A pomegranate, an onion and a Vassilopita
New Year’s Day or Protochronia/Πρωτοχρονιά in Greece is midway through the 12 Days of Greek Christmas or Dodekaimero, which started December 25 when Christ was born and culminates January 6 on Epiphany, the day of His baptism.
Traditions are based on Greek Orthodox Christian faith, although adopting multicultural ideas and modern-day commercialism have watered down customs and left many without a sense of why holidays are celebrated or how they originated.
This article does not discuss traditions unique to certain regions or islands of Greece, but provides a general overview in hopes we might recapture to the true meaning of New Year’s and its rich customs.
I do not claim to be an expert on New Year’s in Greece, but I have done my utmost in interviewing, poring over sources in Greek and English and drawing on what I was taught at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. There are also websites that have since copied sections of this article without permission since 2007.
Special thanks to those who endured my questions and did not know the answers, as it gave me extra incentive to find out for myself and share it with everyone.
Morning of New Year’s Eve
From early morning, children of the neighborhood go door to door to ask permission to sing kalanta or carols to bring good wishes, announce the coming of St. Vassilis (Ag. Vassili) and bless the house (family). Most use triangles, harmonicas or bells and are given a coin as payment or reward.
In the past, kalanta were accompanied by dancing and flute music. Children carried lanterns (many in the form of small boats), did not ask permission and were given symbolic tokens depending on the household’s personal good wishes for the children: seeds or nuts for good crops, sweets for happiness, coins for wealth.
Parties bid each other, “Kai tou Xronou” (next year again).
New Year’s Eve — Circumcision of Christ; Waiting for Ag. Vassilis
The feast of the Circumcision of Christ is typically an all-night vigil combined with waiting for Ag. Vassili. It celebrates the first time Christ spilled his blood for mankind and the day that St. Vassilios died; Ag. Vassili the Great is remembered again on January 30 as part of the Three Holy Hierarchs.
St. Nicholas — patron saint of children and secret gift giver — is typically referred to as Santa Claus in other traditions and nations, since Ag. Vassili has nothing to do with children or gift giving, being a slim, pious theologian and patron saint of education. However, in the Greek tradition, Ag. Vassili is Father Christmas, and New Year’s Day is when people exchange gifts.
Welcoming the New Year
Families gather on New Year’s Eve to renew ties, welcome the new year together and partake in a number of traditions all having to do with good fortune, health/longevity and prosperity for a new stage of life.
In addition to a dinner of lamb or roast pork with an extra place set for Ag. Vassili at the table, everyone plays cards or other games of chance to not only pass the time until midnight, but also because it is considered a lucky night whether you win or lose. Many use euro cents to keep the game friendly, and non-gamblers may take part by buying a lottery ticket for the New Year’s jackpot.
An onion is hung on the front door New Year’s Eve. With its many layers and ability to sprout new life even after it has been removed from the Earth, it is a symbol of rebirth and growth. Some wrap it in foil to deflect bad spirits and facilitate easier hanging.
On New Year’s morning, it is removed from the door by the mother or father and used to bonk the heads of children to wake them up for Ag. Vassili’s liturgy. The onion is then left inside to bring everyone good health and longevity.
*Lots of people use a regular onion because it’s easy to find, though this is not purely traditional. See Comments for notes about the skeletoura or squill bulb (scilla maritima).
Before the stroke of midnight, the lights are turned off to cast darkness on “the old” and all family members exit the home. A person considered lucky is selected and handed the pomegranate, which had been hanging either on or above the door since Christmas.
When the new year turns, the pomegranate is smashed on the floor in front of the door or on the door itself to break it open and reveal an abundance of seeds symbolizing good fortune and prosperity (the more seeds, the more luck), the lights are turned on to cast light on “the new,” and everyone wishes each other “Kali Chronia” or “Chronia Polla.”
*Many wrap the pomegranate in foil or a plastic bag to minimize the splattering of juice, and some take the fruit to divine liturgy to be blessed before breaking it on the threshold on New Year’s Day.
Kalo Podariko – Getting off on the right foot
The same person, or another considered good or lucky — usually a child because their hearts are innocent and without malice — then steps into the home using the right foot (Καλό ποδαρικό or good foot), thus giving the family an omen of good luck for the new year. All other family members then follow, also entering with the right foot.
Why a pomegranate?
