Thursday, 31 December 2009

Happy New Year! (Καλή Χρονιά!)

Every culture has some customs which sound perfectly sane and normal to their own people, while those outside of the cultural group, upon hearing about them, may consider them not just strange and peculiar, but utterly ludicrous and absurd. And so it is with the Greek New Year, when we refuse to let anyone enter our house after midnight on New Year's Eve if they are not already inside the house, until our favorite person (or animal) crosses the threshold, performing the annual pothariko (ποδαρικό), the 'first foot' to step inside a house on the first day of the New Year; or when we smash askeletoura (ασκελετούρα), an onion-like flowery tuber, often called a squill in English, on our front doors. Both customs are used to herald good luck for the New Year, and the events of the following 12 months are often blamed on the manner in which these kinky but popular New Year's customs, still practiced today in very similar ways right around Greece, were performed.

Here is the way the pothariko, derived from the Greek word πόδι (pothi), meaning 'foot', was once celebrated in Crete:
"Up until a few decades ago in the villages, the cow would be brought into the house to perform the 'pothariko'. The animal was served bread and other delicacies, as well as specially baked cookies which would be hung onto its horns. It was deemed especially lucky if the animal peed inside the house. In some villages, there was a preference for sheep, and in the village of Kapetaniana, the bells of the whole flock would be blessed at the church. In any case, the animals performing the pothariko were not allowed to be black." (translated from the Greek, from 'The Roots of the Greeks: The Cretans', 2009, Pigasos Ekdotiki - Pegasus Publications)
These days, most likely the youngest child in a family will be invited to perform on this auspicious occasion, with a gift of money from the parents'/grandparents' 'good hand' (i kali hera - H Καλή Χερα), another New Year's custom. It really is a burdensome task being the good luck charm for a household, as my father once told me, when he told me about being invited to perform the pothariko in his youth for a rich family: in that year, all the cows this family owned died. From then on, my father never stepped over the threshold of anyone's house on New Year's Day without asking if someone had already done that before his arrival...

The skeletoura (commonly known n English as the squill - both words are related) is seen as a sign of fertility because it is very abundant, and is also associated with immortality:

askeletoura squill greek new year
The squill - (a)skeletoura in Greek - grows in the countryside, almost anywhere. I found these ones in an olive grove near my neighbourhood. They aren't easy to dig up, but I was lucky with the one I pulled out - the soil was very moist. The bulb is quite large, and some still had the dry stalk of the tall feathery flower that grows from their centre. The skeletoura contines to flourish even when dug up, hence its immortality attributes.
askeletoura squill greek new year askeletoura squill greek new year
"Alexander the Great had discovered the source of the immortal water, which dried up when he filled a beautiful glass vessel with its water. In order for the water to keep its properties, it had to remain a secret. When he returned home, Gorgona, his sister, asked him what was in the bottle, but he wouldn't answer her. The next morning, she woke up before him and opened the bottle. On finding nothing noteworthy in it, she poured the water out of the window, in order to pour something else into the bottle. The water fell onto the skeletoura which was growing below the window, with the result that the plant became immortal, and Alexander remained a mortal." (ibid)
It is also used to ward off evil in the coming year. This explains why the skeletoura is seen lying on the ground beside a door, waiting for the New Year to arrive. This plant is found all over Greece in unspoiled territory, field borders and nature spots.

new year's cake vasilopita 2010
The customary vasilopita (these mass-produced ones were being sold at the INKA supermarket) to welcome the New Year, with 'Christ's bread' (Christopsomo - Χριστόψωμο: a kind of tsoureki) in the background; ours will look and taste a little different this year - one of these cupcakes has a coin hidden in its interior, but nobody knowns which one it is (!).

The most well known Greek food custom for the New Year is the Vasilopita (Βασιλόπιτα), the New Year's cake with a coin hidden in it - whoever finds it is considered the luckiest person of the year. This is usually made on New Year's Eve and cut up on New Year's Day, with a piece dedicated to each member of the family, as well as God and even the house.

decorative pomegranates good luck charm gouri christmas new year greece

The pomegranate is also one of the most popular symbols of the season. This fruit's association with winter and fertility comes from the story of Persephone, who ate 6 pomegranate seeds during the time she spent in the underworld when Hades captured her. In Greece pomegranate is sold fresh when in season, and it is also imported. Pomegranate juice has come into the market through globalisation. Pomegranate seeds feature prominently in memorial cakes, which explains why they have generally been discriminated against in Greek cuisine, but nowadays you will see them used more often in salads and other savoury dishes, prompted by the latest trends in Greek nouveau cuisine .

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It is not a Greek custom to make New Year's resolutions, but that is the good thing about being raised in two different worlds; in the modern times we live in, we can pick and choose the customs we wish to follow. Another year has passed: how did time fly, and how did we spend it?It won't be coming back and we won't get another chance to use it.

So what did I achieve in the year that just passed? You know the answer to that question better than I do. I want to thank all my readers from the bottom of my heart for your support throughout my food writing adventures over the past two and a half years. For me, blogging about the food I buy, grow, prepare and cook for my family was a way to get me started in writing, and that's what I want to do now - I want to continue to write, without being limited to food, because there is so much more that I want to write about, which I am sure you will want to read, eventually, that is, when I get it all written down.

boat greek christmas symbol
Another Christmas/New Year symbol in Greece - the boat. This year it played a poignantly prominent role with the death of 9 sailors, 3 of them Greek, on Christmas Day in a fire on a Greek cargo ship sailing off the coast of Venezuela.

And that's my New Year's resolution: to keep on writing, to inform you, and above all, to keep you entertained. My posting will not be as regular as before, but whenever you look me up, you can rest assured that you will leave with a smile on your face.

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year,
With love,
From Hania, Crete

PS: I almost forgot to mention one of the more modern, if outright controversial, New Year's traditions in Crete:

new year's tradition in crete

Hubbie talking to the gun shop owner: "So, have you got any blanks left?"
Owner: "Blanks? No, sorry, I've run out, and you know they've been outlawed."
Hubbie: "So, when should I come to pick them up?"
Owner: "In the afternoon."

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