“He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree.” – Unknown

There are many different Greek customs that Greeks perform in the Christmas holiday period, combining Christian traditions with ancient Greek customs. For Greeks, Christmas is one of the most important religious holidays, in combination with the celebration of the New Year.

The Christmas holiday period in Greece is filled with joy and celebration. Many people decorate their homes, inside and out, with kitchens full of traditional sweets. In the city squares, you’ll find bright lights, colorful decorations and events.

Καλές γιορτές! [Happy Holidays] can be heard everywhere you go! On the morning of December 24th, December 31st, and occasionally on the morning of January 6th, the children take to the streets, singing the carols – different carols for each date – while banging merrily on their triangles, making for a merry atmosphere. If you’re unfamiliar with this tradition, it’s a little like trick-or-treating, but instead of saying “trick-or-treat!” the children sing carols. And instead of candies, the children are rewarded with loose change or traditional Christmas sweets.

Greek Christmas sweets and their history

Melomakarona. Kourabiedes. Diples. Vasilopita. Some are made with honey and some with powdered sugar but all are sweet and tasty. Throughout Greece, you can buy them at local shops and but many people choose to make them lovingly in their homes and share plates of sweets with family and friends. But what is the origin of these Greek Christmas sweets?

The sweet of funerals past

Melomakarona

The name melomakarona is of Greek origin; it is the combination of the words honey and "macaronia." And we’re not talking Italian spaghetti. Interestingly, the word macaroni stems from the Medieval Greek word ‘μακαρωνία’ a flour-based funeral dinner in honor of the dead. Over time, honey was added to these small pieces of ‘bread’ and they were renamed melomakarona.

Full of honey, these sweet-smelling, crispy, oval-shaped and walnut-sprinkled biscuits are a favorite during the Christmas holidays in Greece. You may get one when you order coffee at a coffee shop, you may be treated to one when walking past a bakery and, of course, if you work at an office or visit a friend’s house, there will likely be a platter of melomakarona offered to you.

How to make melomakaron recipe (Video, 2 minutes and 42 seconds)

How to make kourambiedes recipe (Video, 1 minute and 13 seconds)

The powdered-sugar biscuits

Kourabiedes

These delicious round-shaped biscuits are made with plenty of butter, rosewater and almonds, and are generously sprinkled on top with powdered sugar. This style of making biscuits arose with the intention of preserving bread for more days by baking it twice. The origin of the word bis-cuit in Latin expresses precisely the technique of double baking. In the Middle Ages, the word biscuit was introduced and defines the modern form of biscuits. The most famous kourabiedes [singular – kourabies] are those originating from the Karvali region of Cappadocia, Turkey. In 1924, Greek refugees from this area created the prefecture of Karvali, outside the modern city of Kavala in northern Greece. They brought with them the traditional recipe of the kourabiedes as we know them today.

Always present at weddings and celebrations

Diples

These traditional honey-dipped Greek sweets are crunchy, folded dumplings that can be found throughout Greece in bakeries and homes, and especially at weddings, engagements, and baptisms, depending on the region. This special sweet was first made in the Peloponnese region of Greece - mainly for weddings - and this tradition spread all over Greece, slowly becoming one of the characteristic sweets of the New Year. The diples symbolize the swaddling clothes of Christ. And, covered in honey, they are shared with others to sweeten the past, accompany the present and to make favorable the future.

How to make diples recipe (Video, 8 minutes and 24 seconds)

How to make vasilopita recipe (Video, 13 minutes and 26 seconds)

The golden pie

Vasilopita

The Vasilopita is like a round pound cake. What makes it special is the small coin, wrapped in foil, hidden somewhere within. Each family will make sure to have at least one in their home and can be either store-bought or homemade. On New Year’s Day, the head of the household divides the pie into pieces, like a pizza. The first two pieces are cut out and laid aside, symbolically for Christ, and for the household. The head of the household then cuts out a piece for himself, and then for every other member in the household, usually by descending order of age. For most, a piece of the vasilopita is the first sweet taste of each new year, and has a special spot at every New Year's celebration meal, with each person hoping to find the lucky coin. The coin is said to ensure good luck for the coming year.

Written by Eleni Maria Georgiou, author of Eleni’s GREEK PHRASE BOOK: A Beginner’s Guide to Greek Culture and the Greek Language. For more information about Eleni, visit elenimariageorgiou.com.

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