With the word Christmas coming from the Greek Christougenna (Christos, meaning Christ and genna, meaning birth), this most beloved of winter holidays remains strongly tied to Orthodox Christian traditions across the country.
The period of Christmas in Greece lasts from the birth of Christ on the 25th December to Epiphany on the 6th January, although the festival is preceded by 40 days of fasting — the perfect preparation for the calorific Christmas meal consumed on the 24th December!
Whilst modern Greeks enjoy decorating their house with Christmas trees, the act was only introduced into the country in 1833, when the Bavarian King Otto brought the tradition with him from Germany. Until then, the traditional Greek Christmas decoration was a ‘Christmas boat’, hung in the window and reflective of the seafaring nation’s affinity with and respect for the sea.
A simple wooden bowl decorated with a wooden cross wrapped in a sprig of basil is set up in many Greek houses. The bowl is there to keep goblins, called killantzaroi, away — they appear during Christmas, travelling through chimneys and windows and spreading mischief wherever they go. A skarkantzalos (Christmas log) is kept burning for the entire holiday period in order to stop the killantzaroi entering the house via the chimney, although the goblins finally disappear on the Epiphany.
Any visitor to a Greek bakery during the Christmas period is sure to come across counters piled high with two traditional delicacies: melomakarona and kourambiethes. Melomakarona are small, sticky cookies made of flour, olive oil and honey. Flavoured with sweet cinnamon, spicy cloves and orange zest, the cookies are drenched in syrup and topped with crunchy nuts. Kourambiethes are simple butter biscuits, similar to shortbread, but made from almonds rather than flour. Flavoured with brandy and drenched in icing sugar, these moorish delicacies are messy but dangerously easy to eat! Be sure to order up a box of both in order to decide on your favourite.