Christmas in Athens begins St. Nicholas Day, December 6 & lasts through Epiphany, January 6.
We arrived in Athens on Friday the 13th of December and two days later we left our apartment early to catch our first Christmas event, Athen’s Santa Run. All participants wore identical Santa costumes and attached long white beards. A great fundraiser and the participants seemed to be having a lot of fun.
Athens has 30 jam-packed days of holiday celebrations beginning with the feast day of St. Nicholas on December 6, when boats are decorated, through to Epiphany on January 6, when people dive into the cold waters to retrieve a cross. Admittedly it was a little strange to hear Christmas carols being played those first few days in January after the New Year’s fireworks. Athens offered so many activities it was a challenge prioritising our time.
Even the buildings show their Christmas spirit all wrapped up in holiday lights.
In the early morning of December 24, 31 and January 6, children go out in the streets singing ‘kalanda’ or carols. They often play drums and triangles as they sing and may be given money, nuts, sweets or dried figs. On New Year’s Eve morning, the 31st, we were charmed by the carollers in our apartment building knocking on doors and singing. We saw carollers in the shops asking: “Na ta poume?” (Shall we sing for you?) The morning of December 24th we witnessed a slightly different version – the children were seated in a truck, singing as they were being driven slowly through our neighborhood.
Night of Wishes
We learned after the fact, that on Christmas Eve, Athenians flocked to one square in the city where they illuminated the night sky with paper wishing lanterns that held their wishes and hopes for the future written inside. Following the paper lantern event, a popular Greek pop rock band, Onirama, entertained everyone with a concert in our favorite Syntagma square. Oh well, we can’t do everything.
St. Basil’s Day
Depending on the area in Greece, festivities vary slightly. Some, on January 1st, still celebrate St. Basil’s Day. Saint Basil is Santa Claus in the Greek tradition and brings gifts to children the first night of the year. He bears little resemblance to our version of Santa Claus as he is tall and slender with a dark bushy beard. He is especially known for his generosity and kindness to the less privileged. Today many children open their presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, but some also receive a gift on January 1, St. Basil’s day, to keep this tradition alive.
Another tradition on January 1st is Bounamathes, where adults in the family give money and gifts to children, wishing each child a happy new year.
The first known Christmas tree in Greece was set up and decorated less than 200 years ago, in 1833. Prior to that, the tradition in Greece was to decorate ships. Historically many Greek men were fishermen that may be gone for months battling the high seas. When the men returned, small boats would be decorated in the homes celebrating the holidays and the safe return of the fishermen. Today decorating a Christmas tree may be more popular than decorating a boat but slowly their old boat tradition is returning and the style of decorating both a tree and boat is emerging.
Little KooK (pronounced cook)
If you need a nudge to get into the Christmas spirit, a visit to this out-of-this-world decorated cafe is the remedy we recommend. Our visit was in December when Christmas obviously was the theme, but we learned that Little KooK’s decorating themes changes to fit any holiday and if there is no holiday, the cafe creates a theme. We heard the recent decorations during Halloween were wonderfully spooky.
This magical coffee and dessert shop opened in 2015 and has quickly earned its reputation as an icon to visit in Athens, not only for the delicious cakes and drinks on the menu, but also for its spectacular displays and dazzling visual creations. The staff are fully costumed according to each theme completing the experience. These masters of decorations literally cover every inch of space on the ceilings and walls, not to mention much of the floor space making the passageways very crowded.
Little KooK attracts young and old, singles, couples and large groups. Little KooK offers an experience not to be missed. It may leave you speechless.
Traditions and Good Luck
New Year’s Day is the Pothariko, a tradition where a chosen family member is the first person to enter their home for that year – and they must do it with their right foot. The Greeks believe that this will bring good luck during the coming year to the entire household.
Orthodox Christians recognize St. Basil’s Day and January 1st. A cake called ‘Vasilopita’ is a simple vanilla cake, usually spiced with orange, sometimes mastika, and sprinkled with powdered sugar and baked with a coin cooked inside for the big New Year’s Eve dinner. Whoever finds the coin in their slice will have good luck during the coming year. Yay – we found one!
