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Northern Greece's Pagan Customs of Christmas

Every year in Northern Greece, Dionysian traditional events take place over the Christmas days, from 23 December to 8 January. Spanning back centuries, these activities, customs and ceremonies have their roots firmly fixed in the traditions of this region and comprise key elements of the local culture. In this article, we explore the rituals that I happened to be present and photograph, over four years; events which not only unify a community but also offer insight into its spiritual heritage. Here then is my experience with Pagan / Dionysian customary festive practices in Northern Greece.

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Christmas in Greece

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Fires of Achlada

The fires of Christmas is an ancient custom that is very widespread in the villages around Florina in Greece. Large bonfires are being set in central squares and each village tries to make a bigger and better fire than their neighbours. These fires usually take place on 23 December each year.

Pagan Christmas customs of Northern Greece, by photographer George Tatakis
Fires of Achlada in Florina

The initial idea was to go to the fires of Florina and make images, but I always like to find more surreal places that are less crowded and maybe more original. I set to travel towards some villages that I saw on the map near the borders of North Macedonia. I liked the scenery while travelling to the village of Achlada, which at times was surreal enough for me. 

An eery landscape near Achlada, Pagan Christmas customs of Northern Greece, by photographer George Tatakis
An eery landscape near Achlada

I was lucky enough to spot the wooden construction set on the square of Achlada, so I stopped the car to ask when they were going to light it. A group of children had prepared the place and set the construction to be set on fire. The chief of the gang was Dimitris.

The pile of wood in Achlada for the bonfire, Pagan Christmas customs of Northern Greece, by photographer George Tatakis
The pile of wood in Achlada for the bonfire

We had fun with the kids and they even gave me a tour around the village. 

A decoration around the village, Pagan Christmas customs of Northern Greece, by photographer George Tatakis
A decoration around the village

A small shack had been set up near the woods by the children with any materials they could find. Nylon, old mattresses and plywood. 

The shack, serving as shelter for the bonfire builders, Pagan Christmas customs of Northern Greece, by photographer George Tatakis
The shack, serving as shelter for the bonfire builders

The fire was due to start at midnight and everyone was anxious, especially the children. People had gathered around a fire drinking wine and eating local delicacies, such as roast sausages. Soon, it was midnight and the fire started. 

The bonfire at Achlada is lit, Pagan Christmas customs of Northern Greece, by photographer George Tatakis
The bonfire at Achlada is lit

Everyone sat around the fire and had fun until the fire started to go off. Some of the people would go to the local bar and have a few more drinks. I had to go to sleep as I had a very early start the next morning. 

People gather round the bonfire, Pagan Christmas customs of Northern Greece, by photographer George Tatakis
People gather round the bonfire

Fires of Giourouki

While waiting for the fire of Achlada to start at midnight, the people I met there told me to go together to the next village, Giourouki, to see the fire there as well. They would start that earlier than Achlada, since that was a smaller village and most of the local people there would visit the big fire of Achlada later. 

Enjoying the bonfire at Giourouki, Pagan Christmas customs of Northern Greece, by photographer George Tatakis
Enjoying the bonfire at Giourouki

I went on foot since it was less than a kilometre away. We met the people there who were very friendly and inviting. They invited me inside the basement of a local home. Everyone was sitting there as a table had been set and there was plenty of food, mainly sausages and meat as well as plenty of local wine of course. I joined them at the table and took some drinks and food. 

Inside the basement of the house in Giourouki, Pagan Christmas customs of Northern Greece, by photographer George Tatakis
Inside the basement of the house in Giourouki

It was around nine in the evening, that everyone started to gather outside. There was a large pile of branches and other wood. The fire was lit and soon a large bonfire was at play. 

It was a very nice and cosy experience and when the fire started to go off, we made our way to Achlada. 

Admiring the bonfire at Giourouki, Pagan Christmas customs of Northern Greece, by photographer George Tatakis
Admiring the bonfire at Giourouki

Fires of Sotira

On another occasion, I visited a village near the famous Pozar warm springs, called Sotira. I was passing by while searching for fires around the Florina vicinity when I noticed by chance this big pile of wood that was being built. The people who were working on building that pile told me that they would light the fire during the night. I thought to stay and take some photographs and then come back later at night to take some more.

