Posted on: 19 Dec 2011
Written by: chris
Christmas hasn’t always been a big deal in Greece. Greeks have, not unreasonably, considered Christ’s death and sacrifice as being more central to the message of the Christian gospel than Christmas, and therefore have traditionally focused on Easter instead – although this isn’t to say that Greece doesn’t have its own distinctive Christmas traditions. Historically, the main festive symbol in the country over the Christmas period has been a shallow wooden bowl with a sprig of basil and a wooden cross attached to its wire handle. Once a day, the cross and basil are dipped into holy water, and the bowl is used to sprinkle water in each room of the family dwelling, invoking the protection of St. Basil against evil spirits such as καλλικάντζαροι (Kallikantzaroi). The Kallinkantzaroi are mischievous Greek goblins (some even say vampires or werewolves) who appear between Christmas day and Epiphany on 6th January, and seem to have much in common with our Icelandic friends the Jólasveinar, “rampaging abroad and jumping on men’s shoulders, then leaving them half senseless on the ground”, according to the Greek scholar Allatius, and generally trashing innocent people’s houses.*
However, it’s a brave economy which attempts to hold out against the relentless tide of Western consumerism – religious traditions or no – and so these days Greece is as much into Christmas as any other country. For a number of years now, Athens has taken to erecting an enormous Christmas tree (in some years, indeed, the largest such tree in Europe) in Syntagma Square. The tree famously received its own police guard in 2009 after having been torched by an angry mob in 2008, protesting against the death of a Greek teenager in a clash with police.
You do, however, have to admire the determination from certain quarters in Greece to resist ‘imported’ Christmas traditions. Since 1999, Thessaloniki – Greece’s second-largest city – has been erecting a giant illuminated ship in December as a nod to the importance of the sea in Greece’s culture and history. The island of Cephalonia is gradually renouncing the Christmas tree for the boat, too – in this case, decorated models made from paper or wood, placed near an outer door and pointing towards the inside of the house or shop.
Finally, if you’re the sort of person who objects to the practice of spelling “Christmas” as “Xmas” (because of the perceived disrespect to Jesus Christ therein), you might like to consider that this has never been an issue in Greece – the Greek word for Christ is χρηστος (Xristos), and has always been spelled with an X at the start.
(* Anyone looking at my front room on Boxing Day might conclude that we in the United Kingdom could use a little protection against the kallikantzaroi too.)