Christmas in Greece
A Brief History
It was on Paul’s second missionary journey that he first brought the gospel to Europe (Acts 16:9). On this trip he established churches in the Greek cities of Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea. This was also when he visited Mars Hill (the Areopagus) in Athens and delivered his famous appeal to the Greek philosophers. It is through the Greeks that Christianity spread throughout the ancient world.
The first Christian church in Rome was Greek. All the first churches in the West were Greek, including their services and scriptures. Three centuries after Paul’s entreaty in Athens, the empire split into the Roman Empire in the West and the Byzantine Empire in the East. As Rome declined, the Byzantine Empire grew in power and influence. The Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the official religion of the empire, and Greek replaced Latin as the official language. The Byzantine Empire went on to last a thousand years and had an inestimable impact on art, culture and architecture.
The Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 marked the end of the Byzantine Empire. The large migration of artists, thinkers and monks from Constantinople--mainly to Italy-- is believed to have further contributed to the Italian Renaissance. Many historians mark the end of the Middle Ages by the fall of Constantinople. The Ottomans ruled Greece until the early 19th century. The reason Christianity was able to survive 600 years of Muslim rule, is that the Ottomans had a liberal policy of allowing varied religious groups autonomy in what was called the millet. The millet was the term for a legally protected religious group. Until the early 19th century, this allowed virtual freedom of religion. Greece eventually won its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1829.
Today Greece is 97% Greek Orthodox, thus Christmas is a very religious holiday, as opposed to the secular focus in many other countries. Because of this, fasting is an important part of the Christmas season. Many fast from animal or animal products (meat, eggs or dairy) for 40 days before Christmas. This means everyone looks forward with great anticipation to the Christmas feast. For centuries, the meat of choice was pig, for it could feed a family for weeks, and every part could be used. Nowadays, Greek families will have roast lamb or turkey.
Christmas lights in the shape of ships and sailboats celebrate the Greek tradition that predates the arrival of decorating trees in the country. St. Nicholas Day kicks off the holiday season in Greece and culminates in the blessing of the waters in January as part of Epiphany. St. Nicholas is not associated with gift-giving in Greek tradition. He is the patron saint of mariners, and those who traverse the sea, thus the importance of the blessing of the waters on Epiphany.
A very old custom that survives to this day is the singing of carols. Children still go from door to door caroling to friends and neighbors, while residents give the children money. Greek Christmas carols (calanda) are sung on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and the Eve of Epiphany (January 5th).
It is customary for families to attend church on Christmas morning. A traditional Christmas meal may consist of Moussaka or Postitso, roast lamb or turkey, and traditionally cooked vegetables. An assortment of Greek cookies is always a part of the menu, and includes: kourambiedes (or kourabiethes), koulourakia, and melomakarona. Also, Christopsomo is always part of the Christmas, as well as Easter meal. Christopsomo, or Christ-bread is a circular, sweet bread, often decorated with a cross or family emblem on top.
‘Kala Christougena’ means Merry Christmas in Greek.
Greece is 98% Greek Orthodox. Pray for spiritual renewal and reformation within the Church. Pray for the archbishop, bishops and priests to be led to re-evangelize the people of Greece.