ATHENS – The capital of Greece is filled with religious and secular signs of the Christmas spirit, notwithstanding that COVID is an unwelcome holiday guest for the second year in a row. The Orthodox church has its unique take on one of Christendom’s great feasts, from its ‘shift of responsibility’ for bringing gifts from St. Nicholas on December 25 to St. Basil on New Year’s Day to its sublime hymns celebrating the Incarnation of the Logos. Greeks also delight in holiday food specialties, especially the deserts!
Visitors, including Greek-Americans, will be surprised to find – though not as frequently as in the past – curious decorated boats lit by Christmas lights where Christmas trees would ordinarily be found. Some purists will bemoan St. Nick’s encroaching the Hellenic holiday season, but historians point out that the tradition of gift giving on December 25th is a Byzantine one – not distributed by portly men in red suits to children of all ages, but by the Emperor in Constantinople to civil servants in the form of cash.
And while the Christmas tree with its Germanic roots does not have even the slightest parallel in Eastern Orthodoxy, it has become an integral part of the celebration here, delighting the locals and visitors alike, including Diaspora Hellenes missing their bit of Western Christmas – especially New Yorkers.
There is nothing approaching the glory of the Rockefeller Tree and its setting in Rockefeller Plaza in the heart of Manhattan, but the Greek capital does boast some nice trees. The one in Syntagma Square opposite the Greek Parliament is tall and nicely decorated, ensconced in a Winder Wonderland setting of lights strung across trees and fun objects, like lit-up hot air balloons and trains. The brilliantly lit Public Bookstore on the corner adds to a scene of genuine Christmas magic.
The nearby port of Piraeus – which presented to its residents the long awaited tram that connects the town with Athens just in time for Christmas – centers its holiday decorations on the plaza before the beautiful Municipal Theater of Piraeus. The nice tree there has a delightful neighbor nearby outside the impressive church of the Holy Trinity with its even more impressive bells that add to holiday cheer.
The tree whose environs is hard to top is the one that stands guard next to the dazzling new fountain at Omonia Square.
Nativity scenes also abound, in neighborhood squares like Plateia Kallithea – and some locales like Nea Smyrni import charming carousels that thrill the children.
There is one local element with echoes across the sea at Christmastime – the warm and beloved poinsettias, whose Greek name is ‘Alexandrino’.
It is the famous and leading hotels of Athens, however, that are most meticulous in creating the Christmassy atmosphere that amuses Greeks when they are abroad. The Athenaeum InterContinental Athens hotel greets its guests with huge nutcrackers and sports a fine tree that draws laughing children, prompting photographs kept for lifetimes.
Perhaps the most impressive tree, however, is the one which graces the elegant lobby of the Grande Bretagne hotel in Athens Centre. Is usually so big that ceiling panels have to be removed to accommodate its upper reaches. Many Greeks and tourists alike make it an obligatory part of their Christmas in Athens.