Christmas is the most important celebration in Christianity and it is filled with joy and love. Across the world, people celebrate with various customs and traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation and none are more similar than those between ancient and contemporary Greece. As the Greek Islands are at the heart of what we do, we decided to share some of the customs that have been around these shores for many years, but that have been adapted to fit with modern times.
In the month of December, the Ancient Greeks would celebrate the birth of Dionysus, calling him “Savior”. According to Greek mythology, his mother (Semele) was a mortal woman and his father was Zeus, king of the Gods. The priest of Dionysus held a pastoral staff as did the Good Shepherd. On December 30, ancient Greeks commemorated his rebirth.
One of the most well-known customs throughout the Christian world is the singing of Christmas carols. In ancient Greece, carols symbolized joy, wealth and peace, and the children sang the carols only in the homes of the rich. They would go from house to house, holding an olive or a laurel branch adorned with wool (a symbol of health and beauty) and different kinds of fruits. The children would then bring the olive branch to their homes and hang it on the doors where it would remain for the rest of the year.
The Christmas tree appeared for the first time in Germany at the end of the 16th century and eventually became globally known in the 19th century. In Christianity, the Christmas tree symbolizes the rejoicing of the birth of Jesus Christ. The tree was adorned first with fruits and later with clothes and then other household objects. Ancient Greeks also used to decorate their ancient temples with trees, symbolizing the divine gift offering, but before trees, they would decorate an olive branch. The Christmas tree tradition didn’t make its way to Greece until 1833, when the Bavarians decorated the palace of King Otto.
Santa Claus, who travels around the world on Christmas Eve delivering gifts in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, is another impressive similarity. A similar tradition also existed during the celebration of Dionysus in ancient Greece who resembled light. Then, the chariot transformed into a sleigh and horses transformed into reindeer.
Events and Festivals
Just like in ancient times, there are numerous events and festivals held throughout Greece during the festive season. In major cities such as Athens, Heraklion and Thessaloniki, musical and theatrical events are often held. You will also find Europe’s largest Christmas tree in Syntagma Square (Athens) which is also the location of the capital’s Christmas village.
Vasilopita (New Year’s Pie) is a popular food at Christmas and it stems from ancient times, although it has changed slightly over the years. It’s seen Roman, Greek and Byzantine influences but it still holds a surprise. In ancient times this was a gem, in modern times the gem is replaced with a coin. It came to be back in the 4th century when Cappadokia (a Byzantine province in Asia) suffered from a great famine. St. Vasilios (St. Basil), Bishop in Kaisareia of Cappadokia, appealed to each one of the citizens to offer every valuable they had to save themselves. He then approached the eparch of the province who had demanded to get taxes from people and smoothed the situation enough to convince him to change his mind. All the treasures were given back to St. Vasilios, who made a pie for each family, in which a jewel was hidden.
From all of us at Voyages to Antiquity, Merry Christmas!