Karavakia: Christmas Boats in Greece

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Christmas boats in Greece, known in Greek as karavakia, are the most traditional symbols you’ll encounter during the holidays here.  Why a boat? It goes back to the country’s seafaring traditions.

Christmas boat in Greece
Photo credit: Panoramio

Christmas Trees and Christmas Boats

The modern Christmas tree came to Greece during the 19th century when King Otto of Bavaria, Greece’s first king, brought the German custom to the Mediterranean.


The European Christmas, Santa Claus included, took popular form in time.  With the rise of commercialism, traditional Greek Christmas customs took a back seat.  One of those customs was the Greek Christmas boat.

Photo credit: Petyo Ivanov

Now, the centuries old tradition has been fully revived and the decorating boats is just as common as decorating trees.

Karavakia from the Greek Islands

Blessed with one of the longest stretches of coastline on the European continent as well as major island chains, Greece has always been a nation of sailors.  Men worked long and hard, away at sea for long periods of time while the women of the Greek islands awaited the return of their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons.  The return of loved ones was a joyous time. Families would celebrate by decorating wooden boats. It was a special way of saying welcome home.

Photo credit: Pentax forum

Decorating boats spread through much of the country and became a custom during the holidays. Wooden boats would be adorned with lights and ornaments. These Christmas boats in Greece would be placed near a door or fireplace with the Christmas boat’s bow pointing inwards. This represented the successful journey towards the mainland. Sometimes, coins or gold objects were placed inside of the boat. This symbolized a household’s wealth.  Also, Greek island children went door to door with these wooden boats happily singing Greek Christmas carols.  Neighbours would drop in little treats inside each boat, like sweets or candy, as they sang.

Greek Christmas Boats Today

In Greece, Christmas is considered a secondary holiday to Easter which may be another reason why Greek Christmas traditions have been influenced by international customs.  Now, Greek Christmas boats have made a great comeback and many homes feature their own specially decorated Christmas boat.  Greek cities like Athens and Thessaloniki light up a beautiful Greek Christmas boats in their public squares.

Photo credit: Dimitris Siskopoulos

The main holiday colors are blue and white, the country’s colors, rather than red and green. In businesses and offices, lighted boats are part of the main décor alongside a tree.  Also, decorative Greek Christmas boats can be purchased in Christmas stores. Some boats are just a few euros while other boats range into the hundreds of euros, if they are handmade by Greek woodworkers.

Photo credit: Hydra Island

If you are looking to add a bit of Greece to your Christmas, consider the karavakia –  one of the original symbols of a Greek Christmas.  If you are planning to travel to Greece during the holiday season, be sure to watch out for the variety of these Greek Christmas boats that will be out on public display and throughout businesses and in homes.