Greece is a deeply religious country and accordingly celebrating Christmas in Athens is a solemn occasion centered around family and the Greek Orthodox church. Celebrations may be more muted than ever in 2013 following several years of austerity.
Festive lights will be switched on, only along the city’s biggest boulevards and three of the main squares: Kotzia and Klefthmono as well as Syntagma Square, which will be adorned with 16 small Christmas trees designed by Athens students; an ice rink will also be created in the square, which has been the scene of many protests against financial hardship throughout the year. Syntagma Square’s Christmas tree was previously renowned for being the largest in Europe, with a Christmas village growing up around it with food stalls and entertainment for kids. This year the many empty shop windows around Athens will be dressed up in festive glitz and most houses display tiny boats, symbolic of looking ahead to a new year and a happier future.
The Christmas season begins on December 6 in Athens, when the Feast of St Nicholas is celebrated and children are rewarded for their good behavior with gifts of fruit and candy. Christmas was traditionally heralded by a 40-day fast that ended on December 24 with great feasting; nowadays the feasting remains but fewer people fast. Dinner comprises soup, elaborate homemade loaves called Christopsomo—Christ’s bread—dolmades stuffed with cabbage, and pork dishes. Dessert includes piles of sweet baklava; honey-stuffed fried melomakarona pastries; and kouriambedies, cookies made with almonds and flecked with sugar in imitation of snow.
After eating, everybody attends Midnight Mass in celebration of the birth of Infant Jesus and traditional kalandas—carols—are sung. Christmas Day and December 26 are both public holidays, with all shops closed.
Malign spirits called kallikantzari are thought to prey on people in the 12 days between Christmas Day and Epiphany on January 6. These are held at bay by burning ‘Yule’ logs in fireplaces or placing food on doorsteps as offerings to the spirits. New Year’s Eve is celebrated by the arrival of St Basil—the Greek Santa Claus—bringing presents, more feasting, and the eating of vassilopita, a ceremonial cake baked with lucky coins inside.
Although life returns to normal on January 3 with the reopening of stores after New Year, Christmas officially ends on January 6, with the blessing of water and boats as priests throw crucifixes into the Aegean Sea at Piraeus.