Greece. Evocative of baking heat, and a shimmering coastline lined with beach bars. Hardly the premier choice for a winter destination? Think again. Ever agile, Greece is just as captivating in the winter as it is in the summer. From decorations to shopping, concerts to play parks, food, food, and more food, Greece is quite simply, the one place you should be this Christmas! For that reason, here is a definitive guide for Christmas in Greece, to make the most wonderful time of the year, the most magical one as well.
Table of Contents
Visit a Christmas Park
Syntagma Square during Christmas - credits: PitK/Shutterstock.com
Visiting a Greek Christmas Park is always a good way to get in the festive mood and, in the center of Athens, you can find one of the best Christmas Parks in Europe, the Christmas Factory. There, you and your kids will have the opportunity to, among others, enjoy the great Christmas market situated in magnificent wooden houses, ride the carousel, the impressive Christmas wheel, and the eco-train, and watch numerous children's performances, concerts, choirs, and interactive workshops.
Embrace the magic of Nafplio
The water castle of Bourtzi in Nafplio - credits: Takis ks/shutterstock.com
Another excellent choice, if you want to spend Christmas in Greece, is to visit the magnificent coastal town of Nafplio. Located only 2 hours away from Athens, Nafplio, which is a striking town year-round, becomes simply enchanting under the Christmas lights. The Old Town of Nafplio is captivatingly charming, due to the cobbled streets lined with Christmas decorations, and it is the ideal place to take a stroll, in order to find hidden gems and shop unique memorabilia.
In the heart of Nafplion lies the impressive Syntagma Square, full of monuments and historical buildings and at Christmas boasts an impressive Christmas tree. If you are up for some exercise, you can try climbing up the legendary 999 stairs that lead to the Palamidi Castle, 216 meters above the city, in order to enjoy the breathtaking view. Nafplio is frequently described, as the cultural capital of Greece. Therefore, at Christmas, you can expect to find a variety of festive happenings, performances, and events, in order to enrich your stay.
Sing the carols in Arachova
Snowboarding and skiing at Parnassus - credits: 2londoners1bike
At around the same distance away from Athens, Arachova is another town, perfect for a Christmas adventure, which is waiting to be explored! The Christmas celebrations in Arachova have an undeniable element of magic. It is arguably one of the most visually attractive and popular winter destinations in Greece.
Visitors are offered the opportunity to go skiing in the morning and enjoy a little après ski at the picturesque bars of Arachova in the evening. With the ski center minutes away in a breathtaking landscape, it is glamorous and elegant while staying true to its traditional roots.
At Christmas, it is truly an idyllic site with snow-capped mountains, log fires, and the sounds of festivity echoing through the cobbled streets. A golden glow effuses from the windows of small tavernas serving local red wine and warming traditional fare. On Christmas day, you can watch, along with the locals, the Christmas traditions at the Byzantine church of St.George and admire the snowy slopes of Mount Parnassus.
Also, if you want to explore the surrounding villages, you can combine your stay at Arachova with a day trip to the spiritual heart of ancient Greece, Delphi, where you can discover wonders such as the Temple of Apollo, once home to a legendary Oracle.
Play with the elves in Trikala
Trikala during Christmas - credits:Dimitrios Vlassis/Shutterstock.com
No post on Christmas would be complete without mentioning a Christmas village. About 4 hours away from Athens, at the scenic town of Trikala, Mylos ton Ksotikon -The Elves’ Mills- opens its gates every year to reveal Santa’s magical world. There, from 10 am to 10 pm there are fun, original games to keep the children busy and delicious, local food to keep the parents going!
Rumour has it, that the famous Elves’ Mills work in order to produce the coveted material for all the tasty Christmas creations. At this magical village, Santa and his innumerable helpers are waiting to offer you a unique Christmas experience. The Fun Parks, the Christmas decorations, and the abundance of free activities will excite you whether you’re young or young at heart!
Christmas in Athens
Take a walk in the center and discover Athens during Christmas - credits: milangonda/Depositphotos.com
Athens is an ever-popular destination for history and archaeology and Christmas is no exception. The scenic areas of genteel Plaka and Cycladic Anafiotika are given a festive turn with Christmas decorations adorning the streets and local establishments.
From the hills of Athens and the majestic Acropolis itself, the views of the city are truly stunning and the milder winter weather provides perhaps a more comfortable temperature in which to walk the many archaeological sites that Athens holds. Though famous for her sites of Antiquity Athens also displays remnants of the many civilizations that have laid claim to her walls. From Ottoman and Frankish to Byzantine and Venetian the city is a fascinating mix of architectural styles, much of which is beautifully framed with Christmas lights during December.