The end of the holiday season is marked by the Theophani or Epiphany festivals with blessings of boats, music and food on January 6th. In the Greek Orthodox religion, Epiphany celebrates Jesus’s baptism. It’s also known as ‘The Blessing of the Waters’ where a priest throws a cross into the sea. Bystanders in swimsuits dive into the cold waters to retrieve the cross. The winner is blessed by the priest and will have good luck in the coming year.
Since ancient times, the pomegranate has been a symbol of good fortune, youth, and fertility. On New Year’s Day in parts of Greece we found a tradition about this unusual fruit. A person breaks a pomegranate at the entry to their home, hitting it hard on the ground so that the seeds spread everywhere. The more seeds that scatter, the more happiness and more good luck there will be during the coming year for the household.
As we exited the metro one afternoon, a couple of people were handing out those multi-paged, brightly colored Christmas advertising flyers for a shop called KΩΤΣΟΒΟΛΣ. Accepting one of the flyers turned out to be fortuitous.
We ended up using the flyer pages as our gift wrap, ‘paper ribbon’ and cutting out tiny decorations found in the flyer as decorations and labels for our packages. A pineapple became our Christmas tree and a crystal necklace became the garland. Two chocolate teddy bears acted as the tree topper. Hot chocolates accompany the plate of pasteli and white kourabiedes.
The type of Christmas markets we have found in other parts of Europe are less popular here. Instead we found dozens and dozens of street vendors lining the streets selling all sorts of handcrafted jewelry, crafts, art and holiday gifts. It is also easy to find a tasty snack from vendors selling a variety of nuts and dried fruits. Other vendors sell koulouria, a much larger, thinner round ring, bagel-like snack covered with sesame seeds that provide a satisfying crunch on the outside but soft and warm inside or loukouma, a large, light puffy donut sprinkled with sugar.
We visited the Christmas Factory at Technopolis and found a handful of bazaars selling handicrafts and gifts. There were carnival rides available for the children, an opportunity to visit Santa and a friendly purple dragon watching over the park. We found a wonderful sesame seed, honey + peanut brittle, called pasteli, that we couldn’t find as good anywhere else and were tempted to pay the admission fee a second time just to buy more brittle.
Christmas lunch is traditionally a large smorgasbord of foods and flavors. Christmas dinner is often roasted lamb or pork, often accompanied with a spinach and cheese pie, various salads and vegetables. In the center of the table is the traditional round sweet bread called ‘Christopsomo’ (Christ’s Bread or Christmas bread). It is flavored with cinnamon, orange and cloves and the top is decorated with a cross. Although we saw many of these in the shops on Christmas Eve day, we couldn’t find a gluten free option so elected to skip tasting this one.
Baklava (every North Americans favorite Greek dessert) is a traditional Greek Christmas and New Year’s dessert. The sweet filo pastry is filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey. It is mouth-wateringly delicious and during the holidays it is made into a variety of creative shapes. We even saw individual sizes of chocolate dipped baklava. Oh my!
Melomakarono are syrupy oval shaped Christmas cookies that are olive oil-based, flavored with honey, nuts, cloves, cinnamon, and orange. Once the cookies are baked, and while still hot, they are dropped into a cinnamon-orange-sugar water or honey syrup mix for 30+ seconds then removed and topped with chopped nuts. One local bakery offered a version that has become our new favorite. Melomakarono with a black cherry filling. An excellent cookie with or without a filling and perfect with a delicious Greek coffee.
Kourabiedes or Kourabiethes are completely different. They are crumbly, buttery, walnut or almond cookies covered in powdered sugar and popular in Greece during the Christmas season. The ones we tried were excellent.
Diples or Thiples is a Christmas treat made from a dough that is rolled into long, very thin strips, fried and folded in hot oil, dipped in sugar or honey syrup and lightly sprinkled with nuts.
