Christmas in Crete

Taxi Rethymno - Christmas in Crete

Christmas is the second most important religious holiday in Greece, after Easter. It is usually celebrated with quiet church services, family gatherings and Name Day parties. Christmas in Greece is celebrated on December 25th, but presents are usually given to children on January 1st, St. Basil's Day (Agios Vassilis).

In Greece St Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, and December 6th is St. Nicholas Day. In centuries of Greek folklore, Nicholas was seen as "The Lord of the Sea' while in modern Greece he is still easily among the most recognisable saints and December 6 finds many cities celebrating their patron saint. He is also the patron saint of Greece. In the past there used to be present giving on this day and boats were decorated instead of Christmas trees. The decorated boats are still seen in some places, but have mainly given way to the western tradition of the Christmas tree.

St. Basil's (Agios Vassilis) name has been given to Father Christmas. St Vassilis Day is celebrated on January 1st, therefore the Greek Agios Vassilis, or 'Father Christmas', is associated with New Year's Day and this is when Greek children receive their Christmas presents.

Christmas is becoming more commercialised in Greece and the shops are full of tinsel and trimmings from November onwards. A week or two before Christmas most Cretans decorate Christmas trees in their homes and many also have an impressive array of lights hung outside on balconies and in gardens. The town streets and villages are also well decorated with Christmas lights. On Christmas Eve children go from house to house singing carols, the 'Kalanda' (see below).

Christmas Day is usually spent with family and the traditional Christmas dinner may be roast lamb, pork or turkey without the trimmings! Fricasse - lamb cooked with egg and lemon sauce - is another traditional Christmas meal in Greece. Loaves of 'christopsomo' ('Christ bread' - large sweet loaves) are usually found on the Christmas table, along with Christmas biscuits, 'melomakarana' (sweet honey covered biscuits) and kourabiedes (icing sugar-coated biscuits).

December 25th is also the Name Day of Christos, Christina and Chrysoula, so many people are attending, or hosting, Name Day parties on Christmas Day evening.

The Kalanda

The Kalanda, or Christmas Carols, are traditionally sung on just three days over the Christmas period: on Christmas Eve, New Years Eve and the Eve of Epiphany. Groups of children go from house to house singing the appropriate Carol for the day (there are 3 different songs for each 3 days), usually accompanied by metal triangles (trigono). They will ask the house owner 'na ta poume?' (literally 'shall we sing it?') before starting to sing; this is in case there has been a recent death in the household, as those in mourning do not celebrate Christmas. The children are rewarded with sweets or coins from the householder.

New Year - 'PROTOXRONIA'

New Year's Day, January 1st, is a Bank Holiday in Greece. The day of Saint Basil or Agios Vassilis and Father Christmas.

The 'Podariko' - First footing. It's considered lucky for a child to be the first person to step over your doorstep on New Years Day. The child should bring a plant called the 'skylokremmyda' (which looks like an onion with shoots) to leave on the doorstep, then step into the house right foot first. The child is rewarded by the householder with a gift of money for the New Year.

Vassilopita - St Basil's Cake/ New Year's cake. The vassilopita is a simple sponge cake and is baked in nearly every Greek household at New Year. A coin wrapped in foil (flouri) is placed in the cake before it's baked. The cake is
ceremoniously cut by the head of the household and whoever gets the slice containing the "flouri" is said to have good luck for all of the forthcoming year.

Taxi Rethymno - Christmas in CreteGambling. Traditionally Greeks spend the days during Christmas and New Year gambling. New Year's Eve is THE main gambling time - after seeing in the New Year many will try out their luck until well into the early hours. Even houses and cars have been lost over a card game or the throw of  the zaria (dice)! In all the cafeneons across the land around Christmas you will find the men sitting around card tables. It is actually illegal to gamble in unlicensed places but this doesn't stop the owners or the customers! The cafeneon owners actually charge for the tables by the hour and will go around collecting a few Euros off each player every hour. The most popular card games are 21 (similar to black jack, but with a kitty in the middle), 31 (similar to black jack but each player tries to get 31 instead of 21, and 'thanasi' (rummy). 'Zaria' or dice is played with two dice by 2 players in turn and there are set winning and losing combinations (win 6 and 6, 6 and 5, lose 1 and 1, 1 and 3 etc.). Betting takes place before the throw of the dice and there is also side betting around the table .

Epiphany - Theofania or Ta Fota - 6th January

In the morning or the afternoon of the Eve of 'Ta Fota' (i.e. 5th January), village priests do the rounds of village homes to sprinkle holy water and bless the houses and all those who live there - called the "ayiasmos" .

The Feast of Epiphany, or The Solomn Blessing of the Waters, commemorates Christ's baptism in the River Jordan.

On January 6th waterside ceremonies are held across Greece and Crete at harbours, lakes and rivers. Boats gather to mark the ceremony and a Holy Cross is thrown into the sea or river by the priest. Swimmers dive into the chilly waters to retrieve it. It is a great honour and a blessing for the one who retrieves the cross first.