The prettiest, happiest time of the year is close and all Greek towns put on their best! Houses, shops, and squares put on a festive appearance with decorated Christmas trees and Christmas boats, the streets and the cafes are lit up with coloured lighting and cheerful tunes are heard in the streets. Young and old children get ready for Christmas and New Year’s Day with customs and traditions whose origin is lost in the mists of time. Join us and be acquainted with some of them through Greek art!
Decorating the Christmas tree…
The festive tree decoration dates back to antiquity. Ancient Greeks used to dress olive or bay branches with red and white ribbons made of wool or with various sweet treats as a gesture of thanks to the gods for the previous year’s crops and ask for their favour for the coming year’s harvest. Next, they would carry the decorated branches in a procession or they would hang them outside the front door until the beginning of the following year.
Today, in most Greek houses it is customary to decorate a fir tree, a practice brought to Greece by the country’s first king, Otto. As Christmas is drawing near, children look forward to decorating the tree with great joy, as pictured in the painting “Christmas Tree” by Spyros Vikatos, on display at the National Gallery.
or perhaps … a boat model?
Greece is a maritime nation and as such, it is customary in many islands for the children to decorate boat models instead of a Christmas tree. In old times, kids used to carry them along while they visited houses and sang Christmas Carols; they would put the treats they received for their singing inside the little boats. Today, boats are decorated in many Greek houses or squares near areas with a maritime history such as Aristotelous square in Thessaloniki.
May we sing the Carols?
Wish making and happy melodies are standard things during the Christmas period and the New Year’s Day! According to tradition, on the Eves of Christmas, New Year’s Day and Epiphany Day [January 6], children visit one neighbourhood after the other, they knock on the door and ask: “May we sing the Carols?” By playing their little metal triangles and their drums, sometimes also harmonicas and accordions and on the islands violins and guitars, they ‘rain’ wishes and bring joy on every household.
The most acclaimed picture by a Greek painter, depicting this festive tradition in an austerely simple and most sensitive manner, is “Carols” by Nikiphoros Lytras. The painting is a major work of art depicting a scene of Greek life, customs and traditions [called Ethography], heavy with symbolism and with disarming sincerity.
Pomegranate for good luck
The pomegranate has been the symbol of good fortune, abundance, youth and fertility since antiquity. The deep red-coloured beneficial fruit with the wonderful taste and the magic properties has been the source of inspiration for many artists, such as Georgios Jakobides for his painting ‘Pomegranates’. According to myth, Persephone, the daughter of goddess Demeter, tasted the fruit during her stay in Hades; since then the pomegranate became associated with the regeneration of nature and the cycle of seasons.
On New Year’s Day in many Greek areas, the householder stands outside the front door and breaks a pomegranate hitting it hard on the floor so that the seeds may spread everywhere and bring happiness and good health to the household. So, you too, break a pomegranate on your doorstep and make your own fervent wish for the New Year!
Hobgoblins. Visitors on the Twelve Days of Christmas!
From Christmas Day until the Eve of Epiphany Day, the legend of the kallikantzaroi [hobgoblins] is reanimated throughout the country. In the popular imagination they are little monsters with bandy legs and arms, hunched backs, over-sized ears, and just about any other type of deformity one could possibly imagine!
For this reason they are doomed to live underground and throughout the entire year they keep sawing the tree that supports the world!
At Christmas though, when their sawing is nearly done, they decide to visit the humans, have fun and play all kinds of pranks on them! Humans in turn do their best to ward them off by placing a sieve outside their door or by hanging a large onion!
Painter P. Tetsis has created lively illustrations of hobgoblins in the book Fairies, elves and hobgoblins by Th. Velloudios.
The celebrated folklorist Nikolaos Politis has also made vivid descriptions of goblins in his book titled Traditions.
A spiritual feast
In his painting The birth of Jesus, the renowned Greek artist Domenico Theotocopoulos, known as El Greco, captures the spirituality and mysticism of Greek Christmas on canvas.
Whether you choose to attend Christmas Mass in a country chapel in the Cyclades or the Dodecanese, in a Peloponnese rock hewn monastery or in the magnificent metropolitan church of Athens, you will nonetheless sense the same atmosphere of devoutness all around you.
Feel the Greek Christmas magic by reading Greek literature! The Christmas Short Stories written by Alexandros Papadiamantis will transport you to bygone times through the remarkable imagination and matchless colourful expression of the great Greek writer from Skiathos Island. The Christmas Loaf, The Gleaner, The American, A pilgrimage to the Kastro, The Christmas of the Idle are some of the most tender, and famous tales of the great Greek prose writer, with which many a generation grew up.