Along with many Western Traditions, like the celebration of birthdays, Greek families also decorate a Christmas tree as part of the celebration of the nativity of our Lord. But did you know that in the true Greek Orthodox tradition, a boat is decorated instead of a tree?
Now this may seem strange as we are so used to the widely-spread custom of lighting a Christmas Tree but this vintage and purely Greek tradition is still alive and well in Greece.
As a sea-faring nation, the Greeks created a unique and unusual custom of decorating a small boat or “karavaki” during the Christmas celebrations.
The Nativity Boat, as it came to be known, symbolises Orthodox Christians on board the ship of life with our Lord Jesus Christ at the helm, heading for Heaven, our ultimate port of salvation, across a sea of temptation, turmoil and trials. In fact, the main part of an Orthodox Church building where the faithful stand is called the nave which is derived from the Greek word “naus” meaning ship.
It was also, however a type of honour and an appropriate welcome for the many sailors who returned from their journeys across the world to be with their families at Christmas time.
The Nativity Boat’s link to Christmas is even obvious in that Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, whose name day we celebrate on 6 December, is the patron saint of sailors. He was also known for his warm and generous heart, his love for children and his care for the sick and poor and selfless gift-giving. Over the centuries, he was transformed into the Santa-Claus of today. He is also a shining example of Christ’s love and compassion which are the greatest gifts we can receive and give.
Until about 50 years ago, the “karavaki” was part of the expected and accepted Christmas decorations in a Greek home and was seen in the hands of children who went around front door to door singing Christmas carols.
Slowly but surely this very significant tradition tended to fade as it was replaced by the more global Christmas tree – nevertheless it is still inspiring and we don’t want it to be forgotten.
So since 2009 we have revived a truly meaningful and cultural Christmas tradition and share the special significance of the “karavaki” with our children.
Written by Pepe Sofianos