While not quite as prominent as Easter, or Pascha, Christmas is still an important holiday celebrated on Hydra, as witnessed by the festive lights and other decorations adorning the harbor, as well as lamp posts, railings, and shop and house windows throughout the town. The festive season lasts from November 30 to January 6 (Epiphany). December 25 and 26 are public holidays in Greece; Christmas itself is celebrated with a feast, traditionally featuring pork and large, sweet loaves of χριστόψωμο (Christ bread) decorated with the cross. In Greek, Christmas is known as Christougena (Χριστούγεννα), and people wish each other a merry Christmas with the words “Kala Christougenna” (Καλά Χριστούγεννα).
Κάλαντα: Greek Christmas Carols
Like most Greek folk music (δημοτική μουσική), Christmas carols date back to the Byzantine era and are still mostly sung in the pure katharevousa form of the Greek language. The word κάλαντα derives from the Latin calenda, meaning the start of the month.
At Christmas time, children across the land visit households and shops in their villages or towns, triangles in hand. They ask, “Να τα πούμε;” (“Shall we sing?”), and wait for a nod of permission. Once the carol is over, the youngsters say to the home or shop owner, “Και του Χρόνου, Χρόνια Πολλά” (essentially “Many happy returns”). In return, the carolers receive sweets or, more typically, a coin or two.
Καραβάκια: Christmas Boats
The Christmas boat (Καραβάκι, or “little ship”) is part of a very old Greek island tradition. When caroling, the children on the islands carry small wooden boats, either illuminated to light the way or with enough space to store treats or tips given to them by the residents they sing for.
Some claim that this custom’s roots are linked to the December 6th Celebration of Agios Nikolas (Saint Nicholas), the patron saint of Greek sailors. The tradition also dates back hundreds of years to when many Greeks worked as seamen. At Christmas time, when many were returning after long sea voyages, their wives would celebrate by decorating small wooden boats as a way of welcoming them home. Sometimes coins or gold objects were also placed in the boats to symbolize riches entering the home. Traditionally the boats were placed near the door or the hearth, with the bow pointing inward, symbolizing the boat’s return journey home; today you will often see them lighting up the windows of shops and homes.
This tradition has gradually spread across Greece, with people all over the country decorating wood or paper boats with lights and ornaments at Christmas time. Surprisingly the Christmas boat tradition has only become popular on the mainland in the last 30 years or so and is comparatively new compared to the Christmas tree. This is because the Greeks—aware that the Christmas tree tradition was actually imported by their first king, Otto of Bavaria, and thus is not part of their culture—wanted to celebrate using their a custom from their own heritage. Hence, they adopted the use of the boat. The number of people who have taken up this tradition show that it has been very successful.
The lovely photos of Christmas on Hydra below have been collected and posted by Eleni Christodoulou on the Foni Tis Hydras Facebook page.
Many thanks to Christina Stamatakou for posting this info on her blog Living in Hydra, to Rhapsody Jackson Georgakopoulou for the image at the top of the page, and to Sophia Mores for the photo of the carolers.