Christmas and New Year in Greece
Christmas was never very important for the Greeks, but has become an increasingly popular celebration over the past years; the European gift-exchanging ways have filtered through. Traditionally, Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas in a more humble way; by going to church. Nowadays, this is a rare occurence in the big cities, but a number of traditions persist.
The most important winter festival in Greece is the New Year, beginning on New Year´s Eve with the cutting of the special cake, vasilopita. This cake is named in honour of Saint Vasilios (Santa Claus), who comes down to earth on that day, the first day of the year. Vasilopita can be a simple Madeira sponge cake, a puff pastry cake with nuts, or a savoury version of the latter filled with meat. After baking, a coin is hidden in the cake, which is cut on New Year´s Eve. The pieces are distributed in a predetermined order: the first is for Christ, the second for Mary, the third for St. Vasilios, the fourth for the house, the fifth for the head of the family, the sixth for the mother, then one for each of the children. A piece is also cut for each absent member of the family. Whoever finds the coin can look forward to special success in the coming year.
In very traditional areas of Greece, Christmas Eve also consists of many interesting customs. For instance, in some parts of Thrace there have developed special Christmas games. On the 24th of December thirteen young men (rougatzades) walk through the town singing, twelve of them dressed as the disciples and the thirteenth as Christ himself. By way of thanks, the young men receive a financial reward, as they are all just about to be called upon for military service. Kalanda or Christmas carols, no different from those of Western Europe, are sung all over Greece; children go into shops and houses to sing and wish the owners a year full of blessings, and in return they are given money and sweets. On December 25th, all the family gets together; stuffed turkey, is roasted in ovens everywhere and for dessert there are Greek Christmas cookies called melomakarona (honey macaroons) and kourabiedes (nut butter cookies), as well as diples (fried dough with syrup).