Holiday traditions in Greece, like so much in that country, are rooted in ancient Greek and Roman customs – pagan, of course – that evolved through Byzantine times and were adapted with the advent of Christianity.
More recently, the westernization of Christmas and New Year celebrations has made those holidays here look more like the globalized version of them, for better or worse. Greeks like preserving their old traditions, however, and some customs still persist, even if many Greeks don’t know where they came from.
The Christmas season, known in Greece as Dodekaimero (twelve days), officially begins on December 24, includes the celebration for the New Year and ends on January 6 with the huge celebration of Theophania (the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist). Gifts are usually exchanged on New Year’s Day, which is when Agios Vasilis, or Greek Santa, who hails from the town of Kesaria (and whose image too has evolved into the western one in Coca-Cola ads), hands out all the gifts.
Apart from the more personal gifts we give to family and friends, there are a number of traditional (sometimes edible) gifts that are exchanged during the festive season.
Undoubtedly the most common holiday gift is a good luck charm for the New Year called gouri (γούρι). These are symbolic ornaments for the house or worn as jewelry meant to ensure that the coming year is a happy, healthy and prosperous one and are often decorated with common good-luck symbols like horseshoes, pomegranates, coins, keys, an olive tree branch or an evil eye.
To Mati is a gift shop with a vast selection of folkloric gouri designs. For classic wearable gouri there’s Zolotas, the historic fancy jewelry shop founded in 1895, located near Parliament. Every year it offers gouri inspired by ancient Greece. This year’s lucky charm designs were inspired by Zeus, the king of the gods on Mt. Olympus, promising to bring us strength, intellect and spiritual enlightenment for the new year.
The pomegranate is one of the most ancient symbols of prosperity, regeneration and good luck. Its seeds symbolize fertility and abundance. To ensure a good year you have to welcome it by smashing a pomegranate on your doorstep and entering the house right foot first, a tradition with roots in ancient Athens.
To ensure a good year you have to welcome it by smashing a pomegranate on your doorstep and entering the house right foot first.
Some families take the pomegranate to church to bless it prior to smashing it. The person chosen to smash the pomegranate and enter the house first will determine the kind of luck that will be brought into the household for the rest of the year. Most often the chosen person is a child, whose heart is pure, honest and loving and thus will righteously attract good luck and happiness. After the chosen person enters, the rest of the family follows, always with their right foot first.
Decorative objects shaped as pomegranates made of metal, clay or painted on a surface are very common gifts for these holidays and are widely sold around this season. The pomegranate is also a common piggy bank design in Greece and an especially popular gift for children. It is customary to put some money in it before giving it to the recipient for extra luck. (Children in the family are generally given money this time of year in a tradition known as Kali Hera.) The shop Selini offers many pomegranate designs.
A holiday symbol that dates back to the 6th century BCE and has survived to modern times is the wild onion kremyda (Scilla maritima). This type of plant is so hardy that when uprooted it can actually survive for more than a year, sending forth new leaves and continuing to look fresh. Ancient Greeks prized it as a symbol of rebirth, growth and good health. According to folk tradition, the best way to cleanse your space of negative energy is to walk around holding a kremyda. To protect against the evil eye, you hang the bulb on the door or place it somewhere near the entrance of the house on New Year’s Eve. The next morning the head of the family wakes up everyone else by gently patting them on the head with the onion bulb. When everyone returns from church they decide where to place the onion for the rest of the year, although it’s never too far from door.
During the holiday season the bulb – along with other holiday plants such as poinsettias, fir, holly and mistletoe – can be found at flower shops, street vendors and farmers’ markets. Perhaps one of the best places to find it is the oldest and most picturesque flower shop in central Athens, located right in the middle of St. Irene’s Square.
Greek holiday seasons are strongly connected with other food-related customs. We’ve written previously about the most popular Christmas sweets, kourambiedes, melomakarona and diples, all of which symbolize prosperity, good luck and happiness. These treats, present in every single home over the holidays, are also offered to children after singing traditional kalanta, or Christmas carols.
For other holiday gifts, we like Amorgos, a beautiful, historic shop specializing in traditional folk art objects and furnishings, located on a quiet street in Plaka.
This article was originally published on December 21, 2016. It was updated on December 25, 2019.
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