Photo: Manos Chatzikonstantis

Thinking of coming to town with Santa? Here’s how to celebrate the Christmas holidays in Athens.

It’s a great idea to travel to Athens in December. The weather is chilly but not freezing. There are fewer tourists (which means shorter lines for all your favourite attractions). And locals are out and about everywhere enjoying the sparkle of Christmas lights above the city streets. While Athens might not be a winter holiday destination the way snowy northern European cities are, there are lovely traditions to witness and tasty seasonal foods to tempt you. Here’s how the Greeks do Christmas and what you can do to join in the festive spirit.

Deck the halls

The Christmas season in Athens kicks off on December 6 for the feast day of St. Nicholas, and continues until Epiphany on January 6. So there’s a whole month of festivities to enjoy. Traditionally, New Year is when Agios Vasilis (St. Basil), the Greek version of Santa Claus, brings gifts. He bears little resemblance to the western version of Santa though: he’s tall, slender, and has a dark bushy beard and is known for his generosity and kindness to the less privileged. These days, most kids get to tear open their presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, but some also get a gift on January 1, St. Basil’s day, to keep the tradition alive.

Syntagma Square turns on the Christmas cheer.

Photo: Thomas Gravanis

By the first week of December, Christmas trees will have appeared on every Athenian square (the main one is lit ceremoniously on Syntagma Square). But it wasn’t so long ago that the more traditional karavaki (small boat) was the yuletide centrepiece, adorned with lights and ornaments. The custom began on the Greek islands, where sailors were often away from home for long periods of time. To celebrate the men’s safe return, locals decorated boats and placed them on the floor next to the fireplace, with bows pointed inwards to symbolise the journey home. Some neighbourhoods, usually those closer to the seaside, still observe this tradition.

Then there’s the carolling. Traditionally, groups of children ring their neighbours’ doorbells from the early morning hours on December 24, 31 and January 6. Accompanied by a musical triangle, they sing the kalanta (Christmas jingles) and usually earn a fair amount of pocket money from their generous neighbours in return. These days, you’re likely to run into little carollers all over the city’s shops, restaurants and cafes, asking: “Na ta poume?” (Shall we sing for you?).

On New Year’s Day, pomegranates are smashed on doorsteps across Athens. The bright pink seeds that spread out as a result signify happiness and abundance for the family in the year ahead. 

Festive feasts

Find the coin in the vasilopita and you'll have good luck for the year ahead.

Photo: Eleni Veziri

Pick up a Christmas trinket at one of Athens' many festive bazaars.

Photo: Manos Chatzikonstantis

Tis the season to be jolly (and go shopping)

Out with the old, in with the new

New Year's Eve goes off with a big bang in Athens.

Photo: Stelios Kotsovilis