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Bleak Christmas in Greece

Cheerful decorations, good food and gifts for the children are part of the traditional Greek Christmas. But as the country's financial crisis continues to wreak havoc, the country is in for a scaled-back holiday in 2012.

Chic cafes and shop windows filled with haute couture fashions are lined up one after another along the main shopping street in Glyfada, a well-to-do suburb of Athens. But inside, the stores are mostly empty. An older couple is among the few people strolling along the road. They say they love to walk here but don't make big purchases any more, not even at Christmas.

The couple say they've scaled back their Christmas celebrations at home: "I'm unemployed, and my husband's pension was cut in half. We can't even afford presents for our grandchildren. We're forgetting about Christmas this year," says the woman.

Gifts from St Basil

A shopping center in Athens (c) Daphne Grathwohl

Athens shopping centers are braced for a bad year

In Greece, it's mostly children who receive gifts. Those who sing the folk song "Kalanta" on Christmas Eve can look forward to money or sweets in return. But the real presents are said to be brought by St Basil - traditionally on January 1. These days, it's common to see kitsch from other countries as part of Greeks' celebrations, such as blinking decorations or plastic Christmas trees.

In Greece, as elsewhere in the West, retail does its biggest business ahead of the holidays, but by a much smaller margin than in the past. The toy industry can expect a ten percent drop in sales this year compared to 2011. Inside the toy stores there are plenty of people browsing, but few are actually buying.

Just window-shopping

A merchant sells pastries outside of the Kapnikarea Church (c) Daphne Grathwohl

A merchant sells pastries outside of the Kapnikarea Church

Many have more time than ever on their hands for shopping around. Reports by the GSEE (General Confederation of Greek Workers), the umbrella organization for Greek unions, suggest that unemployment in the country is currently at 24 percent. And the National Bank of Greece calculates that every third person in the private sector is unemployed.

Money is scarce, even for those who have held on to their jobs. The GSEE also reports that wages have fallen by a third between 2010 and now.

Ermou Street in central Athens, a favorite spot for shoppers, still sees plenty of foot traffic past stores decked out for the holidays. Some shoe stores have placed signs next to their wares: "Authentic leather and authentically Greek." But even the prospect of stimulating the domestic economy is doing little to boost sales.

Maintaining Christmas traditions

Preparing Greek pasties called kourambiedes (c) Daphne Grathwohl

Kourambiedes are a traditional Greek Christmas cookie

Salepi, an hot, aromatic brew containing orchid root, cinammon and sugar, is available outside the famous Kapnikarea Church in Athens. The winter drink goes well with traditional Greek Christmas pastries, like kourambiedes - butter cookies topped with powdered sugar - or melomakarona - cookies drenched in honey and walnuts.

It's also traditional to decorate one's house and give out gifts to children, says Dimitrios Katifelis, who runs a store selling seasonal decorations. His shop is full of angels, Advent calendars, bells, and other festive items.

Katifelis got an early start, setting up his Christmas window display in October. Passers-by were thrilled, he said: "Bravo, they'd tell me - finally something cheerful and nice to lift our miserable spirits."

Five-euro gifts

Shop owner Dimitrios Katifelis (c) Daphne Grathwohl

Shop owner Dimitrios Katifelis has noticed that customers are reluctant to spend

In the past, alongside Easter, weddings and baptisms, Christmas has always been one of the special occasions on which Greeks are known to splash out. But Katifelis says this year is very different, judging by the people he's seen come into his store.

"They come in and say: I really like the stuff here, but my pension has been cut. Don't you have anything for five or ten euros?"

But the shop owner says he believes that, at the moment, Greeks are making life tougher for each other. "Every day there's a strike, and every day they head out onto the streets. That's the bigger problem. When the streets are full, nobody can come and shop in the city."

Although he says he understands the sentiment behind the demonstrations, he knows he has to watch his revenue. Nobody buys holiday decorations when there's tear gas in the streets, he says.

A few steps away, a woman is selling grilled corn on the cob and chatting with a few acquaintances. She laughs bitterly when asked about gifts for her grandchildren, saying she barely has enough to make ends meet as it is.

"The grandchildren will get sweets; we can't afford anything else," she said.

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