In addition to the impressive sites and landmarks, many of which have reduced rates of entry during the winter, are an impressive choice of museums, art galleries, and exhibitions. Always true to her reputation for freedom of expression Athens holds neighborhoods that are an art gallery in and of themselves. With our talented guide and street artist, discover the works of art that adorn lesser-known streets as well as the social commentary and political messages behind them. Whatever your interest, giving context and meaning to the history that surrounds you are our very own accomplished guides who will give you an understanding and appreciation of what an interesting city Athens really is.
Athens for Christmas Retail Therapy
Syntagma square - credits: trabantos/Shutterstock.com
Shopping in Athens is an experience that should please just about anyone. Whether you're after department stores and brand names or quirky boutiques and antique markets the city has plenty of opportunities for retail therapy. Known as the busiest shopping street in the city is Ermou Street running from Monastiraki Square to Syntagma Square.
Hosting well-known high street brands as well as national gems such as Le Chocolat, Greece's "temple of authentic chocolate" it is a good place to start if you're staying in central Athens. Monastiraki offers a lively market experience with everything from tourist wares, books, music, antiques, and a general array of trinkets that you probably will never need but can't resist buying. The cobbled esplanade of Dionysiou Areopagitou Street offers local vendors selling handmade wares and second-hand collectibles with handy cafes nearby in which to take a rest from the shopping and take in wintery views of the Ancient Agora of Athens.
For those willing to travel a little further the northern neighborhood of Kifisia and the southern area of Glyfada (both easily reachable with the metro) offer more luxury brands and boutique stores. If you're traveling with children Damigos Toy Store (in Omonia and Koukaki) is sure to be a hit. As well as modern toys they also offer a range of vintage toys and games so it's quite possibly an opportunity for nostalgia for the adults too!
Christmas Markets & Fairs
Christmas Factory Athens,Technopolis - credits: athensinsider.com
Athens is certainly not short of Christmas attractions. Whether you are visiting for some family time, a romantic couple getaway, or an intrepid solo flyer there are some wonderfully festive happenings across the city in which to get into the Christmas spirit. In Syntagma Square you will find small stalls filled with colorful confectionary and arts and crafts. In the National Gardens of Athens and Kotzia Square, there are Christmas-themed events and workshops, many of which are perfect for young families.
The crowning jewel of Athens' Christmas events, however, has to be the Christmas Factory situated in Technopolis, Gazi. Easily accessible from the center by metro (look for Kerameikos Station, green line) the Christmas Factory is the very center of the city's Christmas celebration. With everything from live shows, workshops, foodie stalls, carousels, Christmas gifts, and Santa's Grotto- the lineup is ever-changing but every year it never fails to amaze. A veritable favorite with Athenians, it's your chance to experience Christmas in Athens, like a local!
Greece for Foodies at Christmas
Kourabiedes and melomakarona - credits: photo stella/Shutterstock.com
At any time of year, Greece offers any foodie lover a veritable smorgasbord of tastes, aromas and niche finds. At Christmas, it has to be said that it is those with a sweet tooth who will be most delighted. Head to one of the many bakeries and you will find sugar-dusted kourabiedes, almond cookies which are really Greece's answer to the shortbread, buttery, and dare we say it, better. Right alongside the irresistible tray of kourabiedes, you will likely find melomakarona. Nothing to do with macaroni pasta, these are honey-drizzled -sometimes sprinkled with nuts or enveloped in chocolate- delights are somewhere between a cookie/ cake/ muffin and in any case, are frighteningly addictive.
For something with a crunchier taste -and often fried in olive oil so you can kid yourself that they are healthier- try diples, a rolled sheet of thin dough, dipped in honey with cinnamon or walnuts. However, like all things, do your research and make sure you seek out the vendors who really know how to make these Christmas treats, it is a crying shame that many of these wonderful delicacies are made worse in touristy areas so make sure you try the real thing! If you'd like to know where we locals go for our sugar-coated festive fix join our local foodie expert -and all-around legend!- on our Christmas Food Tour in Athens!
Christmas traditions in Greece
The Kallikantzaroi depicted on old Christmas postcards - credits: Pontos-news.gr
According to the Greek folklore tradition, there is only one thing to be afraid of during Christmas, the Kallikantzaroi. This magical beast varies in appearance from place to place and can be found in the tradition of other countries too. For the Greeks, a Kallikantzaros is a creature of the night sometimes tall as a human or of a dwarf-size with weird posture and long limbs. During the whole year, these demons have only one job: to slowly saw down the primal trunk of the tree of life that supports the Earth from falling into the Underworld. By the time of the winter solstice, much of their job is done and terrified that the world will collapse upon them they sneak into burrows to find their way to the world of the living. For almost a fortnight, and as long the sun is not moving from its position in the skies, they are free to roam the earth and fling themselves into every mischief and deviltry they can think of.
