I hope you are ready for the Christmas holidays. I definitely am and probably have my hands on some melomakarona or kourabiedes as you read! In this post I couldn’t resist sharing some Greek Christmas traditions with you to mark the occasion, along with some of our favourite and most traditional Christmas food.
Well, Athens is not the most famous of winter destinations, I only remember seeing snow once as a kid in the capital, but it’s a different story in the north of Greece. Be it a white Christmas or not, we love the festivities and wherever you are in Greece, you will certainly have a good time during our celebrations, which stretch over 12 days.
The festivities begin with carols on Christmas Eve, which carry on into the New Year and with the Epiphany, commemorating the baptism of Christ and, symbolically, the consecration of waters on the 6th of January. There are carols before each celebration, with children going door to door spreading good cheer. We also have kallikantzaroi, little goblins that come up from the underworld to make a mess of everything, especially the food! They are pretty harmless though, so long as you throw a melomakarono for them onto your roof.
As for Santa, our kids don’t really write to St Nick, although it is slowly catching on. Our Santa, St Basil, comes on New Year’s Eve instead, which used to be a day to exchange gifts symbolising prosperity and good luck for the year ahead. And for most of us, we still celebrate this way, although the younger kids won’t allow any presents to stay under the Christmas tree for so long these days.
In a typically nautical Greek tradition originating from the islands, we also decorate ships instead of Christmas trees. The tradition is being revived with old-fashioned Christmas trees viewed as an inauthentic, foreign influence. But actually, it’s not that alien, on the contrary it stems from a long way back in Greek history.
In Ancient Greece, they celebrated with Eiresione, a decorated branch of laurel or olive tree. These festivals were held twice a year, in late October to honour Athena and also in April to honour Apollo, the celebration marked the ending and beginning of each harvest. Children would carry an olive or laurel branch, decorated with strands of red and white wool, nuts and seasonal flowers, going from door to door singing songs for prosperity. Does this remind you of something? Carols perhaps?
It’s amazing how some rituals have survived and even gone viral, serving a slightly different purpose in every era. Writing about Eiresione inspired me to look a little deeper into the celebrations of the ancient world and I uncovered a few surprises. The Romans celebrated Christmas too!
The spirit of Eiresione was absorbed into the Greco-Roman world as Brumalia, starting towards the end of November and drawing to a close a month after with Saturnalia, during the winter solstice, pretty much our Christmas day. In Roman mythology, “Saturn was an agricultural deity who was said to have reigned over the world in the Golden Age, when humans enjoyed the spontaneous bounty of the earth without labour in a state of social egalitarianism”. Of course, being Romans, there was a sacrifice – a suckling pig (keep this pig in mind) – as well as gift-giving and a holiday, even slaves were free from work. These celebrations kept evolving, lasting up to the 6th century AD when Justinian fiercely fought against paganism and towards religious unity. So Saturnalia became a more sombre affair and shed its chthonic character, becoming the festival we now recognise as Christmas.
But ruminating over history, I almost forgot to mention our Christmas food. Do you remember the pig I mentioned earlier? Popular back then, it is still with us for Christmas dinner, another old tradition that stayed on. In the old days, the family used to slaughter a pig, enjoy a great roast and preserve the rest to see the family through winter. In poorer households they would prepare poultry, chicken or actually turkey if any was available. The truth is that Greece reaches so widely, there is no one single tradition, each region has its own unique identity forged through time. Pork roast is still enjoyed in the countryside and so are lahanodolmades, especially on the Islands. The turkey is more of an urban speciality along, of course, with the traditional sweets like melomakarona, kourabiedes and diples .
If you would like to try something different and a little Greek this holiday season here is your list:
Pastrami pie, very quick and delicious
Lahanodolmades, stuffed cabbage with pork
Turkey, of course
PS I hope a very festive pig will be coming your way soon
Melomakarona, honey biscuits, stuffed or not
Kourabiedes, a very light shortbread biscuit
Vasilopita, the New Year’s Eve cake
and of course I will be making a few more, that are perhaps not so Christmassy but certainly festive:
Karidopita, syrupy walnut cake
Wherever you are, I hope you are warm and cosy, nibbling on wonderful food and enjoying Christmas preparations!
Any special Christmas dishes on your part of the world? Let me know in the comments below.
from Athens with love
PS: Last chance to vote for the VIMA Gourmet food blog awards competition. Click away!