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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Going to visit someone’s house around Christmastime is inevitably accompanied by two things: a display of family photos and … finikia.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
BouBou swears that a fork works better than a knife for removing scales from fish.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.