In the past, few people visited Greece in the winter. Greece was a place to lay out in the sun, swim and enjoy meals in outdoor tavernas overlooking small harbors full of colourful fishing boats. Well, many people have discovered is that the Christmas holidays in Greece is also a great time. Low rates on hotels and the weather is usually a lot nicer than wherever it is they have come from. Many days it is warm enough to dine outdoors. It is a great time to be in Athens and visit the archaeological sites and nearby islands and Athens nightlife is among the best in the world.
For the traveler to Greece, remember that many
offices, businesses, restaurants, and other amenities may be
closed or keeping unusual hours during the Christmas season. In
general, don't expect Christmas displays, lights, or other
Western decorations, except of course in the windows of
expatriates and the relatively few Greeks who have adopted
Western customs. Greece is an oasis of non-commercialism when it
comes to Christmas.
Christmas Customs of Greece: it's kourabiedes time again, and the mellow aroma of melomacarona cookies will be filling Greek kitchens worldwide. Turkeys have invaded Greek Christmas customs, and you will find this bird prepared for Christmas feasting. In most areas, the holiday is preceded by a time of fasting. For Greece, the season will last through January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany.
Christmas in Greece is a traditionally a solemn, religious holiday. Throughout the festivities, there is never any question about whether Greece is remembering the Christ in Christmas. Beautiful carols called kalanda have been handed down from Byzantine times and add to the reverent quality of the celebration.
While other cultures have Christmas elves, the Greek equivalent is not so benign. Mischievous and even dangerous sprites called the Kallikantzari (or Callicantzari), prey upon people only during the twelve days of Christmas, between Christmas itself and Epiphany on January 6th. Descriptions of them vary, and in one area they are believed to wear wooden or iron boots, the better to kick people, while other areas insist that they are hooved, not booted. Almost invariably male, other regions see in them the forms of wolves or even monkeys. In folktales, the twelve days of their power figure in a "wicked stepmother" story where a young girl is forced to walk alone to a mill through the twelve days, because her stepmother is hoping that the Kallikantzari will snatch her away.
Some households keep fires burning through the twelve days, to keep the spirits from entering by the chimney, a curious inversion of the visit of Santa Claus in other countries! The "yule log" in this case used to be a massive log set on end in the chimney, burning or at least smoldering for the entire period. Protective herbs such as hyssop, thistle, and asparagus were suspended by the fireplace, to keep the Callicantzari away. Other households, perhaps less devout, were reduced to simple bribery and would put meat out for the Kallikantzari - again, this seems to be a more substantial snack than the milk and cookies put out for Santa. On Epiphany, the ceremonial blessing of the waters by the local priest was believed to settle the nasty creatures until the next year. Some local festivals still include representations of these entities, which may be a survival from Dionysian festivals.