Christmas in Crete: Discover Greece in December

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For some people, taking a vacation at Christmastime can feel a little strange. But there are others who think it’s a fun time to travel. They think it’s the perfect way to discover how people celebrate the Christmas holidays in other places.

If that’s you, why not spend this Christmas in Crete? With temps hovering around 60°F and an average of 16 dry days in December, the weather can’t be beat. Plus, the island is less crowded and less expensive at this time of year! It’s little wonder why Crete ranks as one of the best places to visit in Europe for the holidays.

Christmas traditions in Crete

Traditionally, the Greek Christmas season officially begins at the start of the Christmas Fast in November, and continues all the way to Epiphany in early January.

Here are four Christmas traditions in Crete. If you know of any other ways they celebrate Christmas in Crete, please leave a comment below.

Christmas kalanta (carols)

Visiting Crete at Christmas can be magical. If you spend your Christmas in Crete, make sure to watch for groups of children ringing doorbells early on December 24th. They are visiting houses and shops in the neighborhood, offering to sing traditional Christmas carols to whoever answers the door.

The owner always rewards the children with pocket money for singing their songs. The older children often have triangles to accompany them, and so the magical sound of bells is a common background sound on Christmas Eve.

Carols are also sung on New Year’s Eve and on the Eve of Epiphany (5th January), so make sure to listen out if you’re staying on the island in late December.

Children singing Cretan Christmas carols. Painting by Greek painter Nikiforos Lytras .
This painting is the work of Nikiforos Lytras (1832-1904), one of Greece’s greatest painters. It is titled “Ta Kalanta”,

Christmas ships

If you’re in Crete at the beginning of December, you might see wooden ships decorated with lights around the island instead of Christmas trees. Until Bavarian King Otto of Bavaria brought the Christmas tree to Greece, the traditional custom was to decorate small boats.

Traditionally, each family would create their own decorated boat in prayer to St Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors. With so many of the male population of Crete working on the water, these boats were intended to give thanks for their safe return from the sea at Christmas.

Usually, they are decorated a few days before Christmas and remain in the homes until Epiphany.

Greek Christmas boat lit up in Crete

Nativity plays

If you’re in Crete at Christmas time and want to attend a unique event around December 25th, why not visit a nativity play? A far cry from children dressed up with tea towels on their heads, these re-enactments of the birth of Christ are sometimes done in caves by candlelight, which really enhances the magic and spirituality of the event. 

ⓘ TIP: Visit the cave of St. John in Marathokefalas Cave on Christmas Eve. You will have the chance to attend the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy and see a rendition of the manger where Christ was born in a unique environment.

People in a live nativity play

The Nativity Fast

Just as with the Mediterranean diet, the Cretan diet is rich in olive oil, vegetables, legumes, fruits, grains, and fish. Each fasting season brings its own ingredients, recipes, and traditions.

The traditional Greek Christmas season includes a forty day fast from November 15 to December 24 (Christmas eve).

One traditional rule is that fish can be eaten up to December 17, except on Wednesdays and Fridays. Other meat is prohibited in the fast before Christmas, so they make a special bean soup and serve it with nuts, raisins and honey.

Traditional Christmas foods in Crete

If you’re lucky enough to visit Crete in the period between Christmas and New Year, you’re in for a culinary treat. For the Greeks, Christmas is all about holiday cheer, family, and time with friends. It’s also often about consuming large quantities of excellent food.

Crete has plenty of delightful cuisine to offer you this winter season so there are plenty of options to keep your appetite satisfied on your visit.

ⓘ TIP: If you’re a vegetarian or don’t eat pork, be aware that it is in many dishes in Crete at Christmas time. Greeks traditionally kill a pig on Christmas Eve and use the meat in a variety of ways over the festive period.

Christopsomo

Christopsomo, or Christ’s Bread, is an essential part of every Greek Orthodox Christmas table. This delicious bread is full of symbolism and tradition, and has been part of the ancient Greek culture for centuries.

The semi-sweet bread is a reminder of the eucharist and is often decorated with pieces of dough formed into in the shape of a cross. Occasionally there’s an egg or unbroken walnut in the center to represent the virginity of Mary.

Christopsomo, a greek Christmas bread. The cross on top was formed by laying strips of dough on the loaf before baking.

Christmas lamb roast

The traditional Crete Christmas lamb roast features a sheep’s head, feet, and tail. It is considered a symbol of the Holy Family and a representation of the resurrection of Christ.

Lamb roasting over an open fire in Greece

Melomakarona and kourampiedes

Housewives of Crete make various traditional sweets, with the most common to be “melomakarona” (honey cookies) and “kourampiedes” (sugared bans).

Melomakarona are flavored with honey, nutmeg and cinnamon, while kourampiedes are made of almonds, vanilla and rose water, and covered in powdered sugar.

Melomakarona is a symbol of happiness and abundance.

Traditionally, melomakarona were mainly eaten in Christmas day and kourabiedes were eaten on New Year. Today, though, that distinction is not observed and both melomakarona and kourabiedes are prepared and consumed during the Christmas and New Year holidays period.

Greek Christmas cookies, Melomakarona and Kourampiedes

FAQs about spending Christmas in Crete

How do you say Merry Christmas in Greek?

Kala Christouyenna!

Is December a good time to visit Crete?

Yes. Winter is off-season in Crete, so prices will be lower. An added bonus is that you will be able to visit the island’s archaeological sites without the crowds. Also, temperatures are milder than on the Continent.

What is the weather like in Crete at Christmas?

Christmas in Crete tends to be sunny, with an average daytime temperature of 44°F. Freezing temps are rare, especially along Crete’s coast.

What is the traditional meat on a Crete Christmas table?

Traditionally. Greeks kill a pig on Christmas Eve and use the meat in a variety of ways over the festive period.

When is the Christmas season in Crete?

The traditional Christmas season in Crete runs from November 15 through the evening of January 5. It begins with the 40-day Nativity Fast which runs from November 15 until the evening of December 24. Christmastide begins in the evening of December 24 and ends with Epiphany.

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Boat in Crete decorated for Christmas. Text overlay says Christmas in Crete

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to around 60 countries. Her insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages inspired her to create As We Saw It with her husband Dan, a professional photographer. Her goal is to make travel easier for others and to offer a brief escape to another land.

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