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The Celebration of Greek Orthodox Christmas in New York

  • Written by 

by Eleftheria Lisa Mavroukas (also known as Lisa Darilis)

Christmas time in New York is a cheerful time of year, beginning "Black Friday" holiday shopping deals, with the decorations around the city, the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, and the general hustle and bustle of those celebrating the upcoming holiday commemorating the birth of Christ.

For Greek Americans living in New York, several adaptations have been made over the decades in order to assimilate into the new culture they have found themselves in. In the United States, most especially in this era of "political correctness," Christmas has become more of a commercial holiday, more than a religious one. There are plenty of churches, such as the Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Episcopalian, Baptist, etc. that try to dispense the true meaning of Christmas to their parishioners, but Americans as a whole, have created a new recipe for Christmas tradition, blending various aspects of tradition with more modern "fads" for the holidays.

Before we explore what Greek-Americans have assimilated into during this season, let's explore the history of how Christmas is traditionally celebrated in the past. First, and foremost, according to Greek Orthodox Christian tradition, Greek Orthodox Christians are supposed to fast 40 days before Christmas, not eating meat nor dairy, however fish is allowed, unlike the lenten fast. The Christmas feast was anticipated in the same way that the feast of lamb was on Easter day. This is why many Christians traditionally serve fish on Christmas Eve, whether it is accompanied by other non-fasting dishes or not. In all my years in New York, having lived amongst a Greek community, having, attended a Greek church, school, and socially having interacted with Greeks throughout the tri-state area up to present day, I have met just a few members of the Greek Orthodox faith who actually participated in the Christmas fast. The lenten fast before Easter seems to be more widely practiced by the members of the Greek Orthodox community here in New York. After all, many Greek families in New York have assimilated into American culture by celebrating Thanksgiving with a nice big turkey or ham, and let's not forget about the meat stuffing with chestnuts.

Another "fad" is the Christmas card, which has now evolved from a simple card sent by families to express humble warm holiday wishes to a professional picture or collage, which even now commonly displays the family members at a beach in bathing suits! This is sometimes accompanied by a lengthy letter describing the family's events or updates for the year, which seems to be more common in Greek American households located outside New York. Despite the American style of the card, Greek Americans still fluent in Greek do bring back their roots in writing a message in Greek to send to their relatives in Greece. Either way this is still a way for relatives to exchange images of their family extensions to their relatives. In addition, this time of year echoes how the second wave of immigrants dispersed from Greece in the World War II era, as Greek Americans now reach out to correspond to relatives not just in Greece, but in Australia, Canada, and other popular areas where Greeks migrated to and replanted their families.

There is also the question of when Christmas is celebrated. Many non-Greeks in New York, who have exposure to the Greek community, are aware that Greeks observe the Julian, and not the Gregorian calendar, for the calculation of when Easter is celebrated. There seems to be confusion around Christmas time by these same people, as they recall that the Orthodox Church celebrates under a different calendar. It is very difficult to explain to them that the Greek Orthodox Church of Constantinople agreed to celebrate Christmas on December 25th after World War I, but kept Easter with the old calendar, and that there was a schism with those who believed in the "Old Calendar." I can't tell you how many times people, who are not of Greek descent, have asked whether we "Greeks" celebrate Christmas a week later. Perhaps they are associating the Greek Orthodox Church, with the date celebrated by the Russian Orthodox, Egyptian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, and the Greek "Old Calendar" Orthodox (Palaiomerologites), which falls on January 7th. After all, it was this way up until the 1920s and is still celebrated in the old way at Mt. Athos. There are Old Calendar Greek churches in New York, and these members and their families still celebrate in January. The Greek Orthodox Church of the Greek Orthodox Archdioces of both Greece and America do, however, celebrate Christmas on December 25th, so most Greeks living in America have a little less explaining to do to their neighbors, co-workers, and associates of other cultural backgrounds.

In terms of what Greek Americans do on a cultural level to prepare for the Christmas holiday, the Greek-American schools and churches are still having shows with the children singing traditional Greek Christmas songs or "kalanta," the Sunday Schools of the Greek churches are still teaching the religious meaning of Christmas, Greek housewives, whether first or even second generation, are still baking or buying Greek traditional Christmas cookies, like "kourabiedes" and "melomakarona," and perhaps they are throwing in some sugar cookies, or other American variations into their variety as a result of their assimilation. Some Greek households may still be baking Christ Bread, or "Christopsomo," Greek American Godparents are still buying special gifts for their Godchildren, and homes are being elaborately decorated, although Christmas trees were not of the old tradition in Greece. Some may even still being sprinkling their homes with Holy Water to "scare away the traditional "Kallikantzari," or evil goblins, and perhaps some may even light their "Livani," or Holy Incense, to honor the birth of Jesus.

There is also the question of how and when the gifts are exchanged. The timeless question of who Santa Claus was is also a topic Greek Americans have to explain to their children, who are wondering why some songs mention "St. Nicholas," and others say "Agios Vasilis," or St. Basil. That's because in Greece gifts were traditionally exchanged on January 1st, St. Basil's Day, when the traditional "Vasilopita, "or St. Basil's Pie, is cut with its hidden coin. St. Basil, like St. Nicholas, was also a Greek bishop during the 300s AD, who also was generous to the poor, and was known to give gifts to children. Greek-Americans generally have adopted the gift giving tradition of the rest of the Christian world on December 25th, but there are some families who still hold onto the old tradition of January 1st, at least for the present generation.

Despite all this, a question arises as to whether Greek Americans have fallen into the wave of commercialism during the Christmas season. Guilty as charged...Greek Americans have inherited the sense of obligation to family and Godchildren, so they do tend buy elaborate gifts for those around them, as they all have been raise with the notion of "dropi" or shame if they didn't. The sense of Greek hospitality continues on, especially at the holiday feast, as families tend to set plentiful tables, which may contain Greek traditional Christmas meals, maybe alongside even some American favorites.

Finally, one has to ask how many Greek communities participate in the "true meaning of Christmas. Greek Orthodox Churches and schools do host food and gift drives for the needy. Many churches have boxes for donations, trees with poor families' wish lists, coat drives, and more. The efforts of parish priests, Philoptochos (a Greek church based philanthropic society), and devout parish members should not go unrecognized. There are many volunteers in these communities whose efforts help spread the true message of Christianity.

For Greeks and Greek Americans, Christmas means celebrating the birth of Christ and being with family. Many of the old traditions have been passed down, and have been altered along with new ones.

Whether a true traditional Greek Christmas is followed or not, it is comforting to know that Greek Orthodox churches and communities are still trying to display the true meaning of Christmas, whether it's through traditional songs, traditional cookies, or traditional obligations. There is still a strong drive to help the needy and in combining that with an effort for forgiveness , then perhaps the true meaning of Christmas is still strongly sought after by the Greek-American community.