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Here are some of the Greek Christmas traditions (and three New Year ones) I’ve enjoyed learning about that you can also take part in during a holiday season trip.
Christmas Lights Switch On
This seems to happen at Syntagma Square in the Greek capital first, and then other towns, cities and islands follow suit. Depending on the year, the official Christmas lighting happens the last week of November or the first week of December.
After that, there are lots of Christmas celebrations throughout December, like bands and singing of Greek Christmas carols. And the town squares in all parts of Greece are lit up with Christmas decorations.
You can read more about what happens in Athens in the post about Christmas in the city. In Athens, it’s usually a popular event with live music and entertainment.
Decorating Boats and Eating Cod
Before the Greeks decorated Christmas trees, the tradition was decorating boats. You’ll see this, particularly on the Greek islands, and it usually starts on 6th December, Saint Nicholas’ Day.
Christmas boat lit up on Paros to celebrate the patron saint of sailors
For many, the 6th marks the start of the festive season. And on that day, they traditionally eat a dish of fried cod with skordali, which is mashed potatoes with garlic.
When I had this on Tinos, the potatoes were served cold and I didn’t love it. But in Athens, I tried it again and everything was served hot and it was super tasty. You can see a video of the dish I had here.
Despite the fact that in lots of other countries, St Nicholas is Santa Claus, he doesn’t bring gifts to the Greek children on the 6th. (Or even the Christmas Eve/Christmas Day.) Greek Santa visits on New Year’s Eve, see below.
Christmas Sweet Treats
There are two types of Christmas biscuits/cookies you can look for around the Christmas period. You can see me tasting them in this video.
The first, my favourite is the Melamakaron “honey cookies”. They’re very sweet, hence why I like them so much!
They’re soft with lots of honey and sugar as well as olive oil and several Christmassy spices like cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. I first knew them as being oval shaped when I was in Naxos, but all the ones in Athens seem to be round.
The second type is the Kourabiedes almond cookies. I thought these were going to be like the Amygdalota sweet I had in Andros. But they are soft and made from almond paste and rose water.
These Christmas cookies are made from almond pieces, and they’re crunchy. Both are covered in icing sugar, but I prefer the Amygdalota and the Melamakarona options.
Both the Kourabiedes and the Melamakarona are things you’ll only see around Christmas time, and they’re generally not available during the rest of the year.
Traditional Christmas sweets on display in Athens.
Christmas Carols on Christmas Eve
This is another Greek tradition I heard about but I only saw it after I came to Athens. On Christmas Eve particularly, the children sing traditional Christmas carols while playing a triangle in a way I’ve never seen before. You can see it here.
I saw some young kids performing to someone sitting outside at a cafe when I was out and about but I got a bit confused on Christmas Eve and again at New Year.
The kids come around the houses to sing their carols for coins and chocolate, a bit like guising at Halloween. I didn’t realise they went to anyone’s house not just friends and family members.
So, several children in Christmas costumes were ringing my doorbell on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and I didn’t really know what was going on.
I thought they were buzzing to go and see my neighbours upstairs who have a child. But it turns out they were looking to sing carols and do so for anyone.
So I probably seemed like a bit of a Scrooge. But at least I’ll know for another year and will be prepared with plenty of change and treats!
Celebrating Christmas Day
Nothing says Merry Christmas in Greece like a feast! Orthodox Christians will have been fasting in the lead-up to Christmas, and now they get to break their fast.
Greek families come together, and the table is piled high with lots of different dishes. Turkey doesn’t have pride of place like it does in the UK. But there are usually various types of meat as well as several vegetable dishes.
Church services are then held in the evening.
New Year’s Eve Cake
Like in other places, New Year’s Eve is a big time for celebration. There are the usual events and fireworks and celebrations. But one old tradition here is the New Year pie/cake/bread. Also known as Agios Vasilis/Saint Basil’s pie.
There are different ways of making the pie for this Greek Christmas tradition. One is more like bread, and the other is sweeter like cake. How they’re decorated also varies from family to family and place to place.
But what is consistent is hiding a coin and cutting the cake on New Year’s Day. The way the cake is cut is also significant. There are different traditions about who the first slice is for. Families who are active in the Greek Orthodox Church might
Bread at the bakery with Happy New Year and a lucky coin on them
The coin is for good luck, and whoever gets it in their slice is said to expect good fortune in the coming year. Often, they’ll get a little gift from the person who’s cake it is, too.
Gouri New Year Charms
I saw these decorations last year at a Christmas bazaar for stray animals. The first time I saw them, I thought they were for giving at birthdays because I saw numbers on some of them. But I thought it was a bit odd because I kept seeing the number 23.
I was expecting them to say big years like 18, 21, 40, 50, etc., so I was wondering about the 23. Until I realised, it was for 2023, not birthdays, d’oh!
Anyway, they’re little good luck charms for the New Year. Last year, I got one at the bazaar with the evil eye on it. This year, I bought one with an ice skate on it, and then my neighbour gave me one with a pomegranate (see the image below).
Another New Year tradition is throwing a pomegranate on the front doorstep after the clock strikes midnight. In Greek mythology, pomegranates represent all types of good fortune and fertility so they’re said to bring good luck.
Last year, my other neighbour gave me a pomegranate ornament that I have hanging by the front door.
Still Deciding Where to Spend Christmas?
If you haven’t decided yet where to spend the 2024 Christmas season, see this post about Christmas in Turkey’s Istanbul, too.
Even though it’s a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, it feels quite festive. They celebrate New Year in a big way and decorate New Year trees like our Christmas trees.
So you can still enjoy Christmas holidays while taking advantage of everything being open on the 25th December.