Christopsomo, St. Nicholas – and St. Basil
Kala Christougena! — Merry Christmas! Many Greeks make their living directly or indirectly from maritime industries: fishing, shipping, import/export and so forth. In fact, they always have! The real St. Nicholas came from Myra, in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), in the early 300s A.D. He became the patron saint of sailors, and so during the Christmas season today, boats are decorated with the lights the colors of the Greek flag: blue and white. Let's explore a bit more about Greek Christmas!
For people of the Greek Orthodox faith, the Christmas season is traditionally less emphasized than Easter, but still is quite universally celebrated. On the night before Christmas, Greek families enjoy Christopsomo — a sweetbread often decorated in some manner with a cross or perhaps with a figure that represents how the family makes a living — a boat for a sailing family, a cow for a dairy farmer, etc. Interestingly, while St. Nicholas also is a bringer of gifts and toys to Greek children, he must be tired after taking gifts to all the other children of the world, so St. Basil, the patron saint of Greece, steps in…or rather down the chimney to leave presents, but he waits until his saint day — January 1st. On January 1st, of course, no one would dare to light a fire, but a log is placed in the fireplace to help him step out of the chimney without tripping.
On Christmas morning, mass begins early, around seven o'clock. Singing carols comes after church. The verb choraulein means to sing and play flutes. So the English word "carol" actually comes from Greek. Carolling groups of children wander from home to home after morning mass. To thank them for their singing, they are usually given small gifts or something good to eat.
For Christmas dinner, the Greeks often enjoy stuffed turkey, but they do not stuff it the same way as most people in the USA. They use pine nuts, rice, chestnuts and other interesting ingredients. They also enjoy kourambiethes, a type of cookie with a lot of nuts in it. Baklava is also popular at Christmas, as it is almost always with Greek food. It is a puffy pastry with lemon and spices.
As for Christmas trees, the Greeks tend not to use them much, although they have a tradition of decorating trees that predates Christianity. Instead of Christmas trees, the Greeks have a wooden bowl, filled partially with water, across which a sprig of basil is suspended, being wound around a wire cross. This is to ward off the killantzeroi, something like a poltergeist who prefers to do pranks at the Christmas season. Every so often, usually the mother or matriarch in a family, will dip the basil cross in the water and sprinkle water in the various rooms of the house to ward them off.
Finally, on January 6, Epiphany, the season ends with the holiday that commemorates when the Wise Men reached Bethlehem.