Scholars are inclined to think that Christ was born either in August or September but why do we celebrate his birth on December 25 you ask? Almost every religious celebration today can be connected to some ancient deity and Christmas is no exception.
The ancient Romans honoured the god Saturn, his Greek counterpart being Cronus the Titan. Saturn was the god of time, harvest, and agriculture and every December the Saturnalia was held as it was the winter solstice celebrating the increase of daylight, the belief that the sun god had risen from the dead. It was a time of celebration and gift giving and a generosity towards the slaves of the household and the less fortunate. The priests were called ‘dentrophori’ as they carried wreaths of evergreen boughs in procession. The evergreen tree was considered a symbol of the essence of life.
The conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in AD312 ended the Roman persecution of Christians and began the patronage of the Christian churches, but it took a few more years for Christianity to become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Saturnalia stayed alive well into the Christian era. Christmas apparently started in Rome and spread to the Eastern Mediterranean. Provincial schisms in the Christian church soon resulted in different Christian calendars. The Orthodox Church of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire (Byzantine) fixed the date to January 6, commemorating simultaneously Christ’s birth, baptism and first miracle.
To this day the official day of Christmas varies from one Christian church to another. The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas with the Julian Calendar on January 7, the Armenian Orthodox celebrate on January 6 which is also the day of Christ’s baptism, and the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas with the Gregorian Calendar on December 25.
Here in Australia as Greek Orthodox we have all been taken over by the western meaning of Christmas. In Greece it is a more religious time and gifts are given out on New Years Eve when St Basil comes (Agios Vassilis). I spent many New Year’s Eves in Greece with family giving and receiving presents sitting under a tree, which in itself is a foreign concept. The Christmas tree came to Greece with King Otto from Bavaria as did the Christmas turkey on the table (both in the middle of the 1800s) and for many years was strictly urban and upper class.
The symbol of Christmas in Greece is a boat and in Thessaloniki to this day every December in Aristotelous Square a huge three-masted boat is put up as well as a big Christmas tree all in bright lights. The boat is put up on St Nicholas Day (December 6), as he is the patron saint of sailors and as Greece has been a seafaring country it would be put up so that the men would find a safe way home for the festive days.
One of the outstanding experiences in Greece is the kalanda (carols) that are sung by all the young people from door to door. In the past the kalanda were sung by young children and only with a triangle and adults would put food in the bag they carried with them. Today a whole band comes around, it is not only young children but older children and young adults and money is the currency, not food.
There is also the kaligatzari (the bad spirits), they are only meant to appear on the 12 days of Christmas from December 25 to the Epiphany (January 6). They are supposed to come from the middle of the earth and get into people’s houses and as they come in the house down the chimney the fire is always on during the 12 days of Christmas.
The Orthodox Christmas is a very religious event, beginning with Saint Nicholas Day on December 6, with other name days between then and Christmas. During this time people fast and go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve and break the fast on Christmas Day. The celebrations continue through to New Year’s and Epiphany when the waters are blessed and the young men dive in usually very cold water to retrieve the cross on January 6, ending the celebrations.
Traditionally Greeks ate pork at Christmas but now they eat turkey like the rest of the west. However, there are traditional sweets that are only Greek and are still made to this day. I have given you recipes that have been in the family and the kourabiedes and the melomakarona, or if you wish finikia, are seriously the best you will ever make.
I have given you a recipe for baking a turkey that keeps the turkey moist. So unless you are doing a souvla in your backyard try this turkey recipe and good luck.
Different regions of Greece have a variety of recipes for Christmas and I can’t give you all of them so I have chosen what we mostly find in everyone’s homes this time of the year.
Καλά Χριστούγενα και ευτυχισμένο το καινούργιο έτος
Merry Christmas and a happy new year.