From the 25th of December to the 6th of January, the Kallikantzaroi spread terror to the world. They come in packs but they can easily be tricked due to their very low intelligence. One way to protect from them is to put a colander on your doorstep. The creature will start counting the holes and since it is not able to count over the number two, it will eventually get distracted by something else and leave you safe and sound.
The two days when it is safe to walk outside of your place unprotected are Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Since Jesus is born on Christmas, all the angels and saints are attesting his birth and the world is safe from any evil. On New Year’s Eve, St. Basil the Great, the Greek Santa Claus, walks on earth and keeps the evil spirits away while offering his gifts and help to those in need. This is why kids are allowed to wander the neighborhoods and sing the carols collecting candy and delicious treats! On January the 6th, the day of Epiphany, the priests are purifying the waters of the world on the occasion of the Baptism of Jesus, and the Sun starts moving again in the sky. Terrified by those events, the Kallikantzaroi scream to each other to return to the bowels of the earth only to discover that the holy waters have regenerated the tree of life. This will keep them busy for the year to come.
The "gourounohara" and the "marriage of Fire"
The "marriage of fire" - credits: greekqualityphotos.gr
In Thessaly, one of the most famous Christmas customs is the slaughter of the pig or in other words, the 'gourounohara'. On Christmas Eve, in many parts of Greece, it is customary to "marry" the fire. This presupposes the marriage of a "female" wood (eg cherry) and a "male" (eg cedar). The girls of the family put twigs from the "male" and the boys, put twigs from the "female" next to the lit fireplace.
The "lit holly"
The "lit holly" - credits: gnoristetinellada.gr
In Epirus, people usually hold a holly branch in their hand when visiting friends or neighbors during Christmas, which they light on the street and fill the dark paths or alleys with light. This custom is based on an old tradition that wants the shepherds who visited the manger of Christ to worship, to light oaks to find their way through the dark mountain.
Ragoutsaria in Kastoria
Ragoutsaria - credits: greece-is.com
In the heart of winter and during the last hours of the twelve days, the city of Kastoria surrenders to a unique three-day feast of joy and spree, which is spontaneously born in the countless groups of young and old who take part. On January 6, 7, and 8, the streets and alleys of the city are filled with disguised people, who rejoice, party, and dance, spreading joy and fun all around.
The lucky onion on the door
The lucky onion - credits: proionta-tis-fisis.gr
An integral part of decorating for Christmas is putting a Christmas wreath upon your door. Now, take down that wreath and make some space to put your jolly, Christmasy squill! This bizarre custom of hanging uprooted onions on their doors is something that Greeks do for centuries. This type of squill, scientifically named Drimia Maritima, can be found throughout the Mediterranean region and almost everywhere in Greece. According to tradition, every New Year’s Eve, the housewife of each family uproots this bulb from the soil and hangs it on her door. The reason? This bulb is so resistant to any conditions that -even uprooted- it still continues to grow large spear-like leaves and a white flower. Therefore, it was and still is considered a symbol of fertility and immortality, two things necessary for the New Year to come.
The Greek Christmas dinner
Christompsomo - credits: notosnet.gr
Who does not know the famous Nat King Cole’s song? "Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe help make the season bright." And surely they do! But how about replacing the roasted turkey with some pork stew? Despite the fact most people can not think of a Christmas table without turkey, Greece says otherwise. Turkey is not indigenous to the Greek region, therefore, there it is not included in the typical Greek cuisine. Hence, for centuries, the warming Christmas dish that everyone was waiting for was a plate of hot pork stew with celery and herbs. In other Greek provinces, the custom dictated roasted pork with vegetables but everyone agrees on the fact that Christopsomo is a must-have addition to their Christmas table. Christopsomo is a type of bread Greek people prepare deliberately for Christmas days and it is often decorated with elaborate patterns on its upper surface.
How do they celebrate Christmas in Greece?
Swimmers jump in the sea to catch the cross on Epiphany Day - credits: Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock.com
In every corner of Greece, from one end to the other with customs and traditions that have their roots deep in time. Each region has its own special customs on Christmas day, however, some, are common for everyone, such as the decoration of the Christmas tree, the carol-singing the day before singing, and the big family dinners full of delicious food on Christmas day.
