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
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