Everything you need to know about Christmas in Greece. Includes information about Greek Christmas traditions, winter weather, where to go, what to do, what clothes to pack, and what to eat!
Celebrate the Christmas season in Greece
Here in Greece, Christmas is an enchanting and festive event. Along with Greek Easter, it’s the most important holiday of the year for Greek people. In fact, the twelve-day Christmas celebrations in Greece last until the Epiphany day, which is on the 6th of January.
All around Greece, people celebrate the Christmas holiday with outdoor festivities, gatherings, elaborate meals and big family dinners, Christmas decorations, and plenty of local traditions. If you are thinking to spend Christmas in Greece, read on!
Christmas traditions in Greece
There are many Christmas traditions in Greece. Some of them go well back in time, long before the Greek Orthodox religion appeared. Others are newer, and they’ve only been around for a few decades.
Here are some of the traditions that Greeks follow for Christmas:
Decorating the Christmas tree
Have you ever wondered how people started decorating a Christmas tree? Well, this has nothing to do with the Eastern Orthodox tradition. It goes back to pre-Christian times, when pagans used evergreen trees, garlands and wreaths to symbolize eternal life.
In more recent times, it was the Germans who began decorating Christmas trees, during the 16th century. Rather than shiny ornaments, the first pieces of decoration were useful items, like food or clothes. This tradition spread out in Northern Europe, and reached the US in the 17th century.
The Christmas tree custom didn’t make it to Greece until after the Greek Independence War. It was King Otto from Bavaria who first decorated a Christmas tree in Greece, in 1834.
Still, the new practice didn’t spread out immediately. It took well over a century, from the 1950s – 1960s onwards, for Christmas trees in Greece to come into fashion. Many people decorate them on 6th December, St Nicholas day, but others put them up in late November.
Some Greeks decorate a traditional Christmas boat
So, didn’t the Greeks have Christmas decorations before King Otto? Sure they did, but they weren’t Christmas trees.
Until after WWII, most Greek people used to decorate wooden boats for Christmas! The boat is a symbol of Greece’s rich maritime tradition, but also a symbol of man’s new voyage in life, following the birth of Christ.
Today, Christmas trees have mostly taken over. You will see them in most houses, office spaces, shops, malls, hospitals, and major squares in the country. However, some people, especially on the Greek islands, may still decorate Christmas model boats – and you might see them in public spaces as well.
Traditional Christmas carols
On Christmas Eve, children everywhere in Greece sing the Christmas carols, or kálanda in Greek. Following a long-standing tradition, they go from house to house knocking on doors and asking permission to sing the carols. Homeowners typically reward them with some pocket money, and maybe sweets.
Here is what the best known version of Greek Christmas carols sounds like: Kalin Esperan Archontes. It describes how baby Jesus was born and how this event brought joy to the world.
Depending on the region you are visiting in Greece, there are many different variations of kálanda. If you want to dive further into Greek culture and music, have a look at this video, with Christmas carols from all around Greece!
Saint Basil the Great – The Greek version of Santa Claus
In most countries where Christmas is celebrated, people exchange gifts either on Christmas Eve, or on Christmas Day itself. The legendary person who brings gifts to children is Santa Claus, who is associated with the christian Saint Nicholas.
Greece follows this tradition, only a little different! Over here, we have Saint Basil, or Agios Vassilis in Greek. Traditionally, he brings Christmas gifts to the children on the night between New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Yep, Greek kids have to wait for a few extra days to get their presents!
Photo: Courtesy of Milos ton Xotikon
Just like Santa, Saint Basil is usually depicted as an old, stout man with a long white beard and red clothes, carrying a heavy bag full of presents. And even if the house doesn’t have a chimney, he always finds his way in.
The Epiphany celebration
The Epiphany, known is Greek as Theofánia, is observed on the 6th of January every year. It’s the date when the Greek Orthodox church commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ by St John the Baptist.
The Epiphany is celebrated everywhere in Greece, and especially the coastal areas. Priests throw a cross in the sea, and young men (and some women) dive to retrieve it. Whoever manages to find it and bring it back, is blessed for the New Year.
So, when someone asks if you can swim in Greece in winter, there’s no right or wrong answer. While most people wouldn’t some people do!
Special Christmas food traditions in Greece
And now on to everyone’s favourite subject… food! If you spend Christmas in Greece, you will get to try some local delicacies and treats which are specially prepared for the Christmas holidays.
Melomakárona are delicious Greek Christmas biscuits – or Christmas cookies, if you prefer. The main ingredients are flour, sugar and olive oil, and there’s a hint of orange, cinnamon and clove.
