From roast lamb to gift giving: A Greek Australian’s Christmas in Greece

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By Kathy Karageorgiou.

I’m a Greek Australian who’s lived in Greece (along with my Aussie husband and our sons) for over 22 years now. Yet, unlike Easter with its ‘set’ customs and traditions, when Christmas comes along I get a tad bewildered about how to celebrate it, and so, I get creative.

It’s ‘easy’ to switch off the mind in terms of Christmas preparations when relatives invite us over, but even in these cases it fascinates me how they celebrate Christmas.

These extended family Christmases usually take place in the Peloponnese or Athens, and every year things vary.

Christmas food wise, the host relatives may have a lamb in the oven with potatoes one year, whereas the next year, a Christmas turkey. Once or twice, the main course has even been beef. At least the desserts are reliable! They’re the Greek Christmas ‘standards’, such as melomakarona and kourabiedes and perhaps diples.

Kathy’s husband and sons.

Then, after the Christmas meal, sometimes in stereotypical ‘English’ Christmas fashion, with our relatives we sit around and watch TV, full from our feasting and conversing. And at times, regardless of whether there’s a Chris or Christine in the family, there’ll be an outburst of song and dance, often till the late hours.

As for Christmas presents, my family and I open ours on Christmas morning. When invited to relatives on Christmas Day, we take their presents to them, and in our first few years in Greece, we’d wait around initially excitedly, and then awkwardly – for the relatives to open theirs. A few of the more sensitive relatives, being put on the spot I guess, varied their usual Greek tradition; nervously and hesitantly opening their gifts on the day – to please us!

Of course, I soon realised that in Greece, Christmas presents are opened on New Year’s Day – on St Vasilis Day – dare I say Greek Father Christmas Day? 

But St Vasili (or St Basil) is not the same Father Christmas that I grew up with in Australia. To me at least, the Greek saints, including St Basil, are those depicted on Byzantine icons. To turn him into Anglo-Saxon Santa Claus in his red and white garb with a jolly way including a belly, is to me certainly a creative way to fuse east and west.

Then there’s the Christmas tree; sometimes it’s a boat with lights instead. For example, some local councils in Athens have lit up Christmas trees adorning their streets, while others have the boat. This sea vessel Christmas ornament, symbolises sailing into a new life after Christ’s birth, as well as being a homage to sailors (once plentiful in Greece), and their safe return home for the holidays.

Speaking of holidays, here in Greece the kids get two weeks off at Christmas, unlike us in Australia who have six weeks due to summer. 

I guess the different Winter-Summer timing also directs food and activities at Christmas – whereby in Australia some do prawns: either on the BBQ, or in an entree like a prawn cocktail (as my mother-in-law always did). And, we sometimes have BBQs in Australia (with or without prawns) and go to the beach (weather permitting).

My Greek Australian Christmas customs were broadened when I met my Aussie husband and his family. On their table decked out for Christmas, there were what I first thought of as ‘weird huge lollies’ beside each plate. I later found out they’re Christmas bon bons or crackers.

Then, there were the ‘party’ hats! More Aussie Christmas ‘bizarreness’ I thought, at seeing paper crowns that we had to wear to get into the merry spirit of things I guess. And there were the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic based customs such as delicious fruit mince pies, and punch or eggnog, and of course the good old Aussie favourite – pavlova. 

But one thing on that table I was familiar with was the fruit cake – reminding me I wasn’t that foreign to an ‘Australian’ Christmas. At one of my places of employment in Australia, the Lion’s Club charity would kindly gift all staff – a fruit cake. I was mesmerised, and relished it as it was different, exciting, non-Greek.

Every year in Greece, I pay homage to my Aussie Christmases. I make a fruit cake, we open our presents on Christmas morning in our pyjamas, and play Christmas carols in English. But, we are subsequently part of Greek Christmas, such as appreciating (and tipping), the children here in Greece who come house to house on Christmas Eve singing carols (kalanta).

Our Christmas menu also reflects these Greek and Australian – and overall multicultural – influences. This year I’m thinking of meat pies and sausage rolls as an entree, or maybe samosas – and then we’ll ‘go Greek’ or English or American or French even, by having a turkey in the oven, and vary the usual roast potatoes sides with brussel sprouts or asparagus, or mashed potatoes and good old gravy. And we’ll have a mixed dessert table; the Greek aforementioned Christmas treats, but also perhaps a Tiramisu and lamingtons.

And as for the ‘spirits’; good spirits and cheer and gratitude for this family time of year wherever we are and whatever we eat! And certainly not forgetting the true origins of Christmas celebrations with a Church visit for a prayer of humility and gratitude; and a Xronia Polla wish to all the Chris’ and Christine’s.

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