Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Merry Christmas (Καλά Χριστούγεννα)

Christmas is associated with the decoration of a tree all over the world, thanks to Queen Victoria and her prosperous England. This tradition has been imported into the culture of most countries, possibly replacing the more meaningful customs of the country that are associated with this time of year. Greece has a vry different Christmas symbol of its own.

christmas tree hania chania
The Christmas tree in Hania, in front of the Agora

One of the most meaningful traditional Christmas symbols of Greece is the ship. Greece has been a seafaring nation since ancient times, still boasting one of the largest fleets in present day maritime economics. The history of shipping is filled with unpleasant stories of ships being lost at sea due to adverse weather conditions, especially in the wintertime. Perhaps the Greek Christmas symbol has remained relatively unknown to the rest of the world because Greece is a summer tourism destination. If you came to Greece int he winter, you may think a boat has been decorated with Christmas lights as a kinky alternative to the globalised tree symbol...

christmas boat rethimno christmas boat
The Christmas boat symbol in Rethimno, another town located on coastal Western Crete, one hour away from Hania

At Christmastime, Greek people used to (and still do) decorate a toy-sized boat, lit up by an oil lamp burning away throughout the Christmas period (the Christmas holidays officially end in Greece on Epiphany, the 6th of January), as a shrine to the sailors in the family during the cold dark stormy days.

christmas boat hania chania
The ship, a symbol of Greek Christmastime

The ship is still used throughout Greece as a Christmastime symbol. It appears in the main squares of most towns, as well as shop windows and private homes and gardens. Hania maintains this tradition with an electrically-lit up boat in the main town square close to the taxi stand. Of all the Christmas decorations in the town (we're just as light-polluting as any other small town in the world), for me, this is the most beautiful.

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While we lived in New Zealand, my mother used to make kourambiedes, those shortcrust half-moon biscuits covered in icing sugar; we ate them all year round. I only discovered that they were traditionally served in Greece during the Christmas period (you can't even purchase them at any other time of the year), along with melomakarona (a honey dipped log biscuit topped with chopped nuts), when I ended up living here. She made at least 100 pieces per batch and we were instructed not to eat them, as they were to be served to any guest that came to our house, for whatever reason. When we had visitors, out popped the silver serving tray with a demi-tasse of Greek coffee, a dessert plate containing a melomakarono and a kourambie, along with a glass of water.

There are many recipes on the internet for kourambiedes. I make mine according to Anne Yiannoulis, as she describes in her Greek Calendar Cookbook, a book I've enjoyed using so much, that I was thrilled to hear that it is going to be re-issued some time in the near future by Lycabettus Press.

kourambiedes kourambiedes kourambiedes

Another traditional sweet of Greece at Christmastime, apart from melomakarona (mine are from Spitiko in Hania), is the Christmas tsoureki (mine is made by the Xiotakis pastry company), known as Χριστόψωμο (hristopsomo - Christ's bread).

melomakarona christmas tsoureki hristopsomo

During these severely troubled times in my country and around the world,
I can only hope that the Christmas Season will bring some peace in everyone's lives.

Last year's poinsettia survived its second Christmas

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas
with all the joy and happiness
associated with this time of year

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