a wooden bent sword that completes the whole set of a “Babaliouri”.
Once the Divine Liturgy is over, the “Babaliouria” rush the streets with the “Adelfogyrtis” to collect the money the people offer. Before the New Year’s Divine Liturgy is over, the “Babaliouria” are in position outside the villages’ church holding their wooden swords and surprise the people exiting the church for their offers. Once “Adelfogyrtis” collects the money, he wishes them a happy New Year. Afterwards, “Babaliouria” head to the main square of the village, making loud noises with their bells, attracting the attention of locals and visitors. Then they visit the local coffee places and stay on the streets till late at night. The purpose of this custom is to cast away the bad spirits and to wish a happy new year.
On New Years’ day, people cut the meat pie in as many pieces as are the members of the family. The pie contains a golden coin, a straw and a kermes oak. Whoever finds the coin is considered the luckiest of the new year and will live a rich life. Whoever finds the straw will marry a farmer and whoever finds the kermes oak will marry a shepherd.
One of the most famous customs in many regions of Greece and Thessaly is the “Gourounochara” or “grounochara”
It is said that the families bought a pig and from May they were feeding it with zucchini and bran, in water or in a river. The pig was necessary in every house since they took from it meat and sausages and made “gournotsaroucha”. It was considered a disgrace for a house not to have a pig.
The “Christ cake” was made on Christmas Eve. On it, a cross was carved and around it had different decorations with dough. On Christmas Day, the man of the house, after crossing the cake, he shared it with the family members.
Breaking the pomegranate
On the morning of New Year’s Day, the family visits the church for the Divine Liturgy and the man of the house holds a pomegranate. Returning from church, the man must ring the doorbell as he is not allowed to open the door himself. He enters the house stepping with his right foot and throws down the pomegranate wishing: “health, happiness and joy the New Year may bring and as many berries the pomegranate has, so many the golden coins in our pockets to be”.
On the villages of Mani, during the Lent of Christmas, the children went for hunting during the night, equipped with flashlights searching for “gourgougiannides” (little birds inside caves). Once they captured them, they brought them back to be served at Christmas.
In Crete, each family raised a pig. The pig is slaughtered on Christmas Eve and is the main dish. The second day of Christmas, the villagers cut the meat of the pig and make sausages and other meat dishes.
Recreating the manger in Chania
Inside the cave of Saint John at Marathokefala of Kisamos, on Christmas Eve, the Archieratical Divine Liturgy is performed. The cave got its name from the church of the saint that is located inside the cave. Bright and magnificent, ancient and dominant, has a capacity of three to four thousand people and the rare view of the plain of Kolymvariou. Today at the cave of Saint John, the traditional recreation of the birth of Christ is performed.
The Christmas Bread
Women make it with special care and patience. They use expensive materials saying “The Christ is born, light raises, the leaven is made”. They knead the dough and take half the dough and make a loop.
With the rest of the dough, they make a cross. At the center they place an unbroken nut. On the rest of the surface, they design shapes such as flowers, leaves, birds etc. with the knife or with the fork.
At Pithio of Evros, the youngest children rush the streets of the village singing the “kolianta” a day before the Christmas Eve (23 December). The boys shout “Kolinta,babou,Tsik,Tsik,Tsik…;.”. On the Christmas Day, the men of the village split up in several teams and visit all the houses. The “Rougatsia”, the team of the men, once they entered a house, they sing the above song two by two. This is done so as to rest their voices because the song is too long and without many breaks. During the singing, all members of the house should be present.
The women of the Greek population group Sarakatsani in Thrace are used to knead and make “Christokloura”, which is embroidered. The embroideries in “Christokloura” represent sheep, horses, manger and other elements of the daily life. The “Christokloura” is eaten with honey by all the members of the family. On the table, on Christmas Eve, there are nine different dishes, each representing moments of the daily life.
The custom of “Mpamousiaraion”
The custom of “Mpamousiaraion” at Rigio, Didymoteicho appears the second day of Christmas. Two men are disguised, one as Mpamousiaros and the other as his wife. The man wears a water pumpkin as a helmet, a fleece and hangs in his belt bells and a large knife. A team of men called Zournatzides or Gaidatzides accompany the couple alongside with a man playing the tabor.
On the villages of northern Greece, before the festivals, the man of the house searches the fields and picks the strongest and thicker wood to take it home. This wood is called Christoksilo and the wood will be burned for twelve days (From Christmas till Epiphany) in the fireplace. Before the man brings the wood, the woman must have the house and the fireplace cleaned. On Christmas Eve, the whole family gathers before the fireplace and the man of the house lights the new fire with the Christoksilo.
In the regions of Macedonia, Thrace and Thessaly the villagers wear skins of animals (wolves, goats and others) or pick up swords. They wonder the villages singing and gathering presents. Once they face each other, a fake war takes place till one wins or the other submits. This custom is performed in order the scare the goblins.