Christmas in Cyprus: Local’s Guide [2023]

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Are you thinking about spending Christmas in Cyprus?

I think that’s a great idea! I spent many years staying in Cyprus for Christmas, and it’s certainly a unique way to experience the festive period. Whether you fancy some sun and sea, or want to venture in hunt for the snow, Cyprus will tick both of your boxes.

Here is my complete guide to spending Christmas in Cyprus!

As the year winds down, the Mediterranean island of Cyprus begins to embrace an extraordinary festive mood.

With a distinct blend of age-old traditions steeped in rich Christian Orthodoxy and modern flair, a Cypriot Christmas is an experience unlike any other.

It is a time when the island transforms into a magical world of twinkling lights, grand feasts, and jubilant carolling that echoes through the cool winter air.

Each city adorns itself in vibrant decorations that blend seamlessly with historic architecture and narrow streets – which are bustling with both locals and tourists shopping for gifts among charming market stalls.

Yet, despite the rush, there’s always time for a warm “Kalimera” (Good Morning), reflecting the welcoming spirit of this enchanting island.

Christmas decorations in Limassol Marina
Festive decorations in Limassol Marina in December

Christmas in Cyprus vs Other Countries

While all countries have their unique ways to celebrate Christmas based on local customs and traditions, Cypriot Christmas stands out due to its deeply ingrained religious significance combined with its Mediterranean charm.

Amongst other nations where Santa Claus or Father Christmas dominates holiday narratives, Cyprus gives prominence to “Agios Vasilis” (Saint Basil) instead – who serves as their gift-bringer on New Year’s Eve rather than on Christmas day itself.

Additionally, Cypriots observe forty days of advent fasting leading up to Christmas Day – another tradition that harks back to their Orthodox faith which may seem uncommon for many visitors from around the globe.

On this island where summer seems eternal, experiencing white Christmases might be rare but witnessing flurries of ‘snow’ made up of almond-scented ‘kourabiedes’ (shortbread biscuits) dusted generously with powdered sugar certainly makes up for it!

Even though you won’t find any reindeer here, the harmonious blend of religious fervor, fascinating customs, warm hospitality embodied in their phrase ‘kopiaste’ (come join us), and delicious festive cuisine make for a Christmas that’s authentically Cypriot and wonderfully unique.

The Countdown Begins: The Advent Season

In the lead-up to Christmas in Cyprus, a palpable buzz fills the air.

This sense of anticipation begins with the advent season, a 40-day fast that commences on November 25th. This period, known as ‘Sarakosti’, serves both as a spiritual preparation for the divine birth and a gastronomical prelude to the copious feasting that will follow on Christmas Day.

It’s a mostly vegan affair, with devout Cypriots abstaining from meat, dairy and eggs. However, seafood gets an exemption, peppering otherwise vegetable-laden plates.

boats in Limassol Marina in December
Festive flower display in Limassol Marina

Festive Shopping and Decorations

As December dawns, Cyprus starts donning its festive best.

From twinkling fairy lights strung across palm-fringed streets to opulently decorated trees standing tall in plazas – it’s a sight that warms even the coldest winter nights.

Shopping takes on an entirely new dimension during this time as locals and tourists alike flock to bustling markets hunting for perfect presents.

The scent of freshly baked treats wafts from bakeries while shops overflow with everything from handmade trinkets to high-end fashion.

Caroling Traditions – Kalanda

Caroling or ‘Kalanda’ is another vibrant thread in the rich tapestry of Cypriot Christmas traditions. As early as dawn on Christmas Eve, children armed with triangles and guitars take to the streets serenading neighbors with traditional Greek carols known as Kalanda.

Such has been the custom since Byzantine times when these carols were sung only by shipmen who wanted blessings for their journeys at sea!

Nowadays everyone partakes in this joyous tradition which helps spread Yuletide cheer throughout communities across Cyprus.

Traditional Food Delights

Amidst the twinkling lights, carol singing and church ceremonies, one aspect of a Cypriot Christmas that undeniably stands out is the mouth-watering traditional food.

There’s something about the taste and smell of these cherished recipes that evoke memories of childhood Christmases and are integral to creating new ones.

From savory breads to sweet treats, let’s explore some culinary delights that make a Cypriot Christmas truly special.

a selection of dips in a restaurant in Limassol, Cyprus
Many restaurants in Cyprus have a special Christmas menu, but the classics like these dips are always a firm favourite.

Christopsomo: The Christmas Bread

The festivities kick off with ‘Christopsomo’, directly translating to ‘Christ’s Bread’. This delicacy isn’t merely a type of bread; it’s an embodiment of devout faith and humble thanks for the year’s blessings.

