My beloved brothers and sisters in Our Incarnate God,
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE.
How do Greek Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas in
The time of preparation for the celebration of the Birth of Jesus Christ, our God, and Savior, begins on November 15th each year with the commencement of the Nativity fast and ends on December 24th, Christmas Eve. Orthodox Christians prepare themselves spiritually through prayer, worship, fasting, repentance, charity, and receiving the Mysteria (Sacraments) of our Holy Church. The Holy Nativity of our Lord Christ is one of the Great Feast-Days of the Ecclesiastical year. This most Holy Day, in the Orthodox Christian Tradition, is a sacred experience that is treasured by all the faithful and a genuine celebration of Christ’s coming. Orthodox Christians prepare to receive the Savior of the world into their hearts, into their homes, and into the world He created. The celebration of His Birth is a solemn religious or spiritual observance. It is a time for spiritual renewal and a renewed commitment to our Savior God.
I remember as a child growing up in Greece, a country with rich Christian history, with a unique and great culture that falls back appromixamately 5,000 years B.C. and a Christian Tradition that traces back to the Holy Apostle Paul. We read in Acts 17:16-34: "Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your woship, I even found an altar wth this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you" (17:22-23). Greece is a blessed country with a 2,000 years Christian history and tradition. Over the centuries, countless Orthodox Christian men, women and children have given their lives for our Savior and God, Jesus Christ. It is understood, therefore, why Greek Orthodox Christians treat the high holy days, such as Jesus’ Nativity, with great reverence and respect.
On Christams Eve, December 24th, the traditional carols (Kalanda) are sung. Customarily, the children visit houses in their neighborhood and ring a triangle while singing the beautiful Christmas carols. As they move from house to house they collect either money, fruit, or pastry and other treats for their effort.
Early Christmas Day, the church bells beckon the people to assemble for worship. It was our family tradition, before we left for church to receive the sacrament of Holy Eucharist, we would turn and kiss our father’s and mother’s hand and ask for their forgiveness. In small villages throughout Greece on Christmas Day, one would see entire families heading for the local church to participate in the Divine Liturgy conducted by their parish priest. They have all prepared through fasting and confession to receive Holy Communion together. Many of the faithful may not wear expensive clothes, but the clothes are clean and proper for worship. Following the Divine Liturgy, each family headed for home where a feast was prepared by their beloved mother.
The customary food for this day for us was lamb, potatoes in the oven, salad, feta cheese, and side dishes such as teropetes, spanakopites etc. Other families may prefer pork or chicken. Also, on this day a special bread has been baked called, Christopsomo (Bread of Christ), which the the father, the head of the family would bless by making the sign of the cross over it saying, "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," and offer a slice to each family member. The Christopsomo is a type of sweet aromatic bread which is decorated with a cross and with walnuts placed on the top of the four corners and the center of the cross. After the meal is over, those present would be given a choice of deserts to enjoy, i.e., homemade melomakarona, kourambiyedes, baklava, karydopita (sweet nut pie) and dyples.
Unlike other Christian traditions in other countries where there is gift exchange, the Greek tradition does not include gift exchange on this day. Instead, the children and others receive their Christmas presents on New Year’s Day on the holy Feast of Saint Basil the Great. Saint Basil was also known for his charity for the poor and his great generosity, just like Saint Nicholas of Myra. The gifts given on this day were things that each child needed, such as clothes, new shoes, etc. very few toys were given.
Chrismas trees are mostly a Northern European tratiditon and not part of the Greek custom. Perhaps one other reason is that are not many forests left in Greece to harvest trees from. However, they have been introduced to Greece in recent years. Also, influenced by Western European counties, Christmas giving is also done on Christmas day in Greece.
Another unique Christmas custom in Greece, mostly the Greek islands, is the decoration of a small boat (karavaki) with lights. Greece is sourrounded by the sea and many of the Greeks were seaferers. It is also in remberance and commemoration of the patron Saint Nicholas who was known for his many miracles that saved pesengers on boats who were threaten by storms.
Orthodox Christian greet one another following Christmas in this manner: ‘ Christ is Born!’ with the immediate response, ‘Glorify Him!’
May you all have a blessed Christmas! Καλά και ευλογημένα Χριστούγεννα!
With agape in Christ our God and Savior,
+ Father George