The magic of a Greek Christmas
Steph Green reminisces about growing up in a Greek Cypriot household and all the delicious flavours that accompanied her every Christmas
What’s Christmas like in your household? “My dad and my uncles fight over who gets to eat the lamb brain,” says Toula, the main character in the 2002 film My Big Fat Greek Wedding. “And then my Aunt Voula forks the eyeball and chases me around with it, trying to make me eat it because it’ll make me smart. We’re always together, just eating, eating, eating.”
Perfectly summing up the sheer obsession with food found in Greek households, this film is often offered up as an example when Greek people are asked about their festive traditions. There are as many as 335,000 Greek Cypriots living in the UK today, with each bringing with them family traditions and recipes that remain in generations and Christmas traditions year after year—with many of these revolving around eating, eating, and yet more eating.
"Now in my twenties, I still hold a sort of manic love for the festive season"
Despite this, Greek Cypriot baking in particular doesn’t hold as much widespread revere as other countries’ reputations like France or Italy. The best Cypriot bakers won’t have attended esteemed cookery schools or have perfected their techniques in formal training; sometimes recipes are haphazard, based on instinct, and vary from household to household. However, there’s one common thread: family tradition and lineage, with recipes being perfected through the sacred rite of hospitality and passed on from parent to child. Though Cypriot baking now no longer conjures up the image of peasant women kneading bread in whitewash-walled village houses, the smells of their creations still linger today in households across the United Kingdom.
"If a passerby drops in unannounced, it’s imperative to feed them"
My mother, Theodosia, inherited this sense of above-and-beyond hospitality from my grandparents, who emigrated from Patriki, a tiny village in Cyprus (and the birthplace of George Michael), to London in the 1950s.
“Christmas is a time for welcoming people into your home: not just family," she explains, "but friends and neighbours too. You’d always make sure there was more food in the house in case someone popped in. You’d never offer a cup of tea or coffee and not bring something out.”
My aunt, Koulla, echoes the same sentiment. “If a passerby drops in unannounced, it’s imperative to feed them. You give them all the food you’ve prepared and don’t eat any yourself, in case they want more. You wait until they’ve left, even if you’re starving.” It’s true—go to any Greek home and they’ll scramble to feed you whether you’re hungry or not, expectantly waiting for you to finish every crumb. Refusing food in a Greek household is almost a form of sacrilege.
I have many Yuletide memories from my childhood—the drama that unfolded when my sister dropped a photo frame on my head in 2006, or how every year we pretend not to notice that my bappou (grandad) cheats by putting a joker up his sleeve as we play gounga (rummy)—but the most vivid and prevailing memories are of the delicious aromas that would float from the kitchen while family members baked. Up to my elbows in sticky dough as Nat King Cole warbled from the speakers, I always loved baking with my mum around this time, painstakingly shaping kourabiedes or helping her measure fruit for the Christmas cake.
Now in my twenties, I still hold a sort of manic love for the festive season and its food, much to the amusement and mild annoyance of my loved ones, and I’m not alone; for religious or simply cultural reasons, the festive season in particular holds a deified role in Greek Cypriot households around the country. Weeks in advance shopping lists are drawn up, rosewater stores are restocked, bottles of zivania brandy procured, orders put in at the local hellenic bakery. Families coordinate and barter over who’ll bring what to the communal family Christmas meal: “if you make the macaronia dou fournou then I’ll bring the koubebia.” The soft glow of candles by the worktops lights a production line of stretching, measuring and rolling from aunt to mother to yiayia (grandmother); this is what Christmas means to many Greek Cypriot families living in the UK.
