Monday, March 23, 2009

Greek Christmas Customs

Ah, it's kourabiedes time again, and the mellow aroma of melomacarona cookies will soon be filling Greek kitchens worldwide.

For the traveller to Greece, remember that many offices, businesses, restaurants, and other amenities may be closed or keeping unusual hours during the Christmas season. Turkeys have invaded Greek Christmas customs, and so travellers from the U.S. will find this bird prepared for Christmas feasting. In some areas, the holiday is preceded by a time of fasting. For Greece, the season is in full swing by December 6th, the Feast of St. Nicholas, when some presents are exchanged, and will last through January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany.

While in the past Greek Christmas displays, lights, or other Western decorations were relatively rare, more and more Greeks are decorating their houses, especially in the larger towns and cities. Regular "Greece for Visitors" site visitor Christina Houvarda reports that the outgoing Mayor of Athens, Dimitris Avramopoulos, launched the 2002 Christmas season by lighting the "largest Christmas tree in Europe" at Syntagma Square. Three thousand fireworks were set off, illuminating the sky. The ensuing celebration spread through the streets of Athens and lasted for hours. Environmentalists take note: the 40-meter tree is artificial.

But by comparison to many other countries, this year's fireworks notwithstanding, Greece is a relative oasis of non-commercialism when it comes to Christmas. Throughout the festivities, there is rarely any question about whether Greece is remembering the Christ in Christmas. Beautiful carols called kalandas have been handed down from Byzantine times and add to the reverent quality of the celebration. And can the remote Greek villages, with whitewashed walls, stone corrals for the precious livestock, and clear starry skies be very far in spirit from a night in long ago Bethlehem?

While other cultures have Christmas elves, the Greek equivalent is not so benign. Mischievous and even dangerous sprites called the Kallikantzari (or Callicantzari), prey upon people only during the twelve days of Christmas, between Christmas itself and Epiphany on January 6th. Descriptions of them vary, and in one area they are believed to wear wooden or iron boots, all the better to kick people. Observers in other areas of Greece insist that they are hooved, not booted. Almost invariably male, other regions see them under the forms of wolves or even monkeys. In folk tales, the twelve days of their power figure in a "wicked stepmother" story where a young girl is forced to walk alone to a mill through the twelve days, because her stepmother is hoping that the Kallikantzari will snatch her away.

Some households keep fires burning through the twelve days, to keep the spirits from entering by the chimney, a curious inversion of the visit of Santa Claus in other countries! The "yule log" in this case used to be a massive log set on end in the chimney, burning or at least smouldering for the entire period. Protective herbs such as hyssop, thistle, and asparagus were suspended by the fireplace, to keep the Callicantzari away. Other households, perhaps less devout, were reduced to simple bribery and would put meat out for the Kallikantzari - again, this seems to be a more substantial snack than the milk and cookies put out for Santa. On Epiphany, the ceremonial blessing of the waters by the local priest was believed to settle the nasty creatures until the next year. Some local festivals still include representations of these entities, which may be a survival from Dionysian festivals.

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