Greek holiday tradition centers around the family

By Alexander Vassiliadis

There is nothing more special than waking up on the 24th of December, groggy from the festivities of the night before, and slumping into my little sister’s room, only to see her awake with her metal triangle, practicing the lyrics to the traditional Christmas Eve carol we wake the parents up with every year.

In Greece, it is tradition for kids to wake up on Christmas Eve, put on their best clothes and wander from house to house singing the traditional Greek carol. The host of the house, or the “afentis” (“chief” in Greek), will usually give a small monetary treat to the carolers who come around and, in some cases, invite the kids in for a delicious holiday desert.

As Greeks growing up in Chicago, our process was a little different. We would wake up at the break of dawn, mostly because my little sister would forget the lyrics and I would have to teach them to her all over again. At about 8 a.m., we would creep into our parents’ bedroom, as the tradition is to sing the carol to family first. The ringing of the silver triangles, along with my sister’s tendency to ever so adorably alter the lyrics, is what marked the beginning of a day of family festivities. We would pile into the car, many times with a platter of freshly baked “kourabiedes” (Greek sugar cookies that smell like they have just been taken out of an 1800s Greek patisserie oven), and make our way to the houses of family and friends, gracing each host with our music.

Being Greek and having parents who were born and raised in Greece, we have many traditions that we like to try to keep intact. If we don’t spend New Year’s Eve in our house, superstition states that before entering the home after returning, the oldest male of the household needs to smash a pomegranate on the entrance of the house. This way, the house is protected from bad spirits and bad luck in the New Year.

Additionally, on New Year’s Day we gather around the breakfast table and cut a “vasilopita,” or basil pie. This is an old tradition in which a coin is hidden inside the vasilopita, which is more like a cake, and each piece is given to a specific person of the family. Whoever gets the coin is said to be prone to riches and good luck for the rest of the year. There are always three extra pieces that are cut: one for the home of the family, one for Jesus Christ and one for the family itself. The best part of this annual cake is that the moment everyone gets his or her piece, he or she starts fiddling around with it, cutting it into smaller pieces and trying to feel for the coin.

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There are definitely some strange factors incorporated in Greek tradition, especially when looked at from outside the culture. There is rarely a Greek holiday gathering that does not include dancing on top of tables accompanied by clapping and cheering from friends and family below. There is rarely a Christmas that goes by without every member of my family making an appearance. There is never a New Year’s Eve where the table is not decorated by big and luscious Greek dishes. When it comes down to it, though, the one thing all these events have in common is the one thing that is the most important in our culture: family.

Alex is a freshman in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected].