Twelve Days of Greek Christmas

Bee On Flower
During Christmas in Ikaria, new flowers continue to bloom, and bees continue to work.

Berry Blossom

Blue Berries
These berries (like dry blueberries with a hint of juniper) are just starting to ripen in the middle of winter.
Plane Tree
In other places, where trees have lost their leaves, it is much more reminiscent of our winter season back home.
XMas Tree
At BouBoukakia, BouBou puts out the Christmas tree – a living baby cypress.


Commercial Western Santa Clauses such as pictured above are becoming more common around Greece, but the Greeks actually have their own version of Santa Claus that is called “Agios Vassilis,” or “Saint Basil.” He is tall and thin, and brings presents for January 1st instead of the 25th of December.

The story of St. Basil is much the same as of St. Nick – he was generous and kind, and helped many poor and needy people throughout his lifetime. He died on the 1st of January, which is why he is celebrated on that day every year.

Saint Vassilis is honored on New Year’s day with this traditional bread called “Vassilopita” that has a coin baked into it, and is said to bring good luck to the recipient.
BouBou also has some special painted stones that she puts out for the holidays.

In Greece, as in much of Europe, Christmas is a much more quiet and subdued affair than Easter, which is the biggest religious holiday of the year.

Greek Christmas starts on December 25th, and continues until its culmination with “Epiphany” on January 6th – a total of twelve days.

Children in Greece carry on the traditon of “kalanda.”

On several days during the 12 days of Christmas (Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Epiphany Eve), children in Greece go door to door carol singing and wishing people prosperity. The carols are accompanied by simple triangles or sometimes drums. Children are often given small amounts of money or other treats in return. This tradition has been alive since ancient Greece, and many kalanda verses today are comparable to their ancient counterparts.

Christmas at BouBoukakia
We have a Christmas day dinner at BouBoukakia.
Fasolatha – a white bean soup that is known as the national dish of Greece.

A vegetable and bean soup such as this was prepared in ancient Greece as well. It was used as food, but also as a sacrifice to the god Apollo, who was one of the most widely revered gods in ancient Greece and Rome. But be aware that if you order soup or stew in Greece, it may seem more like drinking olive oil – with a few morsels of food added for flavor!

Bouzouki Orchestra
On television, a bouzouki orchestra plays traditional Greek holiday music.
A bouzouki – one of the most common Greek folk instruments.
A “lyra” or “lyre” looks like a bouzouki, but is played with a bow like a violin, and in an upright position.

There is a plethora of traditional Greek stringed instruments. Bouzoukis are the most common instrument featured on television for holiday performances, but violins, guitars, lyra, and laoto can also be heard from time to time.

Nikki Family Photos
Around the holidays, invitations to peoples’ homes start to stack up.

Going to visit someone’s house around Christmastime is inevitably accompanied by two things: a display of family photos and … finikia.

Finikia are traditional cookies prepared during the holiday season.

Finikia appear in massive numbers around the holidays. It is almost certain that you will be force-fed finikia if you go to anyone’s house during Christmas and around the New Year. The cookies are always oval-shaped, dairy-free, and made with very few ingredients – flour, olive oil, baking powder, orange juice, and a little sugar. They have slight variations from house to house; sometimes they are prepared with nuts, or rolled in powdered sugar, but their general flavor is always the same. The Greeks seem to eat finikia not so much with enthusiasm, as with devotion and stamina.

Finikia at Koula's house
Finikia at Koula’s house.
Visiting Koula
Roula (BouBou) joins us for coffee and finikia at Koula’s house.

In Greece, “oula” is often added to the end of female names as a diminutive. For example, if a woman’s name is “Kiriaki,” Greek for ‘Sunday,’ she may then be nicknamed “Koula,” using the last consonant of ‘k’ at the end of her name. At some point, her nickname may be tampered with further, using the feminine dimunitive suffix “litsa.” Thus her name may morph into “Koulitsa,” and then even get shortened to “Litsa,” which in no way resembles the original name of “Kiriaki,” or “Koula.” The town is full of various “Oulas,” and we have trouble remembering whether they are “Koula,” or “Roula,” or “Shula,” and so on. It is even more confusing given that they are all approximately the same age, and most likely related, as everyone here is cousins.

