Christmas is here and New Year’s day is approaching, so for those wondering how to make their festive dinners and gifts stand out, here are a few ideas that have been a part of Greek culture for years.
During Christmas and New Year’s Eve, most Greeks prepare a spectacular feast for their friends and family and stay up celebrating till morning. Typically, a Greek Christmas or New Year’s Eve meal includes pork or turkey. Pork can be cooked in a variety of ways but it is usually marinated overnight, stuffed with dried fruit, chestnuts and spices, and cooked on low temperature for over four hours. As for turkey, since there is no such thing as a Thanksgiving celebration in Greece, most people cook it on New Year’s Eve or Christmas. The bird is usually stuffed and then cooked in the oven for two to three hours, while it can also be wrapped in bacon, to give it some extra flavor.
There are also many quintessential Greek desserts that are traditionally prepared during the Christmas holidays. Melomakarona and kourambiedes are just some of the sweets that Greek mothers and grandmothers have prepared for many years in order to please their families during the holidays. Melomakarona are small egg-shaped desserts made of flour, olive oil, sugar, orange and honey. After the dough is prepared and the melomakarona are baked, they are dipped in honey syrup and covered in smashed walnuts. Kourambiedes are in many ways similar to shortbread and they are typically made with almonds and brandy or rose water. They are usually shaped as a crescent or a small ball and baked till golden. After they have cooled down, they are covered in icing sugar. Over the last years, many Greek pastry shops have started covering kourabiedes and melomakarona with chocolate, giving a modern spin to an old recipe.
While people across the world are decorating their Christmas trees, many Greeks opt for the Greek tradition of decorating a small ship. Greece was always a maritime country and, in the past, the majority of men worked as fishermen or sea men. For many centuries, Greeks have been decorating small wooden boats in order to express their gratitude for the safe return of their loved ones who were travelling at sea for the rest of the year.
Furthermore, carols or kalanda are a main part of the Greek Christmas holiday season. On the eves of Christmas, New Year and Epiphany, children dust off their triangles, guitars and harmonicas, and rush through the streets, going from door to door, asking home owners “Shall we sing?” If the owners agree, then the children will sing the kalanda and receive some money in return. In the past, people would give out sweets and pastries but the tradition has changed over the years. Maybe this year, adding some Greek kalanda to the festive songs playlist is something to consider.
On New Year’s Eve, Greeks have the tradition of cutting the vasilopita, a cake which contains a hidden coin, at midnight, in order to bless the house and bring good luck for the new year. People around the table receive one piece of cake each by order of age, from eldest to youngest. The person that finds the coin receives a gift, usually a good luck charm. Furthermore, Greek housewives hang a pomegranate above their doors at the beginning of the twelve days of Christmas. On the midnight of New Year’s Eve, all the house lights are turned off and one person that is considered lucky, takes the pomegranate and smashes it on the floor in order to reveal its seeds as a sign of welcoming the new year. Pomegranates are considered a lucky fruit in Greece and symbolize fertility.