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Christmas Under The Sun


Well, Christmas is just around the corner and is celebrated in different ways around the world, varying by country and region. It’s about time to learn a little bit more about the Christmas traditions in the Dodecanese. You have to know the customs and traditions of a place to be able to fully understand its people.

December 25 in the Dodecanese Islands. You stroll along the shore on an idyllic beach. You lose yourself on paths winding through lush forests teeming with nature in all its wildness. Or you simply relax in your peaceful home away from home under the beaming winter sun. That's Christmas on the islands – warm, and just the way you like it.

If you love Christmas, in December on the Dodecanese Islands you'll find a whole range of options for celebrating this season in a completely traditional way. You can stroll through the typical Christmas markets until nightfall, take a seat beneath the stars and listen to Christmas carols, or sample the typical pastries known as "melomakarona" filled with honey syrup and nuts, but –be warned– you won't be able to stop at just one.

So, let’s have a look at the most common Christmas customs and traditions of the islands, most of which are of religious nature and others stem from paganism.

St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas is an important figure to the members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as are most Greek Christians, as the patron saint of sailors and is celebrated on December 6. While in the rest of the world Father Christmas is St. Nicholas/Santa Claus, in Greece Aghios Vasilis or St. Basil is the one who brings presents to children on New Year’s Day.

Kalanta (Christmas Carols)

On Christmas Eve, in every village and city of Greece, small children and teens travel from house to house offering good wishes and singing kalanta, the equivalent of Christmas carols. Often the songs are accompanied by small metal triangles and little drums. The children are frequently rewarded with small amount of money and sweets.

Christmas tree

The Christmas tree is a Western custom that was adopted by the Greeks and each year steadily gains popularity as a new Christmas tradition. In the past, in order to honor St. Nicholas, every household used to decorate small wooden Christmas boats and until today, many choose to decorate boats, instead of trees, reviving this age-old Christmas tradition. 

Kallikantzari (Mischievous spirits)

Emerging from the center of the earth, more mischievous and malicious than dangerous, are the sprites called Kallikantzari who prey upon people and pull various pranks during the twelve days of Christmas, between Christmas and Epiphany on January 6th. It was believed that all year long they saw the root of a huge trunk on which rests the foundations of the world and stop for the 12 days of Christmas to play tricks on the housewives. When they returned to the center of the earth to continue their ‘job’ after Christmas, they found out that the trunk was whole again. A Christmas miracle!

Christmas cuisine and delicacies

Traditional culinary delights that characterize the Christmas season in Greece are melomakarona (honey cookies with nuts) and kourabiedes (sugar cookies with almonds) and the Christopsomo or ‘Christ bread’ (special decorated loaf of various shapes). After the traditional 40 days of fasting, the Christmas feast is looked forward to with great anticipation by adults and children alike and the table is filled with traditional dishes like lamb or pork, roasted in an oven or over an open spit and served with various salads, vegetables and potatoes.

Special Customs around the isles

Yet, Christmas customs on the Dodecanese seem to vary not only from isle to isle, but also from village to village. Preparations begin a few days prior to Christmas and the peak seems to be at the New Year and the Epiphany. One of the main characteristics of the inhabitants of the Dodecanese is that they fast 40 days before Christmas, especially those wishing to take communion on Christmas morning and then enjoy the Christmas feast.

Christmas features delicacies, such stuffed turkey with a Dodecanesean twist, as well as beef or goat in tomato sauce slowly cooked together with bulgur. A pork dish called 'Pichti' is also on the Christmas menu, complete with plenty of herbs and spices such as bay leaf, pepper and cumin, together with lemon juice. On the sweeter side you may get to try Paklava – a different version of Baklava – representing a fried dessert with honey, cinnamon and clove. Christmas is well known for a raisin dessert called Zimpilia (pronounced Zibilia) that should be sampled.

In several villages of Rhodes, the slaughtering of pigs is a traditional custom and it is done under a specific rite. From the Christmas table one may find the traditional "giaprakia", and a variety of meat dishes and especially pork. Regarding sweets, both in Rhodes and the other islands, the featured delicacy is the mouthwatering “diples”, which are still produced today.

At the meal table there is also a decorated round loaf called “Christopsomo” or “Christ bread” that is eaten on Christmas Day. Naturally visits among relatives and friends are common, as well as gift exchanges. Last but not least, tradition has it that the water that is gathered from a spring by a woman just before sunrise under total silence has magical powers.  This "silent water" is used to prepare the dough for the next year and bring good luck to the family.

In Nisyros, at the night of Christmas the local priest conducts a service and then offers to the believers a delicacy called "evlogimena" that is placed at the festive table and eaten first. In Karpathos each Christmas the brides mold for their in-laws a "gipla", which is a large bun that has unique decorations on it. When baked to perfection it is offered as a gift.

It is said that Christmas ranks second to Easter in the roster of important holidays for the Greeks. But that doesn’t mean that it is any less grand or majestic. It is the most wonderful time of the year and each and every unique Greek custom and tradition associated with Christmas makes it even more special!

Merry Christmas to all!




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