Greek Holiday Season Traditions from the land of St. Basil
filled with the scents of honey and olive trees
Throughout the Aegean, dotted with white and blue islands, Christmas and New Year are celebrated in many superstitions and customs, one as delightful as the next. Santa Claus does not live in this sunny country, but instead has surrendered his sack to St. Basil, a philanthropist from Asia Minor in the time of the Byzantine Empire who, on New Year's Eve, distributes gifts and candy to good children.
Since there are no Christmas trees, nor stockings hung in front of the fireplace, St. Basil simply places them in the corner of the living room or on the holiday table.
In Greece, a housewife never neglects to mark the Christmas bread with her handprint before baking it, a sign to the children that Jesus too has touched the bread on this holy day.
In rural regions, bread is made in the shape of animals: cows, sheep, etc., and a loaf of bread is torn up especially to be given to the cattle by the oldest daughter of the house.
The holiday season in Greece unfolds in simplicity. On these sun-soaked islands where man works so closely with nature to put his daily bread on the table, not much is needed to add to the decor. For example, on Lemnos the table centrepiece is made up of pomegranates and honey.
The meal is fairly simple. Though the tradition of serving a Christmas turkey has been adopted from northern countries, it is stuffed differently here: with meat, tomatoes and berries.
At Christmas, as at New Year, baked treats take centre stage. There are plump oval pastries, which are given to friends and neighbours in the spirit of sharing: melomakarona, little cakes soaked in honey, and kourabiedes, a kind of shortbread rolled in icing sugar.
For the New Year, don't forget to hide a gold or silver coin in your cake! At Smyrna, it is stamped with the imprint of the Byzantine eagle.
Instead of a Christmas tree, at Madytos an olive branch is stuck into the Christmas cake, and placed in the centre of the table. A few walnuts, oranges and apples, and there you have it: Christmas decorations! Tradition requires that the table be lifted up three times while all recite "Table of Our Lady, Table of the Virgin Mary, Christ is born, let all the world rejoice." The cake and the branch stay in the centre of the table until Epiphany, when the cake is cut.
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