“Kala Christougenna!”(Merry Christmas in Greek). This post takes us to the land of endless blue waters and beautiful cities bathed in white. Greece is truly a magical place steeped in tradition, faith and mythology. Food and family play a central role to any Greek celebration, and Christmastime is no exception. Greeks often prepare for Christmas by fasting for 40 days beforehand, ending with a large feast known as the Advent feast. Dishes typically include pork, lamb, or goat meat as the main dish, with a variety of appetizers and desserts to end the meal.
One particular sweet that is traditionally seen on the table is Kourabiedes (Greek Butter Cookies). These little melt-in-your-mouth packages of delight are light, flaky and slightly sweetened. They are super simple to make, and are a great addition to your Christmas cookie swap or the end to a festive meal. Continue below to discover a few more Christmas traditions common in Greece and to learn how to make Kourabiedes (Greek Butter Cookies).
CHRISTMAS IN GREECE
Kalanda, is a traditional Greek Christmas Carol sung on Christmas Eve (Dec. 24), New Year’s Eve (Dec. 31) and on Eve of Epiphany (Jan. 5). Children often go out singing these carols in the streets and if they sing well, they are rewarded with a small amount of money or seasonal sweets.
Unlike many countries, Greeks exchange gifts on January 1, St. Basil Day, a day which honors Saint Basil the Great. In addition to his work as a theologian, Basil was known for his care of the poor and underprivileged, and in Greek tradition, he brings gifts to children. For those in the Orthodox tradition, St. Basil is the saint associated with Santa Claus as opposed to the western tradition of St Nicholas.
In Greece (particularly on the islands), instead of decorating trees (this didn’t become popular until the 1800s) they decorate boats.
With a rich maritime history, the decoration of boats with lights was a way of honoring and welcoming the sailors home to celebrate Christmas with their families. Additionally, Greek women and children decorate small boats to show their thankfulness for their husbands and fathers coming back from the sea safely. For a while, trees replaced this tradition, however, in recent years it has grown again in popularity.
Feast of the Nativity of Jesus
The Feast of the Nativity of Jesus (also known as Epiphany or Manifestation) traditionally spans twelve days, beginning on December 25 and ending on January 6, which is known as Epiphany Day. Epiphany celebrates the idea of Christ’s coming and manifesting Himself through several events of the New Testament. It did not originally concentrate exclusively on the birth of our Jesus, but celebrated several aspects of His manifestation including: the birth in the cave, the arrival of the three Wisemen in Bethlehem, the baptism of Jesus Christ, and the biblical miracle of turning water into wine.
During the twelve days of festivities, many Greeks also take precautions to keep Kallikantzaroi away. According to Greek folklore, the Kallikantzaroi represent a particular race of evil goblins that dwell underground and come out at the night during this time of year to wreak havoc.
It is said that they enter houses through chimneys or windows and are afraid of the sun, fire and holy water. It is for this is the reason people, especially in villages, keep the fireplace lit during the 12 days of Christmas. Additionally people leave a colander on their doorstep at night. The Kallikantzaroi, who can only count to two, and consider the number three holy, will kill themselves, before pronouncing it, will spend all night, counting the holes. They only ever reach the number two, and start again, so as not to utter the number three, and at sunrise, they disappear. It is believed that they are finally banished on Epiphany, once the “renewal of waters” takes place and people’s home’s are blessed with holy water.
No holiday is complete without food, and the Greeks know how to do it right. There are so many dishes traditionally made during Christmas time, I’ll narrow it down to a few of the most popular.
Christopsomo (Christ’s Bread or Christmas bread) is a round sweet bread flavored with cinnamon, orange and cloves. It is made on Christmas Eve, and a cross carved into the top crust before it is baked. On Christmas Day, the head of the household makes the sign of the cross above the loaf of bread, cuts it and gives a piece to each person at the dining table.
Vasilopita is a cake that is eaten on New Year’s Day during the feast of St. Basil. Before the cake is baked, a coin is placed inside and the New Year is written on top of the cake with almonds. Whoever finds the coin in his piece of cake will have luck for the rest of the year.
literally means “Christmas Cookies” and uses traditional flavors associated with the holiday season including cinnamon, cloves, and orange. These cookies are then dipped in a lightly spiced syrup after baking, then topped with sprinkled nuts.
These melt-in-your-mouth Greek Butter Cookies (also called Kourabiedes) are traditionally a sweet treat during Christmas, but are a great addition to the dessert table for any holiday.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: Greece
4 sticks unsalted butter, softened (1 lb)
3–1/4 Teaspoons pure almond extract
½ cup powdered sugar/icing sugar plus 1 cup for coating
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
4–1/2 cups all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
¼ cup chopped almonds (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Prepare baking pans with parchment paper.
- Using a stand mixer, beat butter on medium-high for 10 minutes. Butter will become fluffy and a very pale yellow color.
- While butter is beating, sift powdered sugar in a small bowl. In a separate large bowl, sift together flour, salt, and baking soda. Set aside.
- After butter is finished, add egg and almond extract and mix well.
- Turn to mixer to low and slowly add powdered sugar to the egg mixture. After incorporated, turn to medium-high and blend for an additional 5 minutes.
- Turn the mixer back to a low speed, then in batches, slowly add in the flour mixture until well combined. If the dough is too sticky, add flour a few tablespoons at a time until desired consistency is reached.
- If additional almond flavor and texture is wanted, add in the chopped almonds and mix well.
- To form the cookies, take approximately 1 tablespoon of dough and form into a ball or crescent shape.
- Place on cookie sheet 2 inches apart and bake 15-20 minutes until cookies are very lightly browned on edges.
- Cool the cookies slightly, and while still warm, coat them in powdered sugar and serve immediately.
Cookies will keep for 1 week at room temperature or up to 3 months frozen in an airtight container.
What are some of your favorite Christmas treats? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!