Children from all over Greece go from door to door, singing cheerful Christmas carols. This custom resembles the trick-or-treat-ing of Halloween but is a lot less gruesome. The carols have a mixture of religious and secular content. In the beginning, the religious event is announced and described and then, the praises for the different members of the family follow depending on their talents, their age, their profession, or their social position.
What is Santa Claus called in Greece?
Santa Claus - credits: ec.europa.eu
In Greece, Santa is not coming on Christmas Eve but on New Year’s Eve. Why? Because the Greek Santa is rather different from the known one. His name is Agios Vasilis and he is one of the Three Holy Hierarchs of Christianity. He lived in the 4th century and was the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, nowadays Turkey. One of the most influential hierarchs of early Christianity, he shaped the newly-born Christian Church through his pluralistic knowledge of theology, philosophy, and politics. During his studying years, he moved to Athens, the most prestigious academic environment of that time, and got befriended with Gregory of Nazianzus (the second Holy Hierarch) and even with the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate.
According to legend, St. Basil the Great led a virtuous life, having at the center of his focus the benefaction of the poor ones and especially of young kids. One event of his life though is commemorated every New Year’s Eve in every Greek household. During his office as a bishop of Caesarea, St. Basil had to deal with a siege from an enemy army. In order to keep everyone safe, he asked the wealthy citizens of Caesarea to collect as much money as possible to pay a ransom for the protection of the city. St. Basil handed the money to the invader only after scolding him about the injustice of his acts. Persuaded that his actions were against the word of God, the leader of the enemy army ordered the withdrawal of his men and left the city unharmed.
The next day, St. Basil had to confront the following situation: he had to return the money to the citizens, but he did not know how much money each person had contributed to the cause. Instead, he came up with another solution. He prepared batches of bread, and inside each loaf, he placed a golden coin. By sharing them in the morning mass, he made sure that all the money was returned to the city but this time, it was redistributed to everyone. The custom of re-enacting this event is honored every year with the preparation of Vasilopita, a pie that bears the name of the saint. Every household hides a golden coin in the pie and then it is shared with all the family members. The person to find the coin is the winner of the night and he is granted the blessings of a year of luck and prosperity.
What is the main symbol of Christmas in Greece?
Traditional Christmas boat - credits: kanvag/Shutterstock.com
The centerpiece of every household during the Christmas season is the adorned Christmas tree. Putting up a tree inside your home never crossed the mind of the Greeks and therefore, this custom was completely alien in Greece until the end of the 19th century. Truth is, it really started catching up only after the 1950s. Traditionally, Greeks put a small boat in their houses and decorate it with colorful sails and candy. Well, this totally crazy idea has a very good reason behind it. Just by looking at the map, one can see that the country is literally surrounded by water and consequently, one of the most popular professions was one of the sailors, the fisherman, or the captain. A large amount of the Greek population used to make their living out in the sea, and most of the time, they remained separated from the families for quite some time. On Christmas Eve, young children used to fashion small boats out of perishable materials, and with the company of musical instruments and their friends, they used to wander the neighborhoods singing the Christmas carols.
In this Greek version of trick or treating, the children used to collect many candies and holiday treats on this small boat while searching for the next door to knock on. Eventually, through the passing of centuries, the custom of putting up a small Christmas boat came to be the true Greek tradition. The first time a Christmas tree was decorated in Greece, was in 1833 when King Otto, following his traditions, put up a tree in his palace. At that time, the Greeks that saw that spectacle considered the fact that maybe their king was out of his mind. After the middle of the 20th century, more and more houses started buying Christmas trees resulting in the prevalence of this tradition instead of the humble boat. Today, not a single Greek home misses its Christmas tree but there is always a place for the small boat nearby.
Why does the Greek Orthodox Church celebrate Christmas on December 25?
Greek Orthodox Church - credits: thegreekobserver.com
Today, we take it for granted that Christ was born on December 25th. In the early Christian centuries, however, the birth of Christ was the subject of endless debate. The decision for December 25 was taken in 336 AD and the reason was that an important celebration of the Greeks and Latins had to be replaced. Believers of the former religion celebrated in those days the great feast of the birth of the Sun (Dies Solis Invectis Natalis). In astronomy, December 23-25 is also the day of the winter solstice.
Christmas in Greece is a wonderful experience whether you chose to spend it by the sea or in the mountains. Here, you will have the opportunity to visit Christmas Villages, Christmas Parks and enjoy scenic landscapes both in Athens and out in the countryside.
The fairy tale, festive season charms both locals and visitors alike, offering countless entertainment options. Theatrical performances, music concerts, outdoor meetings, and Christmas bazaars, all contribute to the Christmas glee! Happy Greecemass everyone!