We once (long ago) had occasion to be in Thessaloniki at Christmas. I don’t remember exactly why but I think that we were diverted there as Athens airport was snowed in. The serendipity allowed us to see how Thessaloniki adorns itself for the season – the focal point being the festooned ship in Aristotelous Square.
The decorated ship is a Greek Christmas tradition. It might take its form as a model boat in the window or a mock ship like the illuminated masterpieces in the public squares, or real boats and ships moored in harbors around the country and bedecked with lights.
But why a ship and what does it signify? Lighting the darkest nights is of course a tradition all over the Northern Hemisphere.
Some people suggest that small model boats were carried by island children as they went door to door signing Kalanta and the custom came from that. Others simply say that they don’t know the origins and ponder the possibilities of why. As a member of that club, I present some maybes.
Maybe like the wreath, the ship signifies an endless cycle as they leave and return from their home ports.
Maybe it has something to do with a season that begins on the feast of St. Nikolas the patron saint of sailors and closes at Epiphany with the blessing of the waters.
Perhaps, like the tree, it is a pagan tradition adapted to modern times. Dionysos is sometimes depicted being carried in a boat so maybe the celebration of his arrival has continued to fete his replacement. And who wouldn’t welcome the arrival of Dionysos on the darkest nights of the year?
Though decoration with greenery has a long history in this culture, from the olive or oak leaved wreaths awarded heroes to the festooning of church doorways with garlands, some suggest that the Christmas tree is a foreign import by the Bavaria prince, King Otto.
I personally prefer the ship as a symbol and enjoy seeing the mighty Proteus chugging into port glittering with lights especially for the season and the lighting some local fishermen use to decorate their crafts. I recall a beached varka seen in a prominent location along the Skopelos paralia sparkling with little lights.