Learn about Greek Christmas traditions

Greek Christmas traditions


By Dr. Katherine Kelaidis, Resident Scholar and Director of Academic Collaborations at the National Hellenic Museum

As Greek Americans, we know a little about sharing our traditions with all of humankind. We also know about the valuable contribution immigrants make to their adopted homes. At the National Hellenic Museum, we celebrate this legacy of sharing and dialogue every day. We do this, in no small part, by preserving and telling the stories of those who have come before us and making those stories relevant to our time. Through our collections and archives, we explore the Greek American experience and Hellenic legacy through thousands of physical artifacts, archival collections and cherished oral histories. We invite you to learn more about our work HERE.

This month we are pleased to share with you why Greek Christmas traditions might seem very recognizable to non-Greeks.

The fact is that there is a kind of sparsity to the native Greek traditions surrounding December 24th and 25th. For example, on Christmas Eve, children around Greece go from door to door singing κάλαντα (carols), but traditionally there will not be presents until six days later, on January 1st, the Feast Day of Saint Basil the Great. Even the usually rich liturgical practices of the Orthodox Church are relatively muted on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

There is a reason for this. Christmas is the Christian adaptation of a host of midwinter festivals that celebrate light entering the world in the darkness of winter. And importantly, Christmas is not a day, but a twelve-day festival season (think The 12 Days of Christmas). This season begins on the evening of December 24th and continues until January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany (or Theophany). In between are a series of celebrations that commemorate Christ coming into the world. December 25th is the Feast of the Nativity (or “Feast of the Birth”). The commemoration of Jesus’s birth is also the only feast day that began in the Western, Latin-speaking part of the Roman Empire and moved east to the Greek-speaking part.

For hundreds of years, most Christians celebrated January 6th, the Feast of the Theophany (literally the “appearance of God”), as the second most important day of the Christian year (Easter being first). As the celebration of the Nativity moved east from Western Europe to the Byzantine and Slavic empires, Greeks and other eastern Christians largely adopted Western Christmas traditions, adapting them in accordance with cultural and theological norms. Today Greek traditions surrounding December 24th and 25th are still very much reflective of these adapted Western traditions.

At the National Hellenic Museum, we love discovering and sharing these rich stories and traditions from Greek history—and we would love your support in continuing to do so. As you consider which worthy causes to support this holiday season, please support the National Hellenic Museum with your gift today. Join us as we continue to serve the community and share Greek stories and the Hellenic legacy for generations to come.

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