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Greek Christmas Customs & Traditions: Christmas Boat (Karavaki)

Traditional Greek Christmas boat
Traditional Greek Christmas boat

The practice of decorating sailing boats with Christmas lights, a fabulous Greek Christmas tradition, is making a comeback.

Christmas boat
Christmas boat


Christmas "Viallage" Drama
Christmas "Village" Drama

Northern Greece

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.

Christmas Boat  Skiathos Photo, Taxi- George Kordelas
Christmas Boat


Photo, Taxi- George Kordelas

Christmas Boat  Naxos   Photo, Kostas Symeonoglou
Christmas Boat


 Photo, Kostas Symeonoglou

Christmas Boat  Crete
Christmas Boat


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

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, battling with the waves, praying for their safe return.

"Ship in a storm"  Henry Ossawa Tanner
"Ship in a storm"

Henry Ossawa Tanner

On spotting the ships returning to harbour, the women would joyfully rush home to celebrate, by decorating small wooden boats, as a welcome to the weary seafarers.

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

Greek Christmas Boat
Greek Christmas Boat

An alternative explanation to the decorated boats, has Saint Nicholas, Patron Saint of Sailors, playing a part in the origin of this wonderful, Greek Christmas tradition.

Boats are decorated, in Saint Nicholas’s honour, as a sort of insurance for bringing the salty sea dogs into port safely.

Saint Nicholas  Patron Saint of Sailors
Saint Nicholas

Patron Saint of Sailors

As the feast Day of Saint Nicholas takes place on 6th December, this is the day boats are decorated, and are displayed until 6th January, Epiphany. 

On Christmas Eve, Greek children would visit neighbours to sing carols; ( Kalanada in Greek), accompanied by the triangle.

Greek carol singers (Kalanda)  Asia Minor
Greek carol singers (Kalanda)

Asia Minor

"Ta Kalanda"  Syros
"Ta Kalanda"


Greek carol singers  Crete
Greek carol singers


Greek Christmas carol singers
Greek Christmas carol singers

Carrying the traditional Christmas boat

Greek "Kalanda" singers  1950s
Greek "Kalanda" singers


Vintage Greek Christmas card  Carol singers with traditional Christmas boat
Vintage Greek Christmas card

Carol singers with traditional Christmas boat

The carol singers would carry with them, small wooden or paper boats, which they had lovingly been preparing, in the lead up to Christmas, the neighbours would then reward the children by placing treats, such as cakes or candy, into their little boats.

Kalanda, Greek Christmas carols
Kalanda, Greek Christmas carols

A much older tradition has gold coins or gold being placed in boats, could this tie in with the fact, that one of the seven symbols of Saint Nicholas is gold coins?

Christmas gold coins
Christmas gold coins

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 along side a decorated boat.

King Otto of Greece  Prince Otto Freidrich Ludwig of Bavaria  1815-1867
King Otto of Greece

Prince Otto Freidrich Ludwig of Bavaria


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

Decorative traditional Christmas boat
Decorative traditional Christmas boat

Greek Christmas Boat
Greek Christmas Boat

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

I’m happy to say;

 “They are back!”

Thessaloniki, Greece’s capital of the North, was the first large city, in 1999, 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.

Traditional Greek Christmas Boat  Aristotelous Square, Thessaloniki.
Traditional Greek Christmas Boat

Aristotelous Square, Thessaloniki.

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

Traditional Greek Christmas Boat  Syntagma Square Athens 2014
Traditional Greek Christmas Boat

Syntagma Square Athens 2014

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

 It’s a joy to behold, whilst taking an evening stroll along the beach front, at this most wonderful time of the year.

Christmas Boat  Maistrali Taverna Loutraki  Photo, Kostas Vackouftsis.
Christmas Boat

Maistrali Taverna Loutraki

Photo, Kostas Vackouftsis.

How about adding a touch of “Greekness” to your Christmas this year?

 Have a look at this little fellow, isn’t he just delightful?

A handmade Greek Santa, sporting  a Santorini scene, edged with the”Greek Key"pattern, and is that a tarboosh I spy on his head, adorned with  a laurel wreath, the Olympic crown?

This lovable Agios Vassilis  (Greek for Santa Claus) will add a dash of  Greek spirit to any home this Christmas!

Jim Shore Greek Santa  Hand made from the "Around the World" collection
Jim Shore 7 inch Greek Santa figurine.

Hand made from the "Around the World" collection

Buy this super Santa HERE

(Also available as tree ornament, see below)

Don't let the tree feel left out, give that some Greekness too!

Click on image for details of these uniquely Greek tree ornaments.

Parthenon in winter
Glass Christmas tree ornament

Christmas boat

4.5 inch Jim Shore Christmas tree ornament
Greek Santa

Santa visits The Acropolis

Greece, glorious Greece
Glass Christmas tree ornament

Kala Christougianna!
(Happy Christmas in Greek)


  1. Fabulous! I'm your biggest fan, I'm sure. Absolutely love the Christmas theme here. Gawjus!

    1. Thank you so much Caz, It's a great feeling when someone reads what you have written, and likes it, as you yourself know very well!
      Have the best Christmas,

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks, Glad that these beauties are on show gain!

  3. Susan, a wonderful presentation of the importance and history of the glowing sailboat, ship and fishing boat, all decked out for the season's many festivities. Yes, Thessaloniki, was the first city to revitalize this lovely custom! I enjoyed this, thanks for sharing!

    Kala Christougenna!

    Poppy x

    1. Hi Poppy,
      I love all the quaint little Greek customs and traditions, and am so pleased when they "reinvented" shall we say! Now I hear that the ubiquitous kiosk is to be done away with, oh, please no!The kiosk , the hub of Greek life, a terrible mistake if this really happens.
      Have a very Merry Christmas Poppy.

  4. Loved the post - as always. I posted photos on FB last night of the lights in Stoupa and had a friend ask, "No boats?" and until your post I wouldn't have given it another thought. Both of our small villages have stars but not a boat lit up in the harbor. Most interesting. Kala Christoougianna!

    1. Hi Jackie, I do think the boat tradition is more of an island tradition, here in The Peloponnese I have seen them in people's houses rather than on the streets, I do so love them,they are so different!
      Happy Christmas and Happy first Greek Anniversary!

  5. Every year I think I should find a little caique to hang on the tree but never find one. I should make one myself

    1. Oh, do try and make one yourself Hilary, it will have so much more meaning to you and your family, and then can be passed down from generation to generation. Who knows? In years to come, someone could be saying "My great, great grandmother made that" as they hang it on their tree!
      Have a wonderful Christmas,

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Hello

    In July my No. 2 Son and family visited Ormesby Hall on Teesside.

    There they found that one of the Hall's owners, James Stovin Pennyman, had been born on Corfu. He returned to England and at Christmas time 1868 he decided to revive a Greek tradition for his own family - he and his children created a Christmas Ship.

    Long story short - my son bought one for my birthday, and here it is set on my hearth:

    I love it. Thank you for this post in your blog explaining the custom. I hope to continue the tradition.

  8. What a wonderful story Stuart, thanks for sharing it.
    How amazing it is that this lovely Greek Christmas tradition is being carried on in Teesside, and in your home!
    Thanks for your photo (And links)...brilliant!
    Have a very Happy Christmas.
    Susan. x


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