Boat vs tree: A conflict of Christmas cultures in Greece

Greeks are increasingly turning to decorating small Christmas boats instead of trees, considered an imported tradition, in the mistaken belief they are reviving an old Greek custom. «We are slowly abandoning Christmas trees, which are considered a foreign custom, and turning to ships instead,» said Erika Vallianou, a journalist from the western island of Cephalonia. «It’s part of a general trend to revive old customs. We are trying to recover the island’s distinct color that was lost when all our buildings collapsed in a big earthquake in 1953,» she said. Cephalonians have even set up a citizens’ group to promote the boats and its results are already evident. «Every Christmas, more and more boats appear in banks, hotels and shops,» Vallianou told AFP. Sparing the island’s unique population of black fir trees is put forward as a further argument in favor of the vessels. The Christmas boats are made of paper or wood, decorated with small, colorful lamps and a few, simple ornaments. They are usually placed near the outer door or by the fire and the bow should always point to the interior of the house. With golden objects or coins placed in it, the ship symbolizes a full load of riches reaching one’s home. And the Christmas boat is making inroads into mainland Greece. Every December, Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki, erects a huge, illuminated metal structure in the shape of a three-mast ship next to the Christmas tree in its main Aristotelous Square. «The Town Hall introduced the ship in 1999. Thessaloniki is a port city and we thought this would show appreciation for the role the sea played in the city’s economy,» said Thessaloniki Municipal Councilor Vassilis Gakis. «Our ship was the first of its kind in Greece. Many other municipalities are adopting it, but their models are not as big as ours,» he told AFP. Even the vast majority of Greeks who continue to stick to the Christmas tree consider it a foreign import. The modern Christmas tree entered Greece in the luggage of the country’s first king, Otto of Bavaria, who ascended to the throne in 1833 but the tree did not become popular before the 1940s. The ship, by contrast, is viewed as a quintessential Greek symbol. Greeks have been seafarers for thousands of years and the country is today one of the world’s mightiest shipping nations. But scholars are skeptical about the ships’ Christmas role. «Ships are not Christmas trees,» said Dimitris Loukatos, one of Greece’s most important ethnographers, as early as 1975. «Though it is true that children on the islands sang Christmas carols holding illuminated model boats in their laps,» Loukatos said. For children, they served as a lantern in the dark or as a box for presents collected in return for singing carols. «But in other parts of the country, children held other symbolic objects, such as miniature models of the Saint Sophia Church in Constantinople (Istanbul),» said Loukatos. «Using boats as Christmas ships is a new-fangled development,» Ekaterini Kamilaki, president of the Hellenic Folklore Research Center told AFP. The Christmas tree, assumed to be foreign, may even have some Greek roots. Use of decorated greenery and branches around New Year is recorded as far back as in Greek antiquity, as it is in other pre-Christian cultures. Tree branches and green bushes called «Christwood» always had a place in Christian households during the medieval Byzantine and Ottoman empires. «Whether its enemies like it or not, it is certain that the Christmas tree existed in the Byzantine Empire,» Kamilaki said, citing historical evidence from fifth-century-AD northern Syria. «We don’t want to ban the Christmas tree. It has roots in mountainous Greece,» said Gakis, explaining why the tree and the boat coexist in Thessaloniki’s Aristotelous Square.