January Travel In Greece – 12 Destinations For Each Month Of Greece

Athens in January - old yellow door and rusted balcony with pigeons on top

Growing up, I loved music and dancing.

Childhood being such an impressionable age I can still recall certain school plays, dance routines and little poems that we laughed and jumped around to in those years of innocent bliss.

There was this one cassette tape however, I can vividly recall singing along to and memorizing and driving everyone insane with. It was called the twelve months and it had twelve songs, one for each month of the year.

They were catchy and simple and looking back now, even a bit sentimental. Not that I minded that last part. You could say I always had a flare for the dramatic.

The twelve months of Greece were distinctive in mood and rhythm and lyrics. They had a message to pass and they did quite successfully. Every month is special, every month has something to offer.

If one wished, that message could stretch onto a whole range of areas of our lives. Differences between months, seasons, people, languages, all oh so evident but oh so exciting. Adding the necessary spice in our life.

If you know anything about Greece, then you must know that like the cassette of my childhood years, and the world we live in nowadays, it has variety, it has differences that can be discovered and it has spice.

athens - acropolis entrance view of herodottus atticus during the day

January Travel in Greece  – Athens

January 1st is a time of celebration worldwide. New Year festivities and parties, fireworks, family time and resolutions and there is no better place to see all that than the capital. Even during winter, Athens offers mild weather and a variety of activities.

One of the things that people often find surprising about a Greek New Years is that it is also when Santa Claus arrives!

Accounts differ on how Western and Greek traditions have through the years blended to give way to how we currently celebrate Christmas. However, everyone can agree that Christmas did not include the practice of present giving but instead was entirely dedicated to the celebration of the life of Christ.

Following Christmas, Greeks pay tribute to another influential figure, Agios Vasilis or otherwise known as Saint Basil of Caesarea, a father of the Orthodox faith and philanthropist. As children, we sang carols, praising the coming of Saint Basil of Caesarea, a tall man with black eyes and a dark coloured beard.

Athens in January - 12 Months of Greece January - Saint Basil of Caesarea -
Athens In January - 12 Months of Greece - January - Santa Clause drawing

The evolution of the celebration of Santa Claus. 

Right image: public domain 

Traditional Greek New Year Carols mentioning Saint Basil of Caesarea – note the boat being held by the little boy, the original Christmas decoration. 

Lyrics - New Year's Kalanta

Beginning of the month and beginning of year

My rosemary who is very tall

and a beginning of a good new year

and church with the holy throne .

The start that brought Christ

the holy and Spiritual

on earth to walk

and lift up our hearts.

Saint Basil comes

and he does not dignify us

from Cesaria

though you are a lady

He holds a picture and paper

a confection in knitted dough

paper and fountain pen

look and look at me and the new young man

The fountain pain wrote

about his fortune

and the paper the paper spoke

oh my saint oh my saint good Basil

Stay to eat stay to drink

stay to tell us your pain

stay stay to sing

and lift up our hearts.

Saint Basil died on the 1st of January in 379 AD and this day, symbolizing the beginning of the New Year, also brings blessings and good luck. Another tradition that remains that is connected to the life of Saint Basil is the Greek New Years Pie or Vasilopita – Saint Basil’s pie.

This sweet-scented bread, which feels like a brioche and can include a variety of spices and nuts, is served either the night before New Year’s Day, the day after, or right after the clock strikes 12. The secret is on what is hidden inside. A coin wrapped in aluminium foil, positioned as much at random as possible by the person making it. Traditionally, the whole family gathers around the pie decorated with the name of the year to come and begins to cut pieces. The first pieces are dedicated to Christ, Mother Mary, Saint Basil and the house that the cutting takes place in. Then each member present gets their own piece. Whoever finds the coin inside their pie is said to have much luck for the New Year. Many a fight have broken out during the cutting, especially if one possesses inside knowledge on where the coin is located!