After they’ve been baked, the crunchy cookies are dipped in a light syrup made out of honey and water, and sprinkled with chopped walnuts. The final texture is soft and the melomakárona literally melt in your mouth.
Everyone loves them, and if you are invited to a Greek house for Christmas, you will probably find a few different versions. If you are vegan, you can look out for versions where honey has been substituted.
Kourabiedes (also kourambiedes / kourampiedes) are one of the most popular Christmas treats. They are crunchy, crumbly cookies consisting mainly of flour, sugar, butter and almonds. Some recipes call for eggs as well.
You can recognize them easily wherever you go, as they are covered with stacks of icing sugar. Watch out, as they are incredibly messy to eat 🙂
Vasilópita – Christmas sweet bread
Remember Saint Basil, the Greek Santa Claus? Greeks bake a special Christmas bread / cake in his honor. Its name is vasilópita, and it contains eggs, milk, flour, sugar, butter, and possibly walnuts.
According to this unique tradition, there’s a lucky coin hidden inside the cake. After midnight on NYE, people celebrating the New Year together cut their vasilópita. The person who gets the piece with the coin, gets all the good luck for the year to follow.
You can easily buy this Christmas cake at most bakeries and even supermarkets, but there’s nothing like making your own. Here is my dad preparing our vasilópita last year!
Tip: Vassilópita tastes great with a cup of coffee, milk, or hot chocolate.
Greek Christmas dishes
Some of the staple dishes prepared for Christmas day in Greece are stuffed turkey and roasted pork, usually served with potatoes and salad. There will typically be various starters like tiropita, cheese pie, or spanakopita, spinach pie.
Like in many other countries, lunches around the Christmas table are long and merry. It’s a good opportunity for family and friends to get together, catch up and celebrate.
Fasting for Christmas
For the Greek Orthodox church, the 40 days leading up to Christmas in Greece are known as the “period of fasting for Christmas”.
Starting on 15th November, religious Greeks observe certain dietary restrictions, such as not eating meat, dairy products or eggs. They also abstain from other foods, like olive oil and wine, on Wednesdays and Fridays.
These days, not so many people fast for the whole pre-Christmas period. Yet, it’s a great time of year to taste amazing Greek vegan dishes such as vegetable and legume soups. Here are 50 iconic Greek dishes, including several vegan ones.
These are just some of the things you should expect to see if you visit Greece for Christmas. And now, let’s look at another important factor: the weather.
Christmas Weather in Greece
If you’ve never been to Greece before, you might be surprised to hear that we have four seasons. Sure, winters in North Europe are colder, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t get cold in the Mediterranean!
Depending on where in Greece you go, the weather during the Christmas holiday season will vary. In Athens, we usually get mild temperatures, that could range between 15 C (59 F) during the day, and 5 C (41 F) in the evening.
In the northern regions of Greece, like Macedonia or Epirus, the temperatures are lower, and snow is not uncommon.
Speaking of which, did you know that Greece has several ski resorts? They all fully operate during the Christmas break, and there are plenty of outdoor sports, like skiing and snowboarding, to enjoy if you want an activity holiday!
In terms of packing, bring some warmer clothes that you can layer, and don’t forget to bring comfortable walking shoes. If you are going to any of the mountain villages or ski resorts, bring appropriate clothes like you would in any country. Here’s a guide with what to pack for Greece for every season.
Best Christmas destinations in Greece
So, where are the best places to celebrate Christmas in Greece? This depends on what you want to do. Whether you are interested in city festivities, regional Christmas celebrations or skiing and exploring the outdoors, Greece has you covered!
1. Christmas in Athens
The Greek capital offers plenty of Christmas festivities. There are decorations and Christmas lights everywhere, especially in areas like Plaka, Psiri, Monastiraki, Syntagma Square and Omonia. As you walk around the streets of Athens, you will come across Christmas markets, bazaars and street vendors selling handmade creations.
Every year, a huge Christmas tree is set up in the middle of Syntagma Square, and there are various events during the festive period. This is also where Athenians celebrate NYE with music concerts, live performances and fireworks.
Afterwards, there is a NYE party inside the Varvakios food market, which goes on until the early morning.
If you like shopping, you will love Christmas in Athens! Beginning around mid-end November, all stores put Christmas decorations up, and there’s an overall festive atmosphere. Here’s where to go shopping in Athens Greece, and what to expect in Athens in November.
Before you plan your shopping spree, check out the Athens Christmas opening hours for commercial stores.
On those days, you could see if any alternative tours are running, such as this Athens bike tour. I’ve actually taken this myself and it was HEAPS of fun – and not too challenging either!
