Spending Christmas in Crete is a joy for the senses. The land becomes a spectacle as snow settles on the mountains and the vibrant towns burst into life. Spend bright, cool days tasting delicious Christmas treats, and long nights enjoying festive traditions. Lights, decorations, and boats! The season stretches across the winter with Christmas, New Years & Epiphany. So there’s always something to discover this winter season.
Sparkly trees are fine, glowing boats are better! Boat decorating is hugely popular in Greece. The boats ‘karavaki’ are adorned with festive lights, and the Venetian Harbour becomes a floating spectacle. Greeks are very social around the festive season. There are smiles all round and the streets and cafes burst with life, light, and decorations. Fill your heart with happiness with a stroll among the harbor before heading for a nightcap at 626 All Day Lounge. Nearby the Archaeological Museum of Crete, ‘626’ offers coffee, smoothies, great brunch, and delicious local and international dishes. Don’t forget to stop by the Archaeological Museum before the sun goes down and the city lights up.
Children love the festivities and can be spotted running through the streets with painted boats. They then fill with sweets and treats as prizes for wowing the locals with their carol singing. Complete with traditional instruments such as ‘Lyra’, and ‘Trigona’ (metal triangles). You can catch the fun across the season. Carolling happens 3 times on 24/12, 31/12 and 5/1. Catch a glimpse of the charming carollers here.
Greek Christmas Customs
Christmas is one of the best times to visit Greece. As there are so many things to see, do, and learn. Including witnessing some of the unusual traditions over Christmas, New Year, and the Epiphany.
Greek customs are very unique and quite fascinating. One of the more curious traditions is the purging of the kallikantzaroi (Bad spirits.) They follow Santa down the chimney and are known to wreak havoc until Epiphany (January 6th). They blow around the house putting out fires, making milk go sour, and scaring small children. If you prefer presents to come down your chimney instead of goblins, you can always burn a pair of old shoes which is said to keep them at bay. Goblins can’t abide the smell of burnt shoe.
If you’re in Cyprus, you might witness an odd, yet tastier ritual. Residents throw pancakes on the roof for the goblins to eat as they are banished back to oblivion. At least they don’t go away hungry.
To prepare for the Christmas festivities, Greeks used to ‘fast’ for 40 days from the 15th November to the 25 December. Refraining from meat, dairy, and eggs. They cannot eat fish or anything that contains blood, though seafood like shrimp, octopus and calamari are fine.
The legend of Santa Basil and the Basil Pie
In Greek tradition, Santa is known as Saint Basil or Agios Vasilis. Instead of Christmas, he arrived on New Year’s Day to bless the homes. In return, he received a slice of pie. As tradition goes, a pie is now cooked in his honour every year. The pie will have a coin inside, and the lucky person who finds it hidden in their slice will have the best year ahead.
‘Podariko’ and pomegranate breaking
The broken pomegranate is the most famous festive tradition. In Greece, you’ll see pomegranates everywhere. Some decorated with glitter and paint, and some burst into pieces on the floor. How strange you say? Here’s why:
To welcome the New Year, the family goes to church and the father takes a pomegranate in his pocket. On the way home, at midnight, he must knock at the door or ring the doorbell. Enter the house with the right foot ‘podariko’ (lucky foot) and pomegranate in hand. He then throws the pomegranate down hard to smash it into pieces. The more seeds burst out, the more luck it will bring. If you’re fortunate enough to get juice on you, you’ll be very lucky this year!
The refreshing Epiphany
On January 6 comes Epiphany, and it’s time to watch men brave the chills on the Cretan sea in winter. It starts with reading a gospel, then the priest will run into the sea and throw a cross into the water. The men prepare themselves for a cold shock as they plunge into the sea and swim in a frenzy.
Whoever retrieves the cross is rewarded with a blessed year ahead.
The BEST Christmas food to try in Crete
It’s the ideal time to try all the traditional sweets on offer without regret. Christmas is for indulgence after all, and Greece has many indulgences when it comes to sweet treats.
The traditional honey cookies are an absolute must try and a perfect example of Christmas.
Their spicy cinnamon flavour goes great with a coffee.
A rival to Melomakarona. These buttery cookies stacked up like snowballs will have you reaching for more until all that’s left is a dusting of icing sugar on the plate.
Diples are rolled thin from a sheet-like dough and dipped in syrup.
They are utterly divine.
Christmas bread is baked lovingly all over Greece for the festive season.
It means “Christs Bread” and is usually made a few days before Christmas.
Christmas Eve Feast
Take the stress out of Christmas dinner by escaping to the islands. Most hotels organize a fantastic traditional feast for guests staying across the holidays.
Check out a festive menu that impressed us and book your Christmas or New Year’s feast.
Santa under the sea
In Crete, the Christmas merrymaking kicks off in a big way. You can catch a glimpse of Santa underwater at the CRETAquarium Thalassókosmos, a short distance from Heraklion. Kids will love to see their beloved Santa in his dive mask bringing a Merry Christmas to all the fish. Visitors can reach the aquarium with a bus within 25min, and the ticket is no more than €10.
The Big Santa Run
Big kids will want to join in the entertainment of the big Santa run held in nearby Chania. On the 26th December, thousands of Santas flock to the streets in a mass of red and white. To walk, jog or shuffle the 3.5km in aid of many children’s charities. Pack your Santa suit and join the fray!
Heraklion has a charming Christmas market held in the square across from the Heraklion Archeological Museum. If you’re here for the holidays it’s not to be missed! Pick up Christmas souvenirs, try delicious Cretan treats, soak up the Christmas atmosphere, and even try a spot of ice skating on the pop-up ice rink. There are also shops dotted around the city selling traditional gifts. It’s a great idea to take a little piece of Greek tradition home with you and fuel those memories for years to come.
Schedule your holidays keeping in mind the local public holiday. Shops and supermarkets are closed on 25th and 26th as well as the 1st and 2nd January, and the 6th.