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Special Epiphany Koliva Has Ancient Greek Roots

Epiphany Koliva, a version of the ancient food eaten at funerals in Eastern Europe, is called Fotakoliva. Credit: Zserghei/Public Domain

Epiphany Koliva, a version of the food eaten at funerals in Eastern Europe, called Fotokoliva, has been prepared for many centuries on the Greek island of Crete.

By Giorgio Pintzas Monzani

The feast of Epiphany, celebrated every January 6th, plays a fundamental role in the Orthodox world, almost as much as the great feasts of Easter and Christmas.

Epiphany Koliva shared by families on great feast celebrating Jesus’ baptism, Three Wise Men

Traveling around the islands and territories of the Greek peninsula, we can find many customs related to the celebrations held there on the twelfth day after Christmas, which is when the Orthodox believe that the Three Wise Men visited Jesus and also when he was later baptized in the River Jordan by his cousin, John the Baptist.

On Crete, we find one of the most fascinating customs which most closely connects a Christian tradition with ancient meanings and symbols.

Let’s take a look at how to make Fotokoliva (Greek: Φωτοκολλυβα), also called Psarokoliva (Greek: Ψαροκολλυβα) and Palikaria (Greek: Παλικαρια), depending on the Cretan area in question.

Nowadays, preparing this type of koliva is almost a forgotten tradition, except for some small villages in the mountainous areas of the island.

The creation of the name

The etymology behind the dish comes from combining the word koliva (Greek: κολλυβα), with the name of the Epiphany in the Greek language, fòta (Greek: φωτα, menaing ‘light’).

Koliva is a dish which has ancient, pre-Christian origins, but it is still prepared today in honor of the dead during funeral rites: a mixture of boiled wheat with various additions which can be both sweet and salty, it takes pride of place at funerals in the Orthodox world.

In ancient times these small cakes made of grain were offered during funerals to accompany the passage of the deceased to the world of the dead; their characteristic size has also led to the ancient coins of smaller denominations to be called by the same name.

The word Φωτα indicates the festival for which it was also prepared. In the Greek Orthodox church the holiday of January 6 is called “Lights,” a figurative term that is a way to describe the enlightenment of the epiphany.

An ancient preparation

On a practical level koliva is simply boiled wheat with the addition of various legumes — anything that might be at hand was usually the choice of most poor families in times of old, who used anything they had at their disposal.

A Κολλυβα would many times include the addition of seeds that came from whatever crops the families cultivated.

The peculiarity of this dish is hidden behind the tradition and the legends that surround it. The dish was traditionally eaten on the eve of January 6th, mainly in the evening.

Among the ingredients, however, there could be absolutely no oil, because to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ in church on the day of the feast, you had to have no fat in your system.

Did the whole family eat it?

This special dish was not only meant for the whole family — their animals ate it as well.

The strong agricultural connection of this tradition is indicated by the fact that on the evening of the great feast, even the animals owned by the families ate the very same food as their masters.

It was thought that during the night between January 5 and 6, the heavens were opened to prepare for the light and the apparition of the Holy Spirit: in addition, the strong presence of faith was said to allow animals to speak, like people — but only for that one night.

Families therefore, fearing that the animals might speak and complain to the Holy Spirit of not being treated well, fed them the same Koliva that they ate, and allowed them to sleep on the doorstep of the home, not in the stable.

From Panspermia to Fotokoliva

In addition to the funeral koliva of early Christianity, another ancestor of the tradition we are discussing today explains the distant roots of the food.

In the ancient Greek world, when the same Cretan recipe was prepared as a gift to the gods, it was called πανσπερμια (Panspermìa).

Spring and harvest times around the world have always had a great importance in daily life to peoples whose existence was based on farming — even to the point of creating legends and gods around these important times. Epiphany koliva has its roots in these ancient ways.

One of them was Demeter, a goddess who was a protector of the Earth and its harvests: for this reason in the month of December panspermia was prepared to thank her for the fruits of the Earth. During the months of February and March (the beginning of Spring flowering and germination), the dish was offered as a gift to the gods as a good omen for the new agricultural year.

Many dishes, customs and traditions across the world have unfortunately been lost with the passage of time; this is part of our history. The importance of remembering and relating these ancient ways does not return us to the past, but rather allows us to advance into the future with more awareness.

We are…what we used to eat.

Giorgio Pintzas Monzani is a Greek-Italian chef, writer and consultant who lives in Milan. His Instagram page can be found here. 

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