Alright so if you have survived to the last day of the year, you are getting ready to welcome in the new year Greek style. Ever wonder why you and your clan spend New Year’s Eve playing cards in smoke filled rooms with ouzo and vodka spiked with a left over kourambie? Or why you smash a pomegranite on your doorstep? Or why you turn them lights out and come in on them right foot? Here at www.greekamericangirl.com we break it down for you and demystify your culture.
This is a tradition dating back to their 18th century at least. It involves little children knocking on doors and going from establishment to establishment to ring in the new year, wish health and prosperity on the household, and announce the coming of Agios Basilis, the Greek equivalent of Father Christmas, although technically it is St Nick who brings the presents. Ironically Greeks exchange presents on New Year’s Day as opposed to Christmas when Agios Basilis comes. In old Athens children would wake up to find presents stuffed under their beds. Agios Basilis comes through the window, not the chimney.
The children sing carols using a triangle or bells and in return are given either money or sweets to bring in the new year on a sweet note. In the past they also played on flutes and carried sail boats as the famous Lytras painting captures.
As a new year brings with it a change of luck, it is no wonder Greeks try frantically to test their luck on the night before they lose their chances. New Years Eve is supposed to be particularly auspicious for bringing luck which explains the card playing frenzy.
Turn into the New Year
Most traditions in Greece have all the lights turned off just before midnight and having the youngest member of the house along with everyone else come out and reenter the main entrance bearing a lighted candle and stepping in with the right foot. Just at this moment someone with a strong arm is supposed to smash a pomegranate against the threshold with the aim of spilling as many seeds as possible.
The deconstruction of these rituals has to do with the seminal transitioning from one year to another. In fact rituals the world over always hover around states of transition or threshold periods. Darkness also symbolizes the change from death into life, from winter into spring, from something old to something new. A child a figure of newness, youth, vitality, and innocence makes the best candidate to usher in that new year.
The pomegranate is such an old symbol dating from pagan times and beyond. As a winter fruit that survives by holding on to bloody juicy seeds inside its hard core, it is a fitting symbol of that transition from winter to spring from death to life. As the famous myth of Persephone shows, it is a symbol of resurrection and the afterlife. The more seeds that are spilled on the threshold, of course it is the threshold of the house, that border between the outside and in, between one year and the next, the luckier the year. The symbolic act of seeds spilling and the bloody red juices spatter in on the floors also connotes sexuality and fecundity, two other traits looked for in the new year.
The tradition of walking in on the “right” foot, needs little explanation. In most Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures, “right” is right and left is wrong. The guardian angel sits on your right shoulder; the devil on your left.
In some traditions, the family uses an onion that has been kept hanging over the door since Christmas to bonk children on the head new year’s day to get them ready for Aghio Basili. The onion is yet another symbol of long life with all its layers and its ability to survive outside the earth and resurrection as it can sprout again when put in the ground. After this, the onion is kept outside the door as a symbol of good fortune (at least until it starts going bad.)
New year’s day
On this day, devout Orthodox go to early morning liturgy to revere the Holy Heirarch St Basil, a father and theologian of the Church. After church, most families cut the Basilopita, or St Basil’s pie, which is really less a pie and more a sweet bread like panetta is for the Italians. In addition to keeping an extra place at the table for the saint, the new year is officially marked by cutting his cake. The eldest of the house cuts out pieces for the saint, the Panagia, Christ, and then the house, followed by each member of the family from oldest to youngest. The pieces reserved for the saints are meant to be set aside for visitors to the house. Of course, because there is a coin or “flouri” hidden in the pie, the person who gets it is supposed to get an extra dose of luck for that year.
And there yoy have it folks, some of your customs explained. As they say in Greece, “kai tou chrono” “and again next year.”
Just in case you wanted an English translation to the Kalanda song–strange because it keeps talking about a “kalamari” a squid with its black ink.
Αρχιμηνιά κι αρχιχρονιά,
ψιλή μου δενδρολιβανιά,
κι αρχή καλός μας χρόνος,
εκκλησιά με τ’ άγιο θρόνο.
Αρχή που βγήκε ο Χριστός,
άγιος και πνευματικός
στη γη να περπατήσει
και να μας καλοκαρδίσει.
‘Αγιος Βασίλης έρχεται
και όλους μας καταδέχεται
από την Καισαρεία
Βαστάει εικόνα και χαρτί,
χαρτί και καλαμάρι,
δες και με το παληκάρi
In Greek >
Ayios Vasilis erhete
Ke den mas katadehete
Apo, apo tin Kessaria.
Si sa arhon, si sa arhondissa Kiria!
Vastaei penna ke harti
Harti, harti ke kalamari
Des kai eme, des kai eme, to pallikari!
To kalamari egrafe
Ti mira tou tin elege
Ke to, ke to harti milouse
To hriso, to hriso mas kariofili!
Arhiminia ki arhihronia
Psili mou dendrolivania,
Ke arhi, ke arhi kalos mas hronos.
Eklisia, eklisia, me t’ ayio throno!
Arhi pou vgike o Hristos
Ayios ke Pnevmatikos,
Sti gi, gi na perpatisi
Ke na mas, ke na mas kalokardisi!
In English >
Saint Basil comes,
And does not acknowledge us
You are, you are the mistress of the house!
He holds a pen and paper
And leavened sweets
Paper, paper and ink.
Look at me, look at me, the brave one!
The ink wrote
And told fortunes,
And the, and the paper spoke.
Our golden, our golden clove!
It is the first day of the month and the year,
My tall rosemary,
And from, and from the beginning a good year for us.
The church, the church with the holy throne!
Christ came in the beginning,
Holy and Spiritual;
On earth, on earth he walked
To give us, to give us good cheer!