Unlike some North American Christmas traditions, Greek Christmas traditions are rooted in religion. Christmas, for them, continues to be a deeply religious holiday.
Christougenna, which translates to “time of Christ,” is the second most important religious holiday in Greece after Easter. The holiday is a month-long celebration that starts on Dec. 6 (St. Nicholas Day) and ends on Jan. 6 (Epiphany Day).
Lizette Pappas, who immigrated to Penticton from Greece with her family in 1956 when she was seven years old, says that at the time, there were few Greek immigrants in Penticton. As a result, the immigrant families bonded closely, seeking a sense of belonging with others similar to themselves. The church, she says, was a place to get together and speak in Greek with others.
Celebrating with food, songs and gifts
As with any holiday, Christougenna is celebrated with great amounts of food as families near and far gather together. Pappas, a member of the St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church Philoptochos Ladies Society, explains that some Orthodox Christians may fast for 40 days before the holiday, giving up meat, eggs and/or butter.
Following this period, a must-have food item for Christougenna is Christopsomo – the bread of Christmas. It is a sweet bread and the first thing that is cut on Christmas Day.
“The top of the bread is usually decorated with pieces of dough. Greeks are traditional and superstitious; there is always a cross on the bread,” says Pappas. “Some families whose lives depend on the sea may form a boat on top of the bread or an animal because they want Christ to bless and protect their livelihood.”
For dessert, melomakarona (an oval-shaped honey cookie rolled in walnuts) and kourambiethes (shortbread rolled in icing sugar and topped with almonds) are popular throughout Greece.
Another tradition is for children to sing kalanda, or Christmas hymns, that usually have a religious meaning.
“The children will gather together and go from house to house singing kalanda and the neighbours will come out and listen,” says Pappas, who has four grandchildren of her own. “Then the children will be given sweets and some money.”
Pappas, who is a retired teacher, says that this tradition is still carried on in small towns and villages in Greece.
There is no tradition of Santa Claus in Greece and therefore no presents given on Christmas day. However, presents are given on Jan. 1, New Year’s Day, also known as St. Basil Day (Vasilis Day). Pappas says that for the occasion, Greeks bake vasilopita, a circular sweet bread decorated with almonds, in which a coin is hidden. This bread is always cut on New Year’s Day.
“The first piece that is cut is always for Christ, and then the rest of the pieces are distributed starting with the eldest member of the family,” says Pappas. “Whoever gets the piece with the coin would have good luck for the rest of the year.”
Epiphany Day (Theophania or Fota) on Jan. 6 is the last day of the holiday and serves to celebrate Jesus Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist. According to Pappas, at this time people gather at the nearest seaside or lake, where a priest blesses a cross and throws it into the water. People then dive into the water to retrieve the cross and whoever finds it will be blessed by the priest. This ceremony, she says, continues to this day.