Do you decorate with a tree or ship for Christmas?

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In traditions and legends there are often questions left unanswered as to where and how they originated.

Decorating a ship is becoming popular once again in Greece, as there is a general trend to revive old customs. It seems like each year there are more and more ships decorated in banks, shops, and offices. In each year in Thessaloniki’s main plateia, Aristotelous Square, there stands a large three-mast ship next to the holiday tree.

 Greek Boat Christmas

photo sourced from


Where and how did this start? It is thought to be an island tradition. As most every island family is dependent in some manner on the sea, it is believed that the decorating of a boat was done in honor of St Nicolas. St. Nicolas, the patron saint of sailors, drenched in seawater with a face full of perspiration from working hard to reach sinking ships and those in need at sea. To honor him, small fishing boats began to string lights onto their boats.   Some believe that this was also done to make their boat more visible and the crew safe. On the shore, the family left behind would also light candles and lights and pray to St. Nicolas for the return of their loved ones from the dangerous sea.


The children then began to decorate toy boats while waiting for the safe return of their fathers, and once they arrived home there would be celebration. The small boats became a symbol of a happy return. Some would carry their decorated model boats from home to home singing the kalanda (carols).


Although many view it as a foreign custom, the Christmas tree has been very popular in Greece. The country’s first King, King Otto of Bavaria, brought the Christmas tree to Greece in 1833. It began to see its popularity among Greek homes in the 1940’s.


However there is a belief that the use of a Christmas trees was not only imported by the King, but rather that the Christmas tree does have Greek roots. The use of greenery and branches at New Years dates back to pre Christian times. During the Ottoman Empire, many Northern Greeks kept bushes of ‘Christwood’ in the home.

Greek Christmas Thessaloniki

Tree or Ship? You decide—perhaps both.

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