Posts Tagged ‘local customs’

Christmas – a Dangerous Time of Joy

December 19, 2009

We all know that Easter is the most important religious holiday of the year in Greece but Christmas is, of course, also celebrated. Anyone that has lived in the country for a while will recognise the lighted boats and Christmas trees, the blinking balconies that make whole neighbourhoods look like a UFO has just landed, and the young children singing Christmas Carols from door to door.

Like most of the customs in the western world, Christmas has a well-documented pagan origin and perhaps the best known one is the Roman solstice festivities, celebrated on December 25.  Another ancient remnant is the superstition concerning the Kallikánzari, evil looking little demons that emerge from the depths of the earth on Christmas Day and remain here for 12 days. Tradition has it that they try to break into people’s houses through the chimneys and if they succeed, they do everything they can to pester the inhabitants: they urinate on the food, extinguish the fire, steal things and turn the milk sour. Tip: when the fire crackles it is a sign of them approaching! To this day, many Greeks keep their fires going all through the holidays to keep the goblins away and they will sprinkle the rooms of the house with Holy Water every morning. Tradition has it that the Kallikánzari are ancient soldiers that were killed in battle but never laid to rest and so, they have turned into a kind of vampires or zombies. They finally disappear on the 6th of January when the Greeks celebrate the Baptism of Christ (Theofánia) by throwing crosses in the water.

During the Christmas holidays children run around in little groups and knock on doors and enter cafes and shops eagerly asking “na poúme, na poúme” (shall we sing?) and if the answer is yes, they race through a few verses as quickly as possible (after all, time is money), accompanied by hurriedly played triangles, to get rewarded with a few coins. These Greek carols are called Kálanda, from the Latin Calandae, the first days of the month, and are about the birth of Christ, well-wishes for the coming year etc. Sometimes the children carry small wooden boats, which again stems from the ancient world. In ancient Greece, children would go from house to houses during these days, singing very similar songs and the boat represented the arrival of the god Dionysus.

For the Orthodox that want to take Holy Communion on Christmas Day a long fast precedes the 25th but afterwards they make up for it by consuming all sorts of delicacies: turkey or pork, sweet cakes and Christópsomo (Christ Bread). Because St. Basil is Father Christmas in Greece, children are not supposed to get any presents until New Year’s Day (St. Basil’s Day) but these days the “rules” are normally bent.

Kalá Christoúgenna to everyone!


Kounistra Day

November 28, 2009

Following the age-old tradition, the icon of the Virgin Mary of Kounistra was once again returned to her “home” for one night on the 20th of November.  The day started with a service at the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin (Panagia Limnia) and then continued with a procession to the Acropolis area where a shorter service was held outside the graveyard, constantly accompanied by gunshots fired by local men that stood above Bus Stop 4. Then mayhem descended!

According to custom, the icon is now to be carried by the locals and as this is the only opportunity for laymen to hold it, especially women, what can only be described as ‘granny war” broke out. Elderly ladies started fighting over who would hold the icon, and instead of being a dignified handing over of the icon from person to person, the dear old ladies started pulling and shouting and as soon as one got hold of the icon, another snatched it after just a few meters. Not to be disrespectful or anything, but the scene brought back images from those Monty Python sketches where gangs of grannies, “berserking” through the streets of London, attack phone booths and teenagers with their handbags.

The procession then continued to the Kounistra Monastery following the path that leads up from the Megali Ammos area. It may be a shorter walk than the main road, but nevertheless a long one. Men and women, children and elderly all followed, and some ladies even did the walk bare foot. This is what the Greeks call táma, or holy promise, which is done either in the hope of a miracle or as gratitude for one. Other forms of táma are the little metal plates that hang on icons, depicting body limbs, babies, boats or whatever the prayers concern. Walking bare foot to the monastery can also be a purely sign of faith and devotion.

At the monastery, another service was held, followed by a barbeque where everyone was invited. Feasts in connection with religious holidays is another old custom that dates all they way back to the ancient Greeks. The ancients would often celebrate their gods with animal sacrifices and afterwards the meat was shared by those attending. Today, the religion may be different but the practice lives on.

The next day, the icon was ceremoniously brought back to the main church (Three Hierarchs) in Skiathos town. This time, the attendants had changed their track suits and trainers to suits, dresses and high heels and after a quick ceremony; the Virgin was put in her little shrine in the church and as the weather was glorious, everyone went for coffee on the old harbour.

These old traditions do seem a bit extraordinary to the foreign eye, especially to those of us that have grown up in the secular north, but nevertheless they are very fascinating and well worth attending.