Each loaf is gracefully adorned with dough decorations symbolizing aspects of life such as grapes for fertility or an anchor for hope.

People spend hours crafting this culinary work of art which won’t just fill your stomach but also warm your heart.

Kourabiedes and Melomakarona

No Cypriot house is without Kourabiedes and Melomakarona during Christmas time; they are as essential as mistletoe in the west!

Kourabiedes are buttery almond cookies coated with snowy powdered sugar, promising a winter wonderland in each bite.

On the other hand, Melomakarona are honey-soaked cookies studded with crushed walnuts – they offer deep flavors blended perfectly in a moist texture that melts in your mouth instantly.

Vasilopita: New Year’s Cake with a Surprise

As we bid farewell to old Father Time on New Year’s Eve, out comes Vasilopita – St.Basil’s cake named after Basil of Caesarea who was known for his generosity to the poor.

This orange-infused cake is a blend of sweetness and spice that pairs perfectly with the celebratory champagne.

The highlight, however, is the coin hidden inside it.

The person who finds this coin in their slice is said to be blessed with good luck for the entire year.

cyprus christmas8
Christmas shopping in Limassol Marina

Christmas Day in Cyprus

Church Services and the Importance of Religion

Christmas Day in Cyprus commences with a unique note of solemnity and reverence.

In the early, still-dark hours of dawn, the resonant tolling bells beckon the devoted to attend church services.

The significance of religion is deeply interwoven into the fabric of Cypriot society, and this becomes particularly noticeable during Christmas.

The churches, adorned lavishly with lights and ornaments, brim with echoing hymns sung by harmonious congregations.

Divine Liturgy—celebrated with extraordinary grandeur on this day—underscores the spiritual essence of Christmas; it’s not just a holiday, but a holy day.

The Ties That Bind: Family Gatherings & Gift Exchanges

As the sacred aura from morning church services gently fades away, a more joyous ethos takes over as families gather together for merriment and camaraderie.

Homes once quiet abruptly awaken to laughter and lively chatter; generations converge under one roof—the old reminiscing about Christmases past while children anticipate gifts from ‘Ai-Vasilis’ or Santa Claus.

The exchange of gifts is carried out amid smiles broadened by warmth more than by wine—a practice that evokes values such as love, generosity, and appreciation for one another.

Cyprus Style Feast

No Cypriot occasion is considered complete without an elaborate feast—and Christmas is no exception!

A lavish table groans under an array of traditional dishes that are prepared on this special day: ‘souvla’ (large pieces of meat grilled on a skewer), ‘avgolemono’ soup (egg-lemon soup), stuffed vine leaves called ‘koupepia’, and other Cypriot delicacies.

The feast is not merely about the food—it’s an embodiment of togetherness, a symbol of shared joys and affections.

Each morsel is infused with the spirit of unity that Christmas in Cyprus evokes, making the meal a gastronomic experience truly worth savouring.

A selection of meze dishes for a lunch
Some staples of Cypriot cuisine

Boxing Day Traditions

Unwrapping the History of Boxing Day in Cyprus

Boxing Day, celebrated on the 26th of December, carries a different connotation in Cyprus compared to its British counterpart.

Unlike its name, which might connote pugilistic bouts to some or denote a day for returning unwanted gifts to others, this holiday in Cyprus is a serene continuation of Christmas.

Its history traces back not to St. Stephen—the first Christian martyr whose feast day is commemorated in some countries on the 26th—but rather, it’s an extension of the joy and goodwill infused into Christmas Day.

The Cypriot Way to Spend Boxing Day

For Cypriots, Boxing Day or “the second day of Christmas,” as it’s commonly referred to locally, is another opportunity to revel in festive cheer with family and friends.

It provides an extra day off work for people to extend their holiday celebrations and continue indulging in delectable traditional sweets like kourabiedes (almond cookies dusted with powdered sugar) and melomakarona (honey-dipped cookies topped with crushed nuts).

It’s also common for individuals who couldn’t visit certain relatives or friends on Christmas Day due to conflicting schedules or large families, use this day for those visits.

Homes remain open as festive havens where guests might be greeted by delightful aromas wafting from kitchens filled with leftovers from the previous day’s feast.

Moreover, this additional public holiday permits locals another chance at leisure activities exclusive to this season—be it ice-skating under twinkling fairy lights at city squares decorated like winter wonderlands; strolling through vibrant Christmas markets seeking out trinkets; or simply enjoying nature walks under crisp, azure skies, appreciating Cyprus’s mild winter weather.