Mastika or mastiha is a mild sweet liqueur made from mastic, a resin with a slightly pine or cedar-like flavor gathered from the mastic tree. One evening after a light dinner out, our waiter generously delivered two glasses of mastika to our table, explaining what is was, even taking the time to write down its name for us and telling us most Greek people drink it rather than the stronger Ouzo. We were pleasantly surprised by this digestives appealing herbal flavor. On New Year’s Eve mastiha was the main ingredient in a delicious cocktail we tried.
Greek coffee is similar to Turkish, Cypriot, Armenian and other region’s coffee. When ordering your Greek espresso (or freddo cappuccino) you tell the waiter gliko / sweet, metrio / medium or sketo / unsweetened. The sugar is stirred along with the very fine coffee grounds and water and brought to a boil in a tall, narrow pot called a briki. Greek coffee is served with the grounds in a demitasse cup and it is very hot. The grounds settle as the coffee is slowly sipped. Freddo cappuccinos are the go-to cold coffee. Even in December many Greeks order this. It comes with a thick layer of milk foam floating on the iced espresso and is extraordinary.
We may have relaxed our pace somewhat but we cannot linger for than 20-30 minutes with a cup of coffee. It is not unusual, however, for a Greek coffee break to last more than 90 minutes as they chat and visit. We love both the hot and cold Greek coffee choices.
Salepi – In years past Salepi venders would call out: “Salepi, salepi, hot salepi” but the ones we saw were standing quietly next to their wheeled cart that had a large, hot, brass samovar sitting on top of it. The samovar was filled with a pleasantly soothing, off-white drink. Traditionally made from the dried root of the pink butterfly orchid plant, milk and sugar then sprinkled with cinnamon and ground ginger, a cup of thick(ish) salepi was perhaps our favorite hot drink to enjoy in Athens on a cold winter’s night.
Even the ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates recognized that the plant helps with coughs, asthma and stomach pain. We still had traces of a leftover cough, so why not try this drink? It was slightly thickish, mildly sweet and pleasant.
New Year’s Eve
On New Year’s Eve, families often enjoy a late meal and play games until sunrise in their homes. New Year kalanda / carols are also often sung on this night.
At midnight, similar to our north American traditions, hugs, kisses and best wishes are exchanged for the new year. Of course, watching the fireworks explode over the Acropolis is easy to do in this city because modern day Athens is built well below and surrounding the huge hill where the Acropolis sits. Heading out to the bouzoukia (live Greek music clubs) after midnight following the fireworks is also a popular activity for many. We elected to visit a Bouzoukia on a different night.
There are two archbishops in Athens.
1 – The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Annunciation is the seat of the ‘Archbishop of Athens and all of Greece’ for the Church of Greece.
The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Annunciation of the Mother of God is popularly called the “Mētrópolis”. Construction began on the cathedral on Christmas Day 1842. The church was completed in 1862 and the marble used to build it came from 72 demolished churches. Unlike Western Europe, many Greek churches still have their original beautifully painted walls. Real candles are still in use as is the fragrant incense during services.
2 – The Cathedral Basilica of St. Dionysius the Areopagite is the seat of the Archbishop of Athens for the Roman Catholic Church of Athens.
Midnight Mass Service is said to be an important part of Christmas for many Greeks. Although we did not attend a Christmas Eve Mass we did attend a Roman Catholic service in english the following night, on Christmas. It was at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Dionysius the Areopagite. The church was dedicated to Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, a disciple of the Apostle Saint Paul and the first bishop of Athens.
There are literally dozens of tiny timeworn churches dotting the street corners of Athens and each is a separate church with a priest holding regular services. We popped into several in the city and although small, each was exquisitely decorated and most allowed photos. Many of these tiny churches were built during the 11th and 12th centuries. One church was so small there were a handful of people inside and another dozen or so spilling outside onto the street corner, intently listening to the sermon.
Northern European cities have white winters to entice but Athens is also full of Christmas cheer. We found delightful traditions and delectable foods. The weather is cool and refreshing, but not freezing. December is a great time to travel to Greece.
We hope each of you had a ‘Kala Christougenna’ (Merry Christmas) and we wish you a ‘Kali Chronia’ (Happy New Year).
Yamas from these Athenians,
Ted and Julia