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.
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.
As far as sweet Christmas treats go, Greeks usually fall into one of two camps: those who love melomakarona and those who go nuts for kourabiedes. Melomakarona are syrupy, oil-based biscuits flavoured with honey, nuts, cloves, cinnamon, and orange. Kourabiedes couldn’t be more different: they’re crumbly, buttery walnut cookies covered in powdered sugar. Hit up one of the many bakeries and patisseries in Athens and try both to decide which team you’re on.
Christmas lunch usually involves the Greek habit of cooking as many different foods as possible, with the extended family meal stretching well into dinner. Some variety of a pork dish, like fricassee or braised with plums, is always the king of the festive table. Many choose to have the festive meal on Christmas Eve, though this doesn’t mean that there are no invites for a repeat the next day. If you don’t have a Greek family’s house to crash, don’t stress. The majority of restaurants in Athens stay open during the holidays and offer special Christmas menus.
If you’re in Athens over the New Year, try vasilopita, a simple vanilla cake, usually spiced with orange and sometimes with an unusual flavour like mastiha, and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Each vasilopita contains a coin. The cake is sliced and distributed in order from the oldest person to the youngest. The one who finds the coin in their slice will have good luck all year.
Tis the season to be jolly (and go shopping)
In the lead-up to Christmas, Athenians are in the grip of a shopping frenzy. It’s not just about filling Santa’s stocking. Two of the year’s biggest name days—Christina and Vasilis—also fall during the festive period (name days are a bigger deal than birthdays in Greece).
Looking for a Christmas market? Check out What's On in Athens over the holidays and choose from the many bazaars and markets that pop up around the city. The Christmas Factory at Technopolis can be a lot of fun, especially if you have small children. The bazaar sells handicrafts and gifts, and you’ll also find themed playgrounds and rides for the young ones.
One of the most beautiful places to soak up some festive cheer is at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre. Its light displays are an Instagram staple, so make sure to charge your phone before you go. There are also free concerts and performances, and you can ice skate at the outdoor rink that pops up each winter.
Out with the old, in with the new
New Year’s Eve is a big deal in Athens. Make sure to sleep in that day. Have a late dinner (make a reservation in advance, wherever you choose to go), and then watch the fireworks explode over the Acropolis from a rooftop bar or restaurant. Some locals love to hit the bouzoukia after midnight. Others welcome the new year by gathering around a dining table and playing cards until sunrise.
The end of the holiday season is marked by the Theophania (Epiphany), on January 6. If you’re anywhere near the sea, you’re bound to witness the ‘blessing of the waters’ by a priest, which ends with him throwing a cross into the sea. The best part is when swimsuit-clad bystanders dive into the cold waters to fish out the cross. The winner is blessed by the priest and with good fortune in the coming year.