So while there may be no boxes involved in the Cypriot Boxing Day tradition, it is nonetheless a day filled with the gift of continued celebration and shared moments of joy.

Winter Wonderland Fair in Limassol, Cyprus
Winter Wonderland Fair in Limassol, Cyprus

Immerse Yourself in the Yuletide Spirit

As the advent season in Cyprus turns into full-blown Christmas celebrations, the atmosphere on the island becomes more festive.

There’s an inescapable charm and joy that comes with being part of the holiday throng, as you wander through streets humming with cheer and twinkling with decorative lights.

The Delights of Christmas Markets & Fairs

Dive headfirst into the magic of Christmas at one of Cyprus’ many seasonal markets and fairs.

These bustling bazaars are awash with colorful stalls showcasing an array of local handicrafts, delectable food treats, traditional sweets, and unique handmade gifts.

Fairs like Limassol’s aptly named “Christmas Wonderland” radiate a special kind of warmth that allows you to embrace Christmas in its purest form— from savoring mulled wine amidst a canopy of fairy lights to inhaling the rich scent of gingerbread permeating through chilly winter evenings.

Festive Activities for Kids

When it comes to entertaining the little ones during the festive period, Cyprus pulls out all stops. Exciting workshops teaching kids how to bake traditional Cypriot Christmas cookies or create their own ornaments become seasonal favorites.

Puppet shows portray captivating stories about Santa Claus and his elves while interactive nativity plays allow children to be part of the classic Christmas tale themselves.

Ice-skating rinks pop up across cities adding another layer of charm to these winter festivities.

Through The Fairy Light Tunnels: Marvelous Displays

As night descends on Cyprus during this season, every corner is lit up with stunning displays that transform ordinary cityscapes into magical scenes straight out of a storybook.

Buildings don’t just twinkle; they shimmer under countless strings of lights draped artistically over their façades.

Colorful projections dance across centuries-old cobblestones, while elaborate window displays decked out with carefully chosen ornaments turn every shop into a treasure trove of Christmas delights.

And let’s not forget the massive, beautifully decorated trees that stand tall and proud in the heart of city squares, silently heralding the arrival of the most awaited time of the year.

Christmas Wonderland in Limassol Marina
Christmas Wonderland in Limassol Marina

Epiphany Celebration

As the festive season draws to a close, there is a grand finale that highlights the Cypriot spirit in all its vibrancy and warmth.

Epiphany, also known as Theophany, marks the end of the 12 days of Christmas.

But in Cyprus, it’s not just another day on the calendar; it’s an event filled with traditional customs and religious significance, signaling an emphatic end to the holiday season.

Ta Fota or ‘The Light’ Festival

In Greek, Epiphany is called “Ta Fota,” which translates to “The Light.”

It commemorates Jesus Christ’s baptism in River Jordan and epitomizes His divine manifestation. Throughout Cyprus, you’ll witness locals gathering around harbors, riverbanks or seafronts on this day.

A high-ranking clergyman throws a cross into water bodies symbolizing Christ’s baptism, after which young men dive into the freezing waters in a fervent race to retrieve it.

The one who emerges victoriously is said to have good luck for an entire year! Imagine witnessing such an intense spectacle under winter’s crisp sun; it’s indeed a sight that will remain ingrained deep within your memory.

Traditional Epiphany Customs

Ecclesiastical processions are at their pinnacle during Epiphany in Cyprus.

As part of this elaborate ritual known as ‘Agiasmos,’ priests visit houses and workplaces to sprinkle holy water as a symbolic act of purification. Families welcome them with offerings like loukoumi (Turkish delight), soumada (almond cordial), and tsipouro (a local brandy).

There’s also customary feasting wherein delicious dishes like Loukoumades (honey dough balls) and avgolemono (egg-lemon soup) star on the jubilant Cypriot tables. This day is indeed a testament to the island’s spiritual fervor, as well as its knack for keeping ancestral customs alive through generations.

The Charm of a Cypriot Yuletide

As we journey through the festive narrative of Christmas in Cyprus, it becomes abundantly clear that this Mediterranean island offers an experience unlike any other.

The myriad customs and time-honored traditions seeped in religious and cultural significance create an extraordinary fusion, setting it apart from conventional Western celebrations.

The imperative role religion continues to play, the 40-day advent fast leading up to Christmas, the melodious Kalanda carols heralding joy and blessings, not to mention the gastronomical delights unique to this land – all contribute towards making Christmas here a truly exceptional experience.

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Lucia has spent 6.5 years living in Cyprus, and writing about all the local gems and beautiful places the island has to offer. On Cyprus Escapes, she shares her discoveries to help travellers plan an unforgettable trip to Cyprus.

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