Christmas and New Year Customs of Greece (and the Greek Diaspora)

Greeks have many deep, family-oriented religious traditions filled with joy. We’d like to share some common traditions and customs of Greece and for Greek peoples across the region.

Unlike the twelve days of Christmas in most western traditions, Greece’s Christmastide has fourteen days, starting on Christmas Eve and ending on Epiphany on January 6.

There are several traditions that have been passed from generation to generation and are still celebrated today. Many of these customs have been brought over to the U.S. by Greek immigrants and are observed by their decedents (perhaps you and your family!).

Some of the most popular are the decoration of the Christmas tree and Christmas boat, Greek Christmas carols, the tradition of Saint Basil’s cake, and the “kalikantzaroi”. And of course, the beloved culinary dishes and sweets are very popular additions to the Christmas table.

a decorated Greek Christmas boat

“Greek Christmas boat…” by sum2004 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Christmas tree was not widely embraced in Greece until after the 1950s. Being a marine country, Greeks traditionally celebrated Christmas by decorating the Christmas boat, (Καραβάκι). Although the Christmas tree now days has become popular, the Christmas boat is still used by some, especially in communities along the coast and in the islands.

Greek children singing carols in the 1950's
Greek children sing kalanta (1950’s)

One of the most popular Christmas customs in Greece is the singing of Kalanta (carols), Children move from door-to-door on Christmas Eve, on New Year’s Eve and the day before the Epiphany, singing these festive songs and collecting sweets, dried fruits, and small change.

On the day of the Epiphany priests would (and still do) go to homes to cleanse them with Holy Water bless the house and its occupants and to keep the little mischievous, underground creatures called kallikantzaroi from rising up and wreaking havoc during the 12 days of Christmas.

Vasilopita (St. Basil’s cake) with coin

Greeks do not exchange gifts on Christmas day, nor is Saint Nicholas / Santa Claus the traditional gift bringer in Greek custom.

Instead gifts are given, mostly to the kids of the family, on New Year’s Day. Tradition has it that Saint Basil (Agios Vasilis in Greek), whose name day is celebrated on that day, brings the gifts and places them under their pillows during the night.

In most parts of Greece, at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the traditional Saint Basil’s cake, Vasilopita, is served. A small coin was inserted secretly by the cook in the cake. The cake is cut and each person receives a piece. The person who finds the coin is said to be granted luck for the rest of the year.

In Northern Greece it is customary to serve a regular large round cheese or meat pie made with filo dough in place of the cake on New Year’s Day.

“Melomakarona” by Кулинарно is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Along with Vasilopita, there are other traditional sweets for Christmas. The most popular are the melomakarona /Greek honey cookies and kourabiedes / Greek butter cookies.

Christopsomo is another special Greek Christmas and New Year’s baked good. Meaning “Christ’s bread”, Christopsomo is made with great care and reverence. The baker may cross themselves before baking and the loaf is decorated with a cross in honor of Christ. Some families leave a little out to be eaten on Christmas Eve.

“Christopsomos” by beeJim828 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Greece is filled with unique traditional dishes served during the Christmas Season including:

Christmas variations of the famous dolmades of northern Greece and among Pontic Greeks include yiaprakia or lahanodolmades (stuffed cabbage) and sarmadia (stuffed vine leaves).

On Christmas Day, pork is the most popular main dish in most parts of the country, stemming from  a very old tradition when families would raise a pig to slaughter on Christmas Eve to serve the following day.

Roasted Turkey is also popular and is often made special by adding a rich stuffing which includes rice, raisins, nuts, mincemeat and a generous quantity of wine.

We hope you enjoyed this brief look into Christmas and New Year’s traditions and customs in Greece and the Greek diaspora. We’d love to hear your family’s traditions! Send us an email.