Christmas in Athens with kids
Christmas is a lovely time to visit Athens for a family holiday. The mild weather, festive events and half-price entrance to the ancient sites in Athens are all great reasons to visit Athens in December.
Families will love the Christmas Factory, a colorful Christmas park at Technopolis, next to Kerameikos metro station. Among others, you will find a large ice-skating ring, a carousel, and a Christmas market. There are also various activities, such as face painting and theatrical shows.
A short walk away, you will find the popular Little Kook cafe, with its seasonal decorations. They might be a bit over the top… which is probably why everyone wants to take a photo here!
Many of the museums in Athens offer special events for kids during the holiday period – so check them out. And don’t miss the Museum of Illusions, which will appeal to all children, teenagers, and in fact the whole family.
For more information, have a look at this guide for Christmas events, markets and parties in Athens.
2. Christmas in Thessaloniki
Thessaloniki is one of the liveliest cities in Greece. You will absolutely love celebrating Christmas here! The city is full of lights and decorations, starting with the festive boat in Aristotelous Square, the main square in Thessaloniki, and sprawling out on the main shopping avenue, Tsimiski.
The vibrant markets, cozy cafes and lovely smells from the bakeries and patisserie shops create an unforgettable ambiance. Children sing the carols on the streets, and the lovely coastal city is full of events.
If you’ve never heard of Thessaloniki before, don’t worry – you are not alone. I’m lucky to have family living there, so I visit now and then. Here are some of the reasons why Thessaloniki is totally worth visiting.
If you go, it’s a good idea to take a food tour. Thessaloniki has some of the best food in the whole of Greece – and that’s no small feat!
3. Christmas in Arachova
Arachova is a small mountain village, about three hours out of Athens. It is located on the foot of Mt Parnassos, a short drive from the archaeological site of Ancient Delphi.
Given its proximity to Athens, Arachova is a popular Christmas destination for Athenians. The ski resort on Parnassos is one of the most famous in Greece. Many celebrities and outdoors lovers meet there during Christmas, and continue their evening in the village’s numerous tavernas, bars and nightclubs.
Despite its popularity and the bustling Christmas ambiance, Arachova remains quite authentic. You will love the traditional mountain houses, which are so different from the blue and white houses on the Cyclades islands.
Tip: If you like cheeses, try the unique local formaella. Also, make sure you taste the local fir honey, in my opinion the best in Greece.
4. Christmas at the Meteora Monasteries
A magical place to spend Christmas in Greece is the area of Kalambaka and the Meteora monasteries. Along with the surrounding landscapes, these famous monasteries are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and look even more majestic during the winter months.
There are six functioning monasteries which you can visit, and each of them has its own unique architecture and history. If you like art, make sure you check out the magnificent frescoes, which are truly out of this world.
You can visit Meteora to admire the incredible scenery, and go on hikes in the surrounding area. In addition, you can attend the special Greek Christmas services and masses held in the monasteries.
You can reach Meteora on the train from either Athens or Thessaloniki, or hire a car and drive there yourself. Many people prefer to take an organized tour.
5. Christmas at Trikala – Elati – Pertouli
Only a half hour’s drive from the famous Meteora, you will find the lovely, pedestrian-friendly town of Trikala. The small town is home to one of the best Christmas parks in Greece, which is called Milos ton Xotikon.
Offering free entrance, this is a fantastic, fairy-tale place to bring young kids. You will find the largest ice-skating ring in Greece, plenty of fun activities, and a selection of Christmas events suitable for everyone.
Photo: Courtesy of Milos ton Xotikon
The popular villages of Elati and Pertouli are a short drive away. Built at an altitude of over 1,000 m, they are both full of stone houses, cozy cafes and tavernas, and shops with traditional products. The ski resort of Pertouli is compact, but it’s well organized and the slopes are very child friendly.
How to get to Trikala: You can get to Trikala by train or bus from Athens. It only takes 20 minutes to go from Kalambaka to Trikala on the train. However, if you want to explore the area, it’s best to hire a car.
6. Christmas in Ioannina – Metsovo
Not many foreign visitors have heard of a town called Ioannina, located in the Greek region of Epirus, to the north-west of Greece. Yet, this is one of the most special cities in Greece. Built right on Ioannina Lake, it combines rich history, breathtaking scenery and a winter ambiance.
Ioannina is a great place to spend Christmas in Greece. Take a stroll around its cobblestone streets, hire a bike to cycle around the lake, and stop for a break at one of the vibrant cafes and tavernas. You can also visit the Ancient Dodoni theater, which is only a 30-minute drive away.
