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The Greek Maritime Holiday Tradition of Karavakia!

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.

Most of my blog posts focus on Greek and Roman history and culture because I absolutely love these two civilizations. And any chance I get to be involved with a project about either, I leap at the occasion. Each year at The Mariners’ Museum and Park, I like to celebrate this unique tradition by creating our very own Karavakia display. Unfortunately, this year, things are a little different at the Museum, and I will not be able to do it since our galleries remain closed. But I still wanted to take this opportunity to spread some Karavakia joy and commemoration. Normally, this display would be larger, usually in the Museum’s lobby with larger and smaller boats, and I include various facts about the ancient Greeks in maritime history, along with more on the Karavakia celebration. Here is an idea of how part of the display looked:

This boat was used as part of our Karavakia celebration
Photo credit: Jenna Dill

Again, with things being different this year, we could not do our normal setup. But that did not stop me from celebrating the season. So I decorated some of the boat models that we use for programs at the Museum to make a display for this year. As you may see, the boats are not, and do not, need to be ornately decorated. Like mine in the pictures below, the boats can be done with simple décor or however you feel best conveys the meaning behind the Karavakia tradition, and thoughts of well wishes for safety to the men and women at sea. I wish you and yours a wonderful holiday season with fair winds and following seas!

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