Christmas is an important cultural and religious event in Greece, second only to Easter and the Lenten season. Food plays a major role of the holiday season, as gifts, feasts, and symbols. Baked goods are especially important and every region added its own special twist to the traditional recipes.
The Greek Christmas celebration lasts for thirteen days, from Christmas Eve until Epiphany, January 6, the day that the Magi arrived in Bethlehem, bringing gifts to the Christ child. Most of the predominantly Greek Orthodox residents fast during the four weeks of advent, so elaborate preparations are made for the Christmas feast.
Greek culture has succumbed less than most cultures to the commercialism of the holidays. They decorate simply, often without a tree. Although, as an exception, Athens boasts the largest Christmas tree in Europe and its lighting is an annual tradition. On the islands, traditional fisherman communities, families still decorate a small ship instead of a tree, symbolizing their ties to the sea. Greeks, traditionally, give simple gifts, just one or two, usually on Epiphany, instead of on Christmas, symbolizing the gifts of the Magi.
Greek Holiday Baking
Baking, as in most cultures, is an important part of Greek cooking for Christmas. Bread is the most important of the Greek holiday foods. Historically, flour and yeast were scarce and expensive and thus saved for special meals. Traditional items, such as Christmas bread or stravropsomo, a fruit-filled loaf, decorated on top with the sign of the cross and Chistopsomto or “Christ’s Bread”, a leavened bread made of flour, sesame seeds, and spices, such as anise, orange, cloves, and cinnamon accompanied by dried figs, are eaten on Christmas Eve.
Other traditional Greek Christmas sweets include thiples, fried dough strips dripped with honey, kourabiedes, holiday butter cookies, kataifi, phyllo-wrapped confections made from cinnamon and sugar and drizzled with honey, melomacrona, popular honey cakes, and the ever-popular sweet pastry, baklava.
The Greek Christmas celebration begins on Christmas Eve with the breaking of the Chistopsomto. The loaf is set on the table and surrounded with nuts, dried fruit, and other treats. The head of the household blesses the loaf and each person gets a slice, drizzled with honey. Before anyone eats the bread, the group lifts the table slightly three times, signifying the Christian trinity. In some regions of Greece, an olive branch is inserted into the bread on end, like a tree, symbolizing peace. Other regions leave the first slice of the loaf outside the front door for the poor.
The Christmas Feast
The traditional Christmas Day feast is centered about either a turkey or goose, stuffed with a mixture of rice, pine nuts, chestnuts, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice. Roast pork with cabbage or cauliflower is another popular holiday choice, one that dates back to the early Christian era. Family is important to Greek culture and the Christmas meal is usually a large one, often featuring two or more main dishes. Side dishes, such as roast potatoes and grilled vegetables accompany the meal.
Greek Holiday Food Symbols
Pomegranates, that bright red fruit indigenous to the Mediterranean, have been a symbol of prosperity since the days of the ancient Greeks. It is a commonly used during the Christmas season, both as decoration and as food. Basil, too, is a Greek Christmas symbol. A sprig is traditionally wrapped around a cross and sprinkled with holy water each day during the season.
Different regions throughout Greece have their own variations on the holiday traditions. One such charming custom comes from the Greek region of Epirus. There, the Christmas bread is decorated with dough shapes representative of the family’s occupation, a shoe for a cobbler or a plow for a farmer. Additional small loaves, called kouloures, are made in celebration for the animals – donkeys, sheep, and goats – in this traditional rural area, and are broken up and given to the beasts as a symbol of good health for the coming year. Other figure eight shaped loaves, koliantines, are baked for the children, also as a symbol of health.
In the end, a Greek Christmas is about sharing the joy of the season with family and friends. What better way to do that than with special food and special meals?