Christmas rites and rituals from all over Greece
'Tis the season for indulging ourselves and our loved ones. Christmastide is considered the best time to visit friends and family, eat confectionaries, share our most cherished Christmas memories, and create some new ones, reflecting on our New Year’s resolutions for 2023. But it’s also an opportunity to keep the traditions of our ancestors alive, carrying them on, unaltered, from generation to generation. Customs that stem back many years and traditions that we cherish and repeat year after year. Read about some of the oldest Christmas traditions from across Greece, Northern to Eastern, – and the meaning behind them. The history behind Christmas!
The tradition of “Momoyeri” in Drama
In the villages Platania and Sitagri in the Northern Greek region of Drama, we find the Christmas tradition of old mimes (“Momoyeri”), which goes back to the Pontic refugees. The name of the tradition in Greek means the elderly mimes and is referred to the mimetic movements of the protagonists. Momoyeri often wear animal skins, usually of wolf or male goat, or dress up like fighters armed with swords. They stroll in groups along the villages’ streets, during the whole Christmastide, singing carols and wishing good luck for the New Year. Every time an encounter between two “rival” groups, takes place, they compete with each other on thinking of the best wish, until one group wins and the other declares submission. Variations of this tradition are found in the villages of Kozani and Kastoria and are called “ragutsaria”.
The Nine Foods in Thrace
In Thrace, each household sets the table on Christmas Eve with nine different foods to ensure an abundance of food throughout the year. According to folk legend, number nine represents either the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy or the nine places that Joseph and Mary stopped at before arriving at the creche. Every single food on the table – Christopsomo, beans with pickled cabbage, boiled wheat, rizopita (rice pie), fruit, onions, honey, saragli (a type of baklava) and wine – carries a symbolic meaning.
“Spordisma” of the leaves on Thassos island
On the island of Thassos, on Christmas Eve the families keep a very old custom stemming from Asia Minor called the “spordisma” of the leaves. They all gather around the lit fireplace and place olive leaves on top of the burning embers while making a wish, which they don’t reveal to anyone. It is said that the person whose leaf curls the most, will have their wish granted in the new year.
Christoksilo (Christ’s Wood) in Macedonia
Tradition has it that each householder searches the fields to locate the most beautiful, sturdiest and thickest piece of pine or olive wood that will take its rightful place on the hearth of the house and will be kept burning in the fireplace throughout Christmastide, from Christmas Day till Epiphany. The fireplace and the chimney must be both thoroughly cleaned of old ash, to make it difficult for goblins and evil demons to climb down, as Christmas traditions have it. It is said that the ashes of this wood protect the hearthstone and the family’s crops from evil spirits.
The Walnuts’ Game in Epirus
The walnuts’ game is a traditional team game for children. According to the rules, each child places a walnut in a row on the ground. Then, the children take turns using walnuts to remove the nuts from the row, getting them away from the line. If they miss, the next player takes a turn. The game continues until all the walnuts are thown out of the line.
Spargana in Zagorochoria
In the mountainous villages of Epirus, locals prepare “spargana” on Christmas Eve. Literally meaning “swaddling clothes,” spargana represent the clothes baby Jesus was wrapped in. A type of pancake made with flour, water, salt and sugar, spargana are traditionally baked in the fireplace on a hot stone instead of in a frying pan. They are served in a stack with a generous sprinkle of chopped walnuts and drizzled with sugar syrup or honey.
Feeding the Fountain in Thessaly
On the blessed dawn of Christmas Day, young women visit the nearest fountain to “steal” the so-called “speechless water”, named after the fact, that girls cannot say a word the whole way. To ensure a good harvest for their crops, they "feed" the fountain with various delicacies, such as bread, cheese, legumes, or an olive branch. The girl that first arrives there is said to have the best of luck the whole year. After “stealing” some water from the fountain in their ewers, they anoint the tap with butter and honey, wishing good luck for their hearthstone, fortune, and prosperity. Then, adding in their ewer a briar leaf and three gravels, they return home, remaining speechless until everyone in the house drinks from this. The same water and the three gravels are also used to sprinkle on the four corners of the house.
Christopsomo in Crete
Christopsomo (Christ’s Bread), a symbol of prosperity, is still quite popular across Greece, although few people bake it at home since it’s so widely available in bakeries. This round-shaped white bread is covered in sesame seeds and decorated with a big cross in the center; often you’ll find shelled walnuts, symbolizing fertility, on top as well. In several parts of Greece, including Crete, the ornate decoration of this bread is very important, as it’s a symbol of divine power. To honour this particular bread’s symbolic importance, high-quality ingredients like honey, rosewater, nuts, sesame seeds, and aromatic spices such as cinnamon and clove are used. The oldest member of the family is traditionally the one who will stand up, mark a cross on top of it and then slice the loaf before the meal commences.
Smashing Pomegranates in the Peloponnese
The pomegranate is a symbol of fertility, abundance, good fortune and prosperity. And according to Greek tradition, if you are hoping for some good luck in the new year, you should prepare for some annual pomegranate-smashing! Custom has it that the first person who enters the house in the New Year must forcefully smash a pomegranate at the front door, making sure the seeds spread all over the floor. The more seeds that spread all over the doorstep, the better fortune will be brought to this home in the new year.