The origins of the Greek Christmas boat: The karavaki

Greek christmas boat - Kakavia

Decorating sailing boats with lights is a fabulous Greek Christmas tradition and is making a comeback. More often than not, these Christmas boats are seen on the islands, where the habit originated, but slowly, they are making their way to the mainland.

As the feast Day of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, takes place on 6th December, this is the day boats are decorated and are displayed until 6th January, Epiphany, Theophania or Ton Foton in Greek.

On Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Epiphany, Greek children visit neighbours to sing Kalanda, Greek Christmas carols.

karavaki, greek christmas boat

Accompanied by the triangle, the carol singers carry small wooden or paper boats, which they had lovingly been preparing; in the lead-up to Christmas, the neighbours reward the children by placing treats, such as cakes or candy, into their little boats.

In 1833, King Otto of Bavaria decorated the first Christmas tree in Greece, and from then on, the Christmas tree was to be seen standing alongside a decorated boat.

When I first came to Greece in 1977, these beautiful boats were quite a common sight at Christmas time, seen in homes, on the street and in tavernas.

As the years passed and European Christmas became more familiar to Greeks through travel, television, cinema magazines, and commercialism, the pretty little boats took a back seat to the Christmas tree.

I’m happy to say "they’re back"!

karavaki, greek christmas boat

Thessaloniki, Greece’s capital of the North, was the first large city in 1999vast to display a huge decorated boat at Christmas in Aristotelous Square, decked out in blue and white twinkling lights, the colours of the Greek flag.

It took a few years but Christmas 2013 saw Athens following Thessaloniki’s example by erecting a fantastic boat, in Syntagma Square, in front of the Greek parliament building.

Kostas, owner of the very popular taverna, Maistrali, keeps this tradition in Loutraki.

It’s a joy to behold whilst taking an evening stroll along the beachfront at this most beautiful time of the year.

The Origins of the Greek Christmas Boat:

Greece is a nation of sailors, where men are often away from home and hearth for long stretches.

The story goes like this: long, long ago, women of the Greek islands, during the dark winter months of ferocious, stormy and dangerous seas, spent their days fretting over fathers, husbands and sons who were battling with the waves, praying for their safe return.

karavaki, greek christmas boat

On spotting their loved one’s ships returning to the harbour, the women would joyfully rush home to celebrate by decorating small wooden boats to welcome the weary seafarers.

The boats were arranged on the floor or beside the fire, with their bows pointing inwards, symbolising the homeward journey.

An alternative explanation for the decorated boats is Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors, playing a part in the origin of this beautiful Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors' Greek Christmas tradition.

READ MORE: Acropolis Museum: The unique festive activities for Christmas.

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