It’s also worth taking a day trip to a village called Metsovo, one of the most popular winter destinations in Greece. The traditional stone houses, cobbled streets and backdrop of fir trees dressed in white make it a postcard-perfect destination for your Christmas vacation in Greece.
How to get to Ioannina: Ioannina has a domestic airport to which you can fly from Athens. Alternatively, you can take a bus (or drive) from Athens or Thessaloniki.
7. Christmas in Ioannina – Zagorohoria
Another beautiful winter destination in the Epirus region is the cluster of mountain villages known in Greek as “Zagorohoria”. These are no less than 46 (!) traditional villages, built at various altitudes.
Some of the best known and most beautiful villages in this group are Aristi, Mikro Papingo, Megalo Papingo, Vikos, Vitsa, Monodendri and Kapesovo. Each of them has their own unique character and traditional architecture.
As for the landscapes? The amazing lakes, gorges, rivers and lush forest will absolutely take you by surprise. The incredible Vikos gorge is one of the most beautiful places in Greece! Not to mention the impressive stone bridges of Epirus, which are famous throughout Greece.
If you are after activity holidays in Greece, you will find many activities in the Zagori area. There’s plenty of opportunity for hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, horse-riding, and white water rafting.
How to get to Zagorohoria: The Zagori villages are located 64 km (40 miles) from the city of Ioannina. You can either hire your own car and explore the area at your own pace, or take a day trip from Ioannina.
8. Christmas at Kaimaktsalan – Agios Athanasios
This unique place with the strange name is located in northern Greece, close to the border with North Macedonia. While it’s popular with visitors living close by, it remains under the tourist radar.
The traditional village of Agios Athanasios sits at an altitude of 1,200 meters, at the foot of Mount Voras, best known as Kaimaktsalan. Abandoned until recently, it has become a popular winter destination in northern Greece. Among others, the village is known for its stone houses and impressive churches.
The ski center of Kaimaktsalan, which lies at an altitude over 2,000 metres, is only a short drive away. Nearby, you can also visit the majestic Vegoritida Lake, and the Pozar thermal baths, where you can pamper yourself.
Just a couple of days after the winter solstice, on 23 December, the locals light large log fires in the main square. In typical Greek fashion, they eat, drink and dance like there’s no tomorrow. No better place to enjoy the Greek Christmas spirit!
How to get to Kaimaktsalan: Agios Athanasios is located 123 km (76 miles), a 2-hour drive from Thessaloniki. You will need a car in order to explore this beautiful area of Greece.
…and that’s just the beginning! Other beautiful places to spend Christmas in Greece include Mt Pelion, Kastoria, Kalavryta, Nafpaktia, Nymfaio, Karpenisi, Trikala Korinthias… the list is endless!
FAQs about Christmas celebrations in Greece
Here are a few questions about Christmas customs in Greece:
Do they celebrate Christmas in Greece?
Christmas is celebrated everywhere in Greece! Whether you are going to the bigger cities, like Athens and Thessaloniki, or one of the Greek mountain villages, you will experience some unique Christmas traditions.
What are some Greek Christmas traditions?
Some of the most popular traditions in Greece include singing the Christmas carols, decorating the Christmas tree or a small Christmas boat, and eating special seasonal cookies, melomakarona and kourabiedes.
What is Christmas in Greece called?
In Greek, the word for Christmas is Christougenna, literally meaning Christ’s birth.
How long is Christmas in Greece?
In Greece, Christmas is celebrated for a couple of weeks. The festive celebrations begin on 24th December, and end on 6th January, the Epiphany day. During that time, schools and universities remain closed, and you can feel the Christmas magic all around the country.
Is Greece cold at Christmas?
Compared to other European capitals, Christmas weather in Athens is usually mild. On the Greek mountain villages however, the weather is much colder, and snow is very likely!
Can I go scuba diving in Greece around Christmas time?
During Christmas time, the sea in Greece is not that warm. Temperatures in the Aegean Sea usually range between 14 – 20 C (57 – 68 F).
Enjoy Christmas in Greece
That’s it for my overview of Christmas in Greece. I hope you enjoyed reading about this merry time of year in the country of myths, Greek traditions and festive food. Here are a few more articles about Greece:
- Greek celebrations and festivals
- The OXI day in Greece
- Celebrating Independence Day in Greece
- Kathara Deftera in Greece
- Useful Greek words
Hi! I’m Vanessa from Athens. If you are visiting Greece during the festive period, make sure you look out for our religious and cultural events! For more information about Greece, follow me on FB and Instagram.