ATHENS – In the beginning, when someone moves to another country, even if one feels, like most Greek-Americans going to Greece, that he belongs, there is a heady mix of excitement over the new and nostalgia for the people, places and things left behind…”in the old country.”
As if on cue, for a moment, in some spots in Athens Center that resemble downtowns everywhere, right around Thanksgiving (thankfully, not right after Halloween like some places in the States) Christmas items started popping up in stores.
Twinkling lights and window displays try to entice passersby to start their holiday preparation early and soon one notices municipal employees stringing lights across streets, and trees that look more at home in northern climes start popping up everywhere.
It’s at that moment that some expats – especially New Yorkers – remember that what they miss most about home is Christmas in Manhattan – when the usual, and usually frustrating hustle and bustle of one of the world’s busiest cities becomes tolerable, presenting delightful scenes every few blocks or so.
But suddenly the tinge of sadness melts away and you say to yourself “there is Christmas here, too!”
And indeed there is. Globalization has spread the elements of Western Christmas everywhere. I have seen pictures of Santas in Turkey and the Middle East and holiday trees in India and China – and Athens and Thessaloniki are no exceptions. But there are delighting differences, rooted in age-old traditional Greek traditions. Like the big ships decorated with lights, probably inspired by St. Nicholas’ role as the protector of sailors.
The holiday decorations are generally tastefully displayed, and even in the few places where they are over-the-top, they are welcome reminders that even the excesses of home can be fun.
Walking in the Monastiraki district, I was startled by the cascades of lights and holiday figures in the distance that turned out to be the Little Kook cafe (it’s only a bit “kooky” – Kook is a reference to chefs). Definitely check it out if you are here for the holidays, but expect to wait on line.
Athens is home to some of the nicest Christmas trees I have ever seen – top of the list is the one in the elegant lobby of the legendary Grande Bretagne hotel on Syntagma Square, which by December 11 was sporting its own modern Christmas tree, surrounded by the golden glow of lights strung up on and between the square’s permanent greenery.
The delightful nearby Public book store’s facade was turned into a giant Christmas gift box by thousands of little lights and all the stores are decked out to some degree.
Santa Claus must be somewhere – I haven’t found him yet, but there is time. He probably relies on Amazon these days for his last minute orders. Perhaps he is in the grand Attica Department store, with ornate and fun holiday windows on the ground floor that prompt some to call it “the Macy’s of Athens.”
So the accoutrements are there to put you in the Christmas spirit, but even deep into December it takes some mental nudging, notwithstanding the “καλές γιορτές – happy holidays” have been sprinkling conversations for a couple of weeks.
“Sprinkling” is a key word – as in “rainy.” While Athens can be hit by snowfalls every few years, a White Christmas here is more like a Black Swan – if it comes no one expects it or sees it coming.
I have been told that Christmas in Greece is really a family affair and have seen only one reference to a Christmas tree lighting at a church. The tree and nativity display on the steps of the Municipal Theater of Piraeus are very nice and probably entailed a charming ceremony, but I cannot imagine that the Syntagma lighting or any other event even hints at the delicious madness of the Rockefeller Tree ceremony.
But a family-oriented holiday is fine. I anticipate that multiple dinner and coffee and dessert invitations will make it feel like an extended Thanksgiving – which will be beautiful even if the only white stuff I will see will be on the kourabiedes, which I love.
It is true, however, that by December 25 snow may top the mountains that ring the city, Penteli, Immitos, Parnitha, and Egaleo. During my visit in 2016, they made Attiki look like one giant kourabie. Καλά Χριστούγεννα!