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Greek Islands Travel

New Year's Day in Greece

vasilopita basil pie

Greeks bring in the New Year with as much celebration as everyone else but, unlike many other countries, New Year's Day in Greece is also a religious holiday.

Greeks also celebrate the Feast of Saint Basil or Agios Vasilios, one of the forefathers of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Also called 'Protochronia', Greek New Year is a celebratory mix of traditional and modern and, in a twist on holiday celebrations in the UK, Agios Vasilios is the Greek version of Santa Claus.

So, while other countries have presents arriving on Christmas Eve, Santa (or Vasilios waits until New Year's Day to leave presents under the Christmas tree in Greek homes.

On New Year's Eve in Greece it is the custom for people to gather in the town square for a fireworks display. It is very common to find revellers packing the clubs and tavernas or out on a last-minute shopping spree.

New Year streets in Greece and the Greek islands can heave with people and traffic and many towns organise music and street theatre events to add to the festive spirits.

Luck plays a big part in New Year celebration in Greece. A win at cards or lottery could signal a whole year of good luck, so playing the lottery, card games, rolling dice and other games of chance play a big part in Greek celebrations at this time of year.

Games are often played in tavernas, cafenion and homes across the country. Even the state Lottery is played with much enthusiasm at New Year.

On New Year's day itself, the festivities start all over again. The first person is enter a Greek house on New Year's Day will bring luck in the door with them, in a tradition called 'kalo podariko', or first footing.

Just before midnight all the house lights are turned off and everyone files outside. When midnight strikes the 'first footer' is chosen to step through the doorway and back into the house.

The 'first footer' should have a kind, loving and honest heart so children are usually chosen to usher in the New Year in this way.

Many Greeks invite nephews, nieces and grandchildren to perform the lucky event in return for a handful of money, sweets or toys.

Some families even gather mossy stones from nearby ponds and rivers and place them on the threshold as it is considered to be a good omen for family members to step on mossy stones as they follow the 'first footer' back inside.

On New Year's Day feasting is common with family members tucking into an elaborate meal. But an extra place is always laid at the table for Agios Vasilios.

This is the time to bring out the Vasilios cake, or 'vasilopita' in Greek, a round, sweet cake that is ceremonially cut with a slice for each member of the family and three special slices for Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Agios Vasilios.

Slices are handed out to each family member from oldest to youngest, with lucky slices containing a hidden coin.

While many New Year traditions are dying out in modern Greece, some still hold sway especially in the Greek islands.

In the Cyclades, villagers believe a north wind on New Years's Day to be a very good omen for the year.

If a dove should lands in the yard that day, the family will expect an extra lucky year but, if a crow flies over the house, then all luck will be lost.

On Crete, the traditional of hanging wild sea onions, or 'squill' is still practised in some homes. The Cretan wild onion is actually poisonous and may cause a skin rash but, when uprooted it flowers and grows new leaves.

Cretans consider this rare quality a very good omen and so hang the wild onions in their homes on New Year's Day in a tradition that goes back to the 6th century BC.

The pomegranate is also a symbol of fertility and good luck. In many areas of Greece they will hang a pomegranate in the home in autumn and, after the New Year's Eve church service, smash the pomegranate against the main door of the house.

Some families also get the fruit blessed at the church before performing this ancient rite.

It is traditional ritual right across Greece and the Greek islands for visiting children to receive gifts of money or 'kali hera' on New Year's day'.

It goes back to the days when Greeks were poorer than they are now and when shops did not have many toys.

The gift of money to visiting children and grandchildren marks a wish for their future prosperity in the New Year. The gifts are often accompanied by sweets and pastries.

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