This week I'll take you to another trip around my country, Greece, and introduce some of our Christmas traditions.
1) Christmas Boat
Being a country surrounded by sea, Greece has a different custom regarding Christmas decorations. Traditionally, we decorate a boat in our houses and not a tree. The boat symbolises a new journey in people's lives after Christ's birth. It is also a kind of tribute and a welcome to all the sailors returning home to spend holidays with their families. In the past, children used to carry little boats as they visited house after house in their neigbourhood to sing the Christmas carols. Unfortunately, this is a custom that tends to become obsolete as most houses now prefer to put up a Christmas tree as a home decoration.
Traditionally, the lady of the house bakes a special kind of bread on Christmas Eve. It is called 'ΧΡΙΣΤΟΨΩΜΟ' (christopsomo) which means Christ's Bread. A Cross is always shaped on the bread and, depending on regional customs, more decorations might be added on it.
On Christmas Day, the host takes the bread, makes the sign of the Cross on it with a knife, usually thrice, and then cuts a piece for every person in the house. It is said that this custom symbolises the Holy Communion; the same way Christ gave the Bread of Life to his whole human family.
We like food in Greece and especially sweets. Traditionally, lots of various sweets are made during the Christmas holidays. Some of the most popular are: ΜΕΛΟΜΑΚΑΡΟΝΑ, ΚΟΥΡΑΜΠΙΕΔΕΣ, ΔΙΠΛΕΣ (melomakarona, kourabiedes, diples).
Melomakarona have their origin in Ancient times. The Ancient Greeks used to offer a small type of bread, in the same shape as we make melomakarona today, called "Makaria", after funerals. It was a tribute they paid the deceased during the night.
In modern times, this type of bread was covered in honey and became sweeter in taste and thus used to celebrate birth instead.
Diples is a type of sweet served on many occasions here in Greece, one of them being during the Christmas Holidays. Its origins are found in Peloponnese.
Diples, meaning folds, are made of a very thin dough, folded in various shapes and fried in very hot oil. Afterwards, they are covered in honey, cinnamon and ground walnut.
We call our carols 'KALANTA'. There are a lot of variations of carols, depending on the region and the occasion. Children roam the streets on Christmas Eve as well as New Year's Eve and visit all the houses or shops in their neighbourhood to sing and give their wishes to the hosts. They, in turn, give money or a treat of traditional sweets (or both) to the kids.
Kids usually carry musical instruments, such as the triangle, or decorations like the traditional boat and also a box where the people put their donations. In Ancient times, kids carried a branch of olive or laurel.
On New Year's Eve morning, the kids go out to sing the carols again and gather money and treats from the people they visit. In the evening, families gather at homes where they share dinner, usually a stuffed chicken or pork, and exchange gifts. A few seconds before midnight, we turn off the lights and then back on again to signal the coming of the New Year. On New Year's Day, we forcefully drop a pomegranate down on the threshold so that it breaks and the seeds spread all over the inside of the house. The host, who usually performs the custom, wishes for health and happiness throughout the year and says that the New Year should bring him and his family as much money as the seeds of the pomegranate spread in his house. A person, who is considered lucky, is also asked to visit the house in the morning and be the first to step on the house so that they have good luck all year through. Their first step in the house should be their right foot.
We call this plant "ΚΡΕΜΜΥΔΑ" (Kremyda). Its official name is Scilla Maritima. The Ancient Greeks considered it a symbol of regeneracy and health.
We hang it on our door on New Year's Eve and on New Year's Day, the father or the mother of the house takes it in their hands and taps the heads of the kids lightly to wake them up so that they all go to the church. Afterwards, Kremyda is hung somewhere in the house so that it brings health and luck to the family.
This special cake is called "ΒΑΣΙΛΟΠΙΤΑ" (Vasilopita). It is named after St. Basil who is Santa Claus to us Greeks.
It contains a hidden coin or trinket (by slipping it into the dough before baking) which gives good luck to the receiver. The host cuts pieces of the cake and shares it around the table on New Year's Eve, naming each piece they cut. The first one is for Christ, the second goes to the house and then one for every person of the family starting with the eldest.
The person who finds the coin will be blessed with luck for the whole year.
In popular tradition, vasilopita is associated with a legend of Saint Basil. According to one story, St. Basil called on the citizens of Caesarea to raise a ransom payment to stop the siege of the city. Each member of the city gave whatever they had in gold and jewellery. When the ransom was raised, the enemy was so embarrassed by the act of collective giving that he called off the siege without collecting payment. St. Basil was then tasked with returning the unpaid ransom, but had no way to know which items belonged to which family. So he baked all of the jewellery into loaves of bread and distributed the loaves to the city, and by a miracle each citizen received their exact share, the legend goes. In some tellings the sieging chieftain is replaced with an evil emperor levying a tax, or simply with St. Basil attempting to give charity to the poor without embarrassing them.