The pomegranate is a fruit with a history going back to ancient times and figures prominently in mythology. It is widely revered as a symbol of regeneration, fertility, prosperity and the inseparable marriage of life and death.
Duality of the pomegranate is best illustrated in the myth about Persephone, who was both daughter of Demeter (goddess of grain, harvest, seasons and fertility) and Demeter’s younger self. Hades, god of the underworld, abducted Persephone and would not let her return to Earth, thus leaving it barren and infertile in Demeter’s depression. When Zeus sent Hermes to retrieve Persephone, she had already eaten six pomegranate seeds, which committed her to return to the underworld for six months each year. The seasons of spring, summer and fall represent the six months when Persephone is happily reunited with Demeter on Earth.
Cutting of the Vassilopita
Cutting of the Vassilopita is a solemn ceremony taking place shortly after the new year has been welcomed. Filled with sweet or savory ingredients, traditionally decorated with the year written in almonds or walnuts (now frosting) on top, and sometimes accompanied by ‘Χ’ and ‘Π’ standing for Xronia Polla, it has a gold coin (now a euro coin or button wrapped in gold or silver foil) or flouri baked into the pita crust or filling, depending on the region of Greece.
The eldest person of the house cuts symbolic pieces for Christ, the Virgin Mary, Ag. Vassili, the church, the house, the poor and then a slice for each family member by age from eldest to youngest. Some also cut two additional slices for animals and Sparta, and some say there’s a slice for the business. Whoever gets the coin or flouri is said to have extra good luck all year.
The slices for Christ, the Virgin Mary, Ag. Vassili and the church are usually given to visitors to the home or the poor, in order to share good fortune with others. Many homes also have a special Christopsomo (Christ’s bread).
*The order of slices varied widely by source, so I followed the order given to me by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and the Archbishop.
Story of the Vassilopita
In the 4th century, Ag. Vassili was the Archbishop of Caesarea, an area of Cappadocia. A local tax collector came and demanded that all the citizens of Caesarea hand over their valuables, which caused them to pool everything together in a panic and give them to Ag. Vassili. When the tax collector saw the worried look of the Archbishop, he collected nothing and took his leave.
Ag. Vassili found it difficult to return all of the valuables to their rightful owners, so he asked parishioners to bake a lot of sweet breads, inside which he placed one valuable each. When he passed out the sweet breads the next day, everyone was pleasantly surprised to find the valuable inside belonged to them.
*Some sources say that cutting the Vassilopita is tied to honoring the god Chronos (Time), but I found no historical or biblical evidence to support this claim.
January 1 – New Year’s Day
For children, the giving of money or καλή χέρα (kali xera) is still a custom, though traditionally it used to be sweets and pastries to symbolize starting the year with a sweet taste in one’s mouth.
Some still practice a “renewal of waters,” which involves emptying all water vessels in the house and replacing them with the new water of Ag. Vassili. Offerings in the form of butter or other dairy products are also made to Naiads (nymphs) that preside over fountains, springs and wells and other spirits that protect rivers, lakes and marshes to “feed” them, though there are few who still practice this custom.
Many New Year’s Day rituals have now been replaced by recovering from a night spent in hours of deadlocked New Year’s traffic on the way to clubs and the hangovers that ensue.
However you spend New Year’s, I wish you a prosperous Καλή Χρονιά (Kali Xronia) and Χρόνια Πολλά (Xronia Polla)!
The Real Twelve Days of Christmas — Christianity Today
Orthodox Research Institute
The Christmas Cycle — Mary Magdalene Orthodox Church
How Orthodox Christians prepare for Christmas — Mary Magdalene Church
Greek and Cretan Christmas Customs — sfakia-crete.com
Christmas customs made in Greece — Gourmed.gr
Vassilopita — Cultured Traveler
History of the pomegranate — ozgrenade.com.au (Website deleted)
Pomegranates: Jewels in the fruit crown — NPR
Boat vs. tree: A conflict of Christmas cultures in Greece – AFP
Greece: Myths and legends
Το ρόδι και η κρεμμύδα — Matia.gr (Thanks Stathis)
Ελληνικά Χριστουγεννιάτικα έθιμα
“Εναλλακτικές βασιλόπιτες με ρύζι, τυριά ή κρέας!” – Ta Nea
“Ρόδι, ο κόκκινος θησαυρός” — Eleftherotypia
Consultation with friends, relatives and Orthodox priests
Two years working at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese