New Year in the Greek Islands
Archimedes: December 2013
Onions, pomegranates and a very special cake.
As we prepare to ring in the New Year, it's good to know that friends in the Greek Islands are doing the same, but with a Greek perspective on the occasion.
While we in the UK use New Year celebrations mostly as an excuse to party and get drunk, the Greek celebrations, although similar, have always been more tightly locked into the Greek Orthodox Christian faith.
That said, not all Greeks will appreciate the religious significance of the event and will have little idea of the traditional values that lie behind the celebrations.
However, it is customary for Greek children to go carol singing on New Year's Eve, an old custom that dates back to pre-Christian times.
New Year's celebrations may also include a feast to the 'Circumcision of Christ' which is often combined with an all-night vigil for one of the most holy saints of the Greek Orthodox church, Agios Vassili who died on this date.
The revered saint in not to be confused with Agios Nikolaos, Bishop of Smyrna, patron saint of children and a secret gift giver, who lend his name to Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus.
The confusion is compounded by the Greek tradition of exchanging presents on New Year's Day to honour Agios Vassili and seeing him dressed up in the modern western guise of a red and white cloaked Father Christmas .
Greek families also gather on New Year's Eve to welcome in the new year together and a place is often set for Agios Vassili at a celebration meal of lamb or pork.
A quaint tradition is the hanging on an onion is hung on the front door on New Year's Eve, a symbol of rebirth and new life. It is taken down on New Year's Day and the children's heads tapped with it to wake them up.
Also hung on the front door is a pomegranate and just before midnight the fruit is taken down and handed to a child deemed to be 'lucky' as the house lights are turned off and all the household stands outside.
When the midnight bells chime everyone calls out 'Kali Khronia' and the pomegranate is dashed against the door to spill the seeds. The chosen 'lucky' child then steps back into the house, right foot first as an omen of good luck. The rest of the family follows, all right feet first, and the lights are turned back on.
Many families then celebrate the cutting of a 'vassilopita' cake. The cake is baked with a coin inside and topped with almonds or walnuts.
The oldest member of the family usually cuts the cake with a slice for each family member. Whoever gets the coin is thought to be blessed with good luck in the coming year. Children may also be handed gifts of money to welcome the New Year.