Celebrate Christmas Cypriot-style! Even though Cyprus lacks that glamorous festive vibe of a big city, spending Christmas in Cyprus is a very fulfilling experience involving hearty Cypriot food, adornments, and festive traditions. Here’s a complete run down on the traditions, food, and place to go at Christmas time in Cyprus.
The birth of Jesus Christ in Orthodox tradition is a major public holiday, celebrated since the early Christian times across the island. Christmas is one of the three biggest celebrations of the Greek Orthodox tradition and a favorite holiday period when family and friends gather together.
When is the Festive Season in Cyprus?
The festive season in Cyprus typically starts from the 21st of December until Epiphany, the 6th of January the following year.
The key holiday dates in Cyprus
|Christmas Eve||24 December|
|Christmas Day||25 December|
|New Year’s Eve||31 December|
|New Year’s Day||1 January|
The festive dates above follow the late Gregorian calendar which is also followed by most European countries, but in some Eastern Orthodox countries that follow the Julian calendar, the dates are different.
According to the Julian calendar, the traditional orthodox date of Christmas is the 7th of January, and New Year is the 14th of January.
Since the majority of the Cyprus population (more than 70%) is Greek Orthodox, the Gregorian calendar applies. However, there are smaller minorities in Cyprus like Russians that still follow the older Julian calendar to celebrate Christmas.
During the period of 21th of December to the 6th of January, all public schools and institutions close, and the key dates mentioned above are declared as bank holidays (with the exception of Christmas and New Year’s Eve when some shops and malls are open).
Christmas Time Traditions: How Cyprus Celebrates Christmas
Since the vast majority of the population are either Greek Orthodox (Greek Cypriots) or Catholics (British and European migrants, Filipino migrants), Cyprus showcases an interesting fusion of Western and Orthodox traditions.
It is also not uncommon for Non-Christian minorities on the island e.g. Arabs and Indians to also participate in the Christmas festivities to a lesser degree.
For example, these Western Christmas traditions are followed by most locals and migrants in Cyprus but with a local twist:
The celebration of a Santa Claus figure
The celebration of the Santa Claus figure, whose equivalent according to the Greek Orthodox religion is Saint Nicholas or Saint Vasilieios (called “Agios Vasilis” in Greek) and Saint Basil in many parts of Europe.
According to the Christmas legend, Agios Vasilis not only leaves presents just like Santa Claus, but also helps the poor and does charitable work.
The depiction of Agios Vasilis though still follows the Western paradigm of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, an old white-bearded man dressed in his red and white suit with a large sack filled with presents for the kids.
It is therefore a very common sight in Cypriot homes and outside to see Santa Claus as a dominant part of Christmas decorations and adornments.
Traditionally presents have been exchanged on New Year’s Day, and not Christmas Day and we can see here a transition from New Year and St. Basil to Christmas Day. It’s another example of the great cultural mix that is Cyprus!
The decoration of a Christmas tree
This tradition stems from Dutch/American migrant customs and is largely adopted by the locals as well.
In the past and in many traditional villages, the locals harvested a natural tree, usually a medium-height pine tree, and adorned it with fruits, ribbons, and sometimes with paper wishes and other homemade adornments.
The decoration of natural trees was eventually replaced by the decoration of fake trees that most locals buy from shops and keep for several years in a row.
Another Western European tradition that Cypriots follow at large, is the baking of Christmas cookies and a Christmas cake a few days before Christmas.
The cookies are typically orange cookies made with butter, orange juice, and cinnamon and they are shaped with small molds in various Christmas shapes e.g. stars, Christmas trees, snowmen, etc.
When preparing a Christmas cake, local housewives follow the universal recipe of a brown sugar cake and a white icing sugar frosting, but with the addition of chopped traditional sweets.
The cake and the cookies are typically consumed throughout the entire festive season and are very common among Cypriot housewives to exchange recipes or treat others with their baked goods.
The door singing carols
Another tradition that stems from the West and has been adopted throughout Greece, is singing carols typically between the 21st and 24th of December.
This custom is typically followed by a small group of kids or teens who gather together from door to door, asking homeowners’ permission to sing the carols with the Greek phrase “Na ta poume?” which translates to “Should we sing them?”
As in the Western/European tradition, it is expected to leave a small amount of money or treats once they finish their carols and respond with a “Merry Christmas” or “Kales Giortes” in Greek.
Cypriot Christmas Traditions
Apart from the adobe universal Christmas customs and traditions, there are some unique local traditions that were largely followed by locals, especially during the 20th century. These include pig slaughtering, making Vasilopita and loukoumades, and throwing things into fire and water.
