Celebrating Christmas and greeting the New Year on one the world’s most picturesque peninsulas.
By Madison Gulbin
There are times and places in life that seem to leave an imprint on your soul. For me, that describes many moments in my recent visit to Greece — the taste of a gyro in Athens, the feeling of hiking up to the sanctuary at Delphi, the sound of laughter on the breeze in Santorini (pictured, above). Though I don’t speak Greek, communicating was never a problem as almost everyone I met spoke English and welcomed me warmly. Naturally a place with such storied history and rich culture offers reasons to visit any time of year, but I wanted to share a taste of what you’d experience if you headed to this land of great food and gregarious people during the holiday season.
Jolly Old St. Nikolaos
Fans of Santa Claus might be interested to know that jolly old elf got his start in the 4th century as the Greek Bishop Nikolaos of Myra. You’ll know it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas when the Greeks decorate karavaki (“small boats”) with blue and white lights that illuminate streets and shorelines around the country. You’ll likely hear children caroling through cobblestone streets, and see tables heaped high with delicacies like Christopsomo, a traditional bread made with nuts and raisins.
On New Year’s Day, a different Greek dish takes center stage: Vasilopita (“St. Basil’s Pie”). Similar to someone celebrating Mardi Gras with a King Cake, Greeks bake a flouri (“lucky coin”) into the sweet loaf. The head of household marks the top of the loaf with an “X” and then cuts symbolic slices to honor certain holy figures before serving everyone — ostensibly from oldest to youngest. According to tradition, whoever finds the flouri will have good luck in the new year.
Beware of Goblins
Around this time of year, you may also hear some talk of kallikántzari (“hobgoblins”). These troublesome little elf-like creatures supposedly surface between Christmas and the Epiphany, when they are credited with causing mischief — overturning furniture, devouring food and finding any way they can to frighten people. To ward them off, some women sprinkle holy water throughout their houses or burn incense outside their doors.
All You Have to Do Is Mask
To participate in a unique Greek holiday that’s been around for centuries, head to Kastoriá, in Northern Greece, where they recreate a three-day Dionyssian custom known as ragoutsária from the 6th to the 8th of January. Participants disguise themselves with frightening masks in order to fend off “evil spirits,” then travel house to house asking to be rewarded for their service. This takes place in the midst of a carnival atmosphere as visitors and locals join together to drink, sing and dance to traditional folk musicians playing in the streets. The final day culminates with a huge gathering in a medieval square where an assortment of bands convene to create music together.
That’s less than a month of what awaits visitors to this colorful country of crystal blue oceans and verdant green mountains, where the food is like nothing you’ve ever tasted in an American Greek restaurant and the boundless joy of the people will leave you yearning to return.
Last modified: June 16, 2017