Everyone decorates a Christmas tree this time of year. It’s part of the Christian tradition. But if you are Greek, you really should be decking those flag poles on what other — your caique. A caique is a small sailing boat used for small-scale fishing around the islands and coasts. During the month of December, many families would join to decorate their boats and take a short jaunt at night around the port. The images of tiny boats illuminated with bright lights reflecting off the dark sea stamped many a childhood memory of the season with delightful impressions.
The connection with boats has more to do with the feast day of Saint Nikolaos (Agios Nikolaos) than Christmas actually. Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors and fishermen, is celebrated on December 6th. In his honor many families whose livelihood is tied to the sea decorate their boat for him.
According to Athens styleblog, children on the islands carry small wooden boats, either illuminated to light the way or with enough space to store treats given to them by the residents they sing for. The tradition also dates back hundreds of years when many Greeks were working as seamen. During Christmas time, when many were returning home after a long time at sea, their wives would celebrate by decorating small wooden boats as a way of saying “welcome home.”
This tradition has gradually spread inland with people all over the country beginning to decorate model wood or paper boats with lights and ornaments at Christmas time. Traditionally the boats are placed near the door or fire with the bow pointing inwards. This symbolizes the boats’ good direction towards home and the mainland. Sometimes coins or gold objects were also placed in the boats as a way to encourage riches into entering the home.
Surprisingly, the Christmas boat tradition has only become popular on the mainland in the last 30 years. It has been quickly overtaking the tradition of decorating the Christmas tree. This is due in part as a reaction against German influence. The Christmas tree is not traditionally part of Greek culture and was actually imported by their first king, Otto of Bavaria during the mid-19th century. It does not help that Germany is now the new bringer and enforcer of austerity. The Greeks in their typically proud fashion have been choosing to forego the Christmas tree for the “karavakia” or “little boats” to signal the holiday and to assert their right to self-governance.
So to show your Hellenismo, how about decorating a caique this Christmas. I dare you to plant it out in the front yard next to that jingling Santa Claus.