If you are wondering if there is an equivalent for male names, the answer is yes. It is “akis.” A name such as “Panagiotis” may turn into “Panagiotakis” and then into “Takis.”

Hannah with Koula
Hannah with Koula
Hannah with Roula
Hannah with Roula
Koula and Roula
Koula and Roula are discussing Koula’s family photos.
Nikki New Year
New Year’s Eve at Nikki’s house.

We are invited to Nikki’s house for New Year’s Eve dinner. People keep accumulating throughout the evening. Everyone who walks in the door gets a plate of food put down in front of them. Nikki has prepared an enormous amount of food – a habit leftover from years of feeding five children daily. There are various salads, beef, pork, homemade bread, homemade wine, and finikia!

After the New Year countdown, everyone circles around the room, kissing or shaking hands. Nikki sends us home with a loaf of Vassilopita – New Year’s coin bread.

Atheras Ridge on New Years
New Year’s Day brings extremely warm clear weather.

We spend the day sitting outside at BouBoukakia, as BouBou and Kostas have invited us over for New Year’s dinner. Matthew takes a guess on which of the most precariously perched boulders on the ridge will be the next to fall.

Hawk Hunting
A hawk flies to a cypress tree above us, scanning for prey.
Kostas with Balades
Kostas and BouBou are preparing balades.
BouBou with Balades
BouBou de-scaling balades.

BouBou swears that a fork works better than a knife for removing scales from fish.

Grilled Peppers
Kostas is grilling some sweet peppers.
BouBoukakia New Years
As usual, Kostas prepares a very delicious meal!
New Years meal
Fresh lettuce salad from the garden.
New Years meal
It’s all served alongside a cabbage-pork stew.
Epiphany Candles
On the morning of January 6th, we walk down to Agios Nikolaos to take part in Epiphany.

Epiphany, which means “manifestation” or Theophany, “manifestation of God,” marks the culmination of the twelve days of Christmas. Orthodox Christians worldwide also know it as Blessings of the Waters Day. The villagers gather at the church for a ceremony.

Epiphany Icon
An icon depicting Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River.

The celebration of Epiphany is celebrated every year on January 6th, and commemorates the revelation of the Holy Trinity and Christ’s manifestation as Son of God through his baptism by John the Baptist.

An orthodox priest carries a cross down to the sea.

After the ceremony in the church, the priest takes a cross down to the port at Magganitis for the Blessing of the Sea. Swimmers from the village dive in to compete for its retrieval, which is said to bring good fortune upon them for the entire year.

A procession of villagers follows the priest down to the shore.



The priest waits for the swimmers to strip down to their bathing suits.

Epiphany Divers

Epiphany Divers

Epiphany Divers

Traditionally, diving for the cross on Epiphany has been done by men only. In recent years, that has started to change. This year, Magganitis has a total of three people who are participating, with one of them a villager named Olga.


The priest throws the cross into the Aegean Sea, and the three divers jump in to retrieve it.

Epiphany Divers

Epiphany Olga
Olga is victorious!

Epiphany Olga

Retrieving the Epiphany cross is a great honor. It is especially meaningful for 62-year-old Olga, as she survived a recent accident in which her car overturned and went into the sea at the port of Evdilos. Luckily, there was a single bystander, who dove in and pulled her out of the water. Olga was unconscious in the hospital for some time, but eventually made a full recovery, and is now back to her usual strong and vibrant self.

Epiphany Divers
Olga lets the men hold the cross.

Epiphany Giannis

Epiphany Olga
The cross must then be returned to the priest.
Epiphany Olga
Olga kisses the priest’s hand as she returns the cross.

Epiphany Olga

Epiphany Cross
The cross is taken up to Agios Nikolaos.
Epiphany Holy Water
The villagers crowd around a basin of holy water.

In honor of the baptism of Christ, the church’s water is blessed. People fill up cups and bottles with this blessed water to take home with them to drink and to sprinkle on their livestock and their homes. The herbs on the table are also used by the priest and villagers to dip in the sanctified water and sprinkle on themselves and loved ones.

Epiphany Koula
Koula holds up the Epiphany cross.
Epiphany Cafe
After the Epiphany ceremony, a joyful village gathers in the cafe.

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