St Basil the Great: The Greek Santa Claus

In most Western Christian cultures, children await for the arrival of the Santa Claus on the night of Christmas Eve. Depicted usually with a red outfit originating from a coke advertisement, Santa or Saint Nicholas is not the only person bringing gifts on Christmas. In Austria, Switzerland, and other neighboring countries, the gifts are brought by Christkind. In Italy, there is Babbo Natale and the Befana. In other countries there is the Christmas gnome and the Christmas goat… but what about Greece? Who brings the presents in Greece?

Saint Basil of Caesarea is the Greek Father Christmas

In Greece, the most influential religion is Greek Orthodoxy, which is part of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Greek Orthodoxy has its roots in Early Christianity in the Near East and the Byzantine Empire – which is described as the medieval history of Greece. The traditional gift-bringer in Greece could only be an influential figure from Byzantine history.

Basil of Caesarea, known also as Saint Basil the Great, was the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia – which is located in modern-day Turkey. He was an important theologian and one of the three Cappadocian Fathers. He had a huge influence on monasticism and the opposition against Arianism and other heresies. One of the most unique looking churches is the world, the Orthodox Cathedral on the Red Square of Moscow, Russia, is dedicated to St Basil.

He is usually depictedwith a medium complexion and dark brown eyes and hair, bearing few similarities to Santa Claus. Since he followed an ascetic lifestyle, he always looks very thin with protruding cheekbones. It is believed that he came from a wealthy family, but he always took care of those in need. This is why he is the holiday gift-bringer in Greece, although it is not clear when this tradition started.

It is important to note that gifts in Greece are exchanged on New Year’s Day, also known as “Saint Basil’s Day”, since St Basil was born on January 1st (330 AD). However, Hollywood has greatly influenced our perception of certain traditions, with many Greek families exchanging gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, instead of January 1st. Not only that, but Saint Basil, called «Άγιος Βασίλειος» in Greek, has been represented in a historically inaccurate way, when it comes to his clothes, silhouette, complexion, and general appearance.

When it comes to the exchange of gifts, the tradition varies. Children are sometimes told that St Basil enters the house through the chimney, however, fireplaces are not common in Greece nowadays. That is why parents usually say that St Basil leaves the presents at the doorstep of its house and leaves. Parents can be very creative with the stories they share and, sometimes, they tell their children that the Byzantine gift-bringer comes through the… radiators.

Children in Greece are rarely asked to leave a treat for St Basil, as in other cultures, and it is not clear how the gift-bringer travels around the world. An interesting fact here is that the story of the western Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, arriving on a flying sleigh probably originates in ancient Greece and the myth of the flying chariot god, Helios (the Sun). However, in the Greek Orthodox tradition, it is prophet Elias, not St Basil, who chose this method of transportation.

Santa’s Companions

Now, before we end this video it is important to acknowledge the presence of the malevolent companions of Father Christmas, who are present in almost every Christian culture. In central Europe, for example, there is Krampus, a horned monster that could be described as the anti-Santa. He and his minions punish naughty children by giving them coal instead of presents. In the Greek tradition, there are several such malevolent creatures, with the difference that, instead of punishing the kids who misbehave, they try to sabotage Christmas preparations.

These creatures are no other than the “kallikantzaroi”, who are notorious in Greece and some neighboring countries for misplacing items, stealing or spoiling food, and playing tricks on people. They can be compared to the “goblins” of other European cultures. As you might remember from another video by Helinika, these tricksters live under the surface of the Earth and resurface only between the 25th of December and the 7th of January, when the “Blessing of the Waters” takes place. “Kallikantzaroi” also aim at cutting down the “Tree of Earth”, which supposedly holds the planet together.

I hope you found the video helpful. If you did, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe for more videos like this. Now, I am really curious to hear about similar stories from your culture, if you do celebrate Christmas. Who brings presents in your country and are there any myths about tricksters roaming around? Leave a comment down below!

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Marialena Perpiraki is a journalist and writer from Athens, Greece. In 2020, she founded Helinika as a cross-media platform.