Karavakia! What is this you may ask? It is a Greek word meaning “little ship” or “small boat.” The Greek tradition of Karavakia is the decorating of small boats during the Christmas season. It dates back to Greece’s ancient seafaring days. Greece is settled along the Mediterranean Sea. Much of its culture involved fishing and trading throughout this region. Thus, sailors were often gone for extended periods while trying to earn a living. In those days, sailors were often the heads of their households. While they were away, the women and children took care of the home until their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers returned. When Greek women saw their men’s ships return safely to harbor, they would welcome them home with a celebration, festively decorating small wooden boats. This became a joyous maritime custom that became ingrained in the holiday season.
In the 19th century, new customs, such as decorating Christmas trees became more prominent in the Christmas season. However, over the years, the Karavakia tradition began to make a comeback, and the practice of decorating boats was once again seen throughout Greek cities and homes. St. Nicholas in Christian faith is the patron saint who watches over and protects sailors. The Feast Day of Saint Nicholas takes place on 6th December. This is the day boats are decorated, and they are displayed until 6th January, Epiphany. In the ancient days, the boats would have been painted or decorated in a similar fashion. Today, the boats are more ornate, often still painted, but also draped in strings of lights and garland, and trimmed with ornaments. Larger Greek cities like Athens and Thessaloniki light up beautiful Christmas boats in their public squares. If you get the chance to see these boats, you may notice that the main holiday colors are blue and white, the national colors as seen on the Greek flag, rather than red and green.