Working on building up the pile of woods at Sotira, Pagan Christmas customs of Northern Greece, by photographer George Tatakis
Working on building up the pile of woods at Sotira

Indeed, on the same night, 23 January, people had gathered around the pile, and at some point, maybe around 10 pm the pile was lit and a large bonfire started. Since many people prefer to visit Florina at midnight which is a bigger city to see the fires and meet up with more people, many fires in smaller places tend to be lit a bit earlier so that you still have time to visit Florina as well. There was some wine and food to go along while watching the fire burning up.

Warming up around the bonfire at Sotira, Pagan Christmas customs of Northern Greece, by photographer George Tatakis
Warming up around the bonfire at Sotira

The Fires of Florina

I prefer to visit smaller places than Florina during the Christmas fires on 23 January each year, since they tend to produce better photos. Florina is a city, so the cars, streets and crowd do not help much with this purpose.

However, I have visited Florina, as it has a long tradition of these fires and most people know of this custom. The municipality also helps to build huge piles of wood, by bringing in heavy machinery, so the city shines with fires, as many different ones light up at midnight.

View of Florina atop a hill, Pagan Christmas customs of Northern Greece, by photographer George Tatakis
View of Florina atop a hill

Purpuris at Issaakion

Didimoticho is a city in Greece near the Greek-Turkish borders. I am always intrigued by places that at least sound remote. It is a rather long trip to get there if you are travelling by car. It takes three and a half hours to reach there from Thessaloniki. I found shelter in a guest house, owned by the local municipality which is a renovated old mansion in the city. This was nice and cosy. It could probably sleep over twenty people, but I had it all to myself. The custom would take place on 27 December in the nearby village of Isaakio. Each year the date changes, but is always around the 27th. That was only two kilometres away from the city so it was very convenient. Luckily, I went to a tavern to have lunch in Didimoticho and overheard two men talking about the custom. I talked to them and one of them, Apostolos, was the president of the Isaakio cultural club, the organizing party of the custom. This was very useful as I learned a lot about the custom. 

It is true, that many of the Thracian traditions and customs are not widely known to the rest of Greece. This makes it very interesting for me as a photographer, as I feel I am discovering something new. It is always useful to look at something with fresh eyes, thus being able to make images of things that a local may oversee. Early in the morning, I arrived in the village and the weather was very cold. I looked for shelter and found the local cafe. At first sight, I thought it was closed but on my second round by car, I saw a couple of people inside. I stopped the car and went inside. A big wooden stove was sitting in the middle and the place had the sweet warmth of the burning wood. 

I had coffee and chatted with a local, Christos, about the custom. These villages had been originally built by refugees coming from Turkey across the river Evros, following the Lausanne Treaty in 1923. They had chosen this place so they would be able to see their old houses across the river. They had brought their customs together, one of them being Purpuris. 

Two men dressed in the Purpuris costume, Pagan Christmas customs of Northern Greece, by photographer George Tatakis
Two men dressed in the Purpuris costume

Purpuris would get dressed inside the local cultural club, whereas the dancers would dress up in Didimoticho. Purpuris has to wear a mask at all times and never show his face. This mask is made of a pumpkin and the original purpose served to guerrilla soldiers who wanted to visit their families during the fight for Independence.  They would dress up like that and pretend to serve the custom, they were able to come and visit their loved ones. 

Dancing a traditional circular dance, Pagan Christmas customs of Northern Greece, by photographer George Tatakis
Dancing a traditional circular dance

After they are all ready, the music starts and the parade will visit the church of the village to get a blessing from the local priest. Two people were dressed up as Purpuris. In the old days, they used to have five of them, because the village was formed of five different groups. Each one of them would have its own Purpuris. 

Purpuris dancing traditional dances, Pagan Christmas customs of Northern Greece, by photographer George Tatakis
Purpuris dancing traditional dances

The group will be visiting the houses of the village and dancing around their yards. They will wish prosperity and fertility for the year to come and the house owner will treat them with food and drinks, usually Tsipouro (a Greek alcoholic drink made from distilled grapes). 

This custom had ceased for a long period and started only a few years ago again. It is interesting to see some old people's happiness and sentiment at seeing this custom being revived. 

Old people touched by the fact that the custom is revived, Pagan Christmas customs of Northern Greece, by photographer George Tatakis
Old people touched by the fact that the custom is revived