The most common smells you’d find emanating from a Greek Cypriot kitchen in December are clove, cinnamon, orange, honey, rosewater and mastiha. Mastiha, with its pine and cedar flavour, is an important ingredient used liberally in many Greek Cypriot Christmas recipes. A liqueur flavoured with resin obtained from the mastic tree, it forms in distinctive "teardrops" on the Greek island of Chios. Once dried, the resin can be chewed—hence the English term "masticate"—or can be distilled with alcohol and sugar to make mastiha. You’ll find this subtle yet unique flavour in kourabiedes, a crescent-moon or round shaped biscuit found in every Cypriot house at Christmas. These crumbly, buttery, shortbread biscuits are made with ground almonds and flavoured with mastiha, rosewater and vanilla, with a whole clove pressed into each biscuit before baking which represents the spices gifted by the three wise men to Jesus at his birth. Once baked, you sprinkle them liberally with a suitably snowy layer of icing sugar. Versions of the kourabiede can be found throughout the former Ottoman Empire, from the Iranian qurabiya to the Moroccan ghoriba, but the icing sugar is unique to the Greek version.
Another favourite Christmas-time treat in my household is galaktoboureko, grainy semolina custard encased in filo pastry and then drowned—and I mean drowned—in a clear sweet syrup that has been flavoured with either lemon, orange or rosewater. Traditionally, families would use galaktos butter—a strong-tasting blend of sheep and cow’s milk—but ordinary butter is often used in the UK, producing a delicious tray of sticky sweetness that has turned a deep, crispy golden brown in the oven.
Like many other cultures, Greek Cypriots have their own form of the fried dough snack—though of course, ours is soaked with a hot honey syrup, whereas many Arabic incarnations use cardamom or saffron. Crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle, loukoumades are little balls of deliciousness sprinkled with cinnamon and chopped walnuts, with the name from the Turkish lokma meaning "mouthful". Melomakarona are also a Christmas staple, known for their spicy hit of flavour and crumbly texture. These dairy-free cookies use a semolina dough made using extra virgin olive oil, with varying family recipes deciding to put the focus on orange or spice.
Either way, ingredients used tend to include cinnamon, clove, orange zest and brandy, and once baked the cookies are drenched in a hot honey syrup—I’m sure you’re sensing a pattern here—and rolled in chopped walnuts. It doesn’t need pointing out that Greek desserts always include an eye-watering amount of sweetness—it’s no surprise that my bappou still likes to have four sugars in his tea.
New Year’s Eve also carries its own baking traditions. Vasilopita, a moist orange cake that has been baked with a pound coin in the mixture, is sliced and doled out at midnight, with whoever unearths the hidden coin in their slice set to enjoy a year of good luck. Although the aforementioned photo frame-maiming incident occurred in 2006, this was also the one and only year that the coin appeared in my slice, although I can’t quite remember whether my ten-year-old self enjoyed a lucky 2007 or not.
"Stained cook books are gathering dust in favour of online recipes"
As expected, though, these traditions vary from family to family: I’ve only ever enjoyed one year of having the winning slice, but my best friend, Christina, tells me that her yiayia messes with tradition and inserts more than one coin depending on how many young grandchildren there are.
As Greeks continue to raise their families in the UK, traditions are slowly beginning to wane. Multitudes of Greek bakeries are reducing the need to make everything from scratch like my yiayia would always do 50 years ago; dog-eared and honey-stained recipe books are slowly gathering dust on the shelf in favour of frequenting online recipes and artfully edited food blogs. I rarely reach for our family copy of Traditional Greek Cooking from Cyprus and Beyond anymore, where my mother has painstakingly added essential handwritten notes—“double the cheese!”, “use fresh mint, not dried!”—in the margins. The first-generation immigrants of the Cypriot diaspora are ageing—my grandparents are both now in their mid-nineties—and their children are adopting more and more anglicised traditions. The ratio of melomakarona to mince pies is slowly tipping. And yet, when December rolls around, Greek Cypriot families still make the time to recreate the buttery, crumbly biscuits of their youth. The baking aromas permeate the room and spread joy.
Gastronomy is the catalyst for nostalgia and togetherness, and, for me, the spirit of the festive season has never smelled so sweet.
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