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Christmas Boat : The story behind the Greek custom of Christmas

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According to tradition, the boat was decorated because the Greeks have always had ties to the sea, since ancient times. Many adults and children worked on the ships to bring money to their families, even on holidays. The boat symbolized not only the children's anticipation of reuniting with their relatives, but also their own love for the sea.

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At the same time, small boats had the role of an honorary welcome for the Greek sailors who were returning to their homes and families. The boat often took the form of oblation, an offering to Agios Nikolaos, patron of sailors, to keep them safe in the wild waves. Often the children who went to sing the carols carried a miniature-decorated boat. Decorated with colored paper and ropes, it was filled with sweets and Christmas presents from the neighbours.

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However, as the writer Dimitrios Loukatos points out, the boat was often associated with a sense of separation and unpleasant memories and this was the reason it could not be established as a festive symbol. It was therefore easy to be replaced, later, by the custom of the Christmas tree, which, free from such associations in the minds of the Greeks, managed to ideally frame gatherings of warmth, with all family members present and to stimulate their family character.

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The first tree in Greece was decorated in 1833, in the palaces of King Otto, in Nafplio. Despite this, it was only in the 1950s that it managed to enter Greek homes on a larger scale. Although the custom of the decorated boat has faded, it still holds on in the islands, where it originated. The traditional boat and the more modern tree often coexist in Greek squares

Boats, therefore, are still decorated in some areas of Greece – more so on the islands. And although rarer than Christmas trees, in recent years there has been a shift in several municipalities to the tradition, with ships making their appearance in more and more squares of the country.

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