definitely greece logo

Traditional Vasilopita Recipe from Argiro Barbarigou

250 gr. fresh butter
2 cups sugar
6 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 kilo self-rising flour
1/2 cup cognac
1 orange (zest)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoon mahleb (ground)
1 pinch of salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup roasted almonds (coarsely chopped)

Steps

Sift the flour together with the baking powder. Whisk the butter, sugar and salt until they are white and fluffy. Add the egg yolks to the butter and sugar mixture slowly one by one and then the orange zest, mahleb spice, vanilla extract, milk and cognac. Beat egg whites until they form a thick meringue. Rotate adding flour and meringue to the egg yolk mixture. Fold softly with a spatula and finish by adding the almonds. Grease a round 30cm pan with butter and place the mixture inside. Add the small coin.
Bake on preheated oven at 180 C for approximately 55 minutes.

Once ready, place on cooling rack for 5 minutes. Optional: icing sugar dusting on top and number designs for new year.

So how did this peculiar tradition begin?

The story says that Saint Basil once instructed the people of the village to gather all their valuables in preparation for an attack by debt collectors. After managing to prevent the attack, a bigger task remained. How to equally divide everything that had been gathered amongst the people. Saint Basil then, instructed everyone to bake small pies, in which he placed items. Miraculously everyone received exactly what they had put in, and that is why we bake a pie and place a coin inside nowadays.

To share in the joy of this tradition, head to one of the many bakeries and patisserie shops and ask for the coin bread. Better yet, tag along with some of the Greeks friends you are bound to make!

While in Athens for the month of January, head down to one of the many water spots (lake or sea) on the 6th of January, Epiphany Day (Theophania). This joyous celebration, the revelation of God to Jesus during His baptism, is one of the most sacred Greek Orthodox traditions. The priest blesses the water and then throws a cross into the sea. Young men, waiting patiently, then jump into the freezing waters, racing to be the first to catch the cross. The one to catch it is said to receive many blessings for the year to come.

Traditional Epiphany carols. 

Carols - Lyrics - English Translation

Today is the lights and the enlightment

The happiness is big and the sanctification

Down the Jordan River

Sits our Lady the Blessed Virgin Mary

Good day!

Good evening!

Good day to you master and matron

She carries an organ, a candle she holds

And pleads with St. John.

St. John lord and Baptist

Baptize me a child of god

I shall ascend to the heavens

To gather roses and incense

Good day!

Good evening!

Good day to you master and matron!

What else is there to do in January

One of the reasons why Athens is an ideal place to visit in January is because the weather is incredibly mild, the crowds are few and the days can be bright and sunny. So grab a camera, a thick jumper and you are free to explore museums and archaeological sights with less than half of the summer crowds.

In addition, there are Christmas lights to see, decorations to photograph, and bakeries and patisserieshops to visit.

Do not miss tasting, kourampiedes and melomakarona, that dominate every store front from December to January and are a favourite of locals to eat and gift.

Kourampiedes are almond biscuits coated in a thick layer of icing sugar that sticks to the roof of your mouth. The sweet coating and the crunchiness of the coarsely chopped nuts inside is phenomenal.

Melomakarona are egg shaped and are made out of a mix of semolina flour, honey and olive oil. Once baked, they are dipped into a syrupy mixture and topped with chopped walnuts or other nuts. Another variation is to coat them in dark chocolate. Either way, they carry wintery scents of clove, orange and cognac to every house they enter.

The city’s love for Christmas and the New Year festivities can be seen at “Noel” a Chrstimas themed bar and restaurant at the center of Athens (Kolokotroni 59B).

Think fairy lights in every corner, red and white candy cane shaped arches, velvet cuirtans and an aristocratic atmosphere of Parisian glamour with a Christmas theme. Cocktails are often redesigned and always excellent, cheese platters come with their own freshly baked bread and tables can be hard to come by.

Come early and prepare to enter a magic fairy-tale.

  • Stay tuned for the next installment of this monthly series. Twelve months, twelve destinations across Greece, each with something else to offer.

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