The Pig-Slaughtering tradition
This tradition is said to be rooted in Ancient Greece, where people used to sacrifice pigs to Demetra, the Goddess of fertility, in December.
In many traditional villages in Cyprus, a group of men (family or fellow villagers) would gather outside a house to slaughter a fattened pig with a special knife.
They usually cooked or reserved nearly all parts of the pig, even the legs and the ears.
Two very common delicacies that are still enjoyed today from the meat of the slaughtered pig are Cypriot “lountza” (cured pork loin in wine and coriander) and the famous Cypriot sausages “loukanika” (also made with red wine and coriander).
The tradition has waned over the past two decades as it is considered outdated and barbaric by many, but there are some Cyprus villages that still follow the custom.
The Baking and Serving of Vasilopita
Vasilopita is the pie of Agios Vasilis/Saint Nicholas/ Saint Basil. This popular custom is usually followed on New year’s eve or New year’s day.
It involves making a mastic-infused cake with ground almonds and an icing sugar coating. The cake also has a hidden coin inside.
The addition of a hidden coin stems from the Greek Orthodox tale of Saint Nicholas/Saint Basil, who used to discreetly donate money to the poor by hiding coins in pies.
It is said that whoever finds the hidden coin will have a lucky year ahead and traditionally it was the most cherished memory of the festive period for the lucky person who finds the coin.
Once the lucky person is found, the rest of the people that gather wish each other a lucky year and exchange kisses and hugs.
Making and Eating honey dough balls (“loukoumades”)
This Greek Orthodox tradition is rooted in the legend that there are mischievous little spirits (“Kalikantzaroi”) that come to earth from the underworld and cause trouble during the Christmas period until Epiphany.
Locals would prepare these honey dough balls soaked in syrup and throw them on their roofs so these spirits would come to eat and leave them alone afterward.
Some locals also used to hang an olive branch blessed with holy water to keep the annoying little spirits away.
Throwing a blessed Cross in all harbors
Epiphany day is also a cross-throwing day for the purpose of blessing the waters and clearing them of evil spirits.
It involves a Μetropolitan bishop chanting blessings and throwing the cross into the harbor waters where a few brave locals dive and one of them manages to get the cross out.
It’s popular all over Greece as well, especially in Athens where crosses are sometimes thrown into fountains.
The Olive Branch game
Another tradition of throwing stuff during this time of year involves making a cross from olive branches and tossing it into the fire.
It’s a ‘make a wish’ or ‘am I loved’ kind of game (it’s an oracle actually) where a crackling and hissing coming from the branches as they begin to burn tells you the answer.
What Cypriots Eat at Christmas
In addition to the baked goods I’ve described above, two favorite traditional desserts enjoyed by the locals are “kourampiedes” which are oval-shaped almond biscuits dusted with powdered sugar, and “melomakarona”, Greek honey cookies soaked in cinnamon and honey syrup).
Locals gather in large numbers in a family home setting and enjoy a huge buffet that usually involves:
- “Souvla” (Charcoal Roasted Kebab made with lamb, goat, pork, or chicken meat)
- Loukanika Krasata and or Lountza
- Stuffed Turkey with gravy sauce
- Makaronia Tou Fournou (Greek Pastitsio or Lasagna with Bechamel sauce)
- Koupepia (stuffed wine leaves with ground pork, rice, and herbs)
- Oven-roasted potatoes
- Villager’s Salad with feta or halloumi cheese
During New Year’s Eve, there is also a feast at a large gathering that may involve some international festive dishes (such as chestnut soup, pork gammon, or macaroni and cheese casserole) alongside traditional ones.
Vasilopita, of course, is rarely missing from a New Year’s Eve party.
Christmas In Cyprus: Best Places To Go
If you are coming to Cyprus to spend Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve, there are several festive parties that involve food, drinks, and entertainment that are offered by most venues.
On the downside, these parties and events often come at an extra cost (about 25 to 100 euros per person).
There are also several externally organized Christmas events and places to visit such as:
- Limassol and Nicosia fairyland
- The Christmas Villages of Alphamega supermarket chains
- The Santa Claus Square Village and huge market fair in Larnaca
- The several Christmas market fairs in Paphos e.g.
- The Old Town Christmas fair,
- The International School of Paphos Christmas fair, and
- the art exhibition and market in Technopolis venue (old town of Paphos).
Wherever you choose to spend Christmas in Cyprus, I’m sure you’ll have the chance to experience some of these Cypriot Christmas traditions, and hopefully also some favorite traditional desserts! Have happy and safe holidays.