No Greek had ever raised a Christmas tree in their house until the country’s first modern king, Otto, imported that tradition from his thickly forested homeland in Bavaria in 1833. Long before that, however, residents along the coasts and around the islands were building wooden Christmas boats to string with lights to float gorgeously off shore and to carry through the streets, as they continue to do into the 21st century.
Older Greek folklore tells of the kallikantzari, the demonic little goblins who live underground, sawing at the ‘tree of the year’. When they’re almost finished near the end of December, they go on a celebratory spree to cause havoc in the world above, until local priests sprinkle holy water through the villages and towns to send them back below. There is also a belief that Saint Basil brings gifts to children on the first day of the New Year, and purists insist that he still does so, regardless of the jolly fat man in the red suit who tries to win their affections on Christmas Eve.
Pomegranates have symbolic value at Christmas, broken on the doorsteps of houses to ‘spread the seeds’ of good health and prosperity. When it comes to actual consumption, the main Christmas meal revolves around a lamb roasted on a spit, with sundries including cheese and spinach pie, and filo pastry desserts like baklava and kataifi, loaded with honey, nuts and cinnamon. The most popular seasonal sweets, like kourabiedes, date back to the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.
Saint Basil also has his own honourary cake called vasilopita, a baked sponge flavoured with orange and almond, and ideally served just after midnight on New Year’s Eve. It’s usually baked with a coin inside, and whoever finds that gold in their slice of cake will have good luck all year (though it’s obviously bad luck to crack a tooth or choke on it).