Until recently, Christmas was never considered much of a holiday in Greece. But in recent years things have slowly changed and now the occassion is celebrated lavishly. The Christmas season in Greece now begins on December 6th, which is Saint Nicolas day, and ends on January 6th, the day of Epiphany. Celebrations really pick-up as Christmas day gets closer, usually from the 20th of December. Streets are packed with people buying Christmas gifts for their loved ones, as well as Christmas carolers singing Christmas songs. Festive shopping continues way after Christmas Day, what with New Year's Day following up the festival.
In major cities and towns of Greece, dazzling decorations are made with brilliant lights strung across most of the streets. Shops are decorated with all the usual Christmas ornaments, and the festive mood is apparent.
Most of the Christmas traditions in Greece are more or less similar to the West. A popular tradition is small village children travelling from house to house on Christmas Eve singing 'kalanda', the equivalent of Christmas carols and offering their good wishes. In return they recieve dried figs, almonds, walnuts, lots of sweets, coins, small gifts and other tokens of appreciation. Sometimes they are given small gifts as well.
A number of rituals are associated with the observance of the festival in Greece. One well-known custom is hanging a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross in a shallow wooden bowl. Once during the day, a family member, usually the mother, dips the cross and basil into some holy water and uses it to sprinkle water in each room of the house. This ritual is believed to keep the 'Killantzaroi' (mischievous spirits) away. Another ritual performed to get the same benefit is keeping the hearth burning at all times throughout the twelve days. Gift-giving takes place on St. Basil's Day (January 1). On this day all water jugs in the house are emptied and refilled with new "St. Basil's Water." The ritual is known as the "renewal of waters".
Christmas trees are not commonly used in Greece. But these days, in most Greek homes an evergreen tree is decorated with tinsel and a star placed on top. Priests sometimes go from house to house sprinkling holy water around to get rid of the bad spirits who may be hiding in people's houses.
The feast is a grand attraction of the Greek Christmas festivities and greatly awaited by adults and children alike. The menu includes such dishes as roasted Lamb and pork along with loaves of spicy golden 'christopsomo' ('Christ bread'). This bread is usually made in large sweet loaves of various shapes and their crusts are indicative of the profession of the family.