Deck the Halls with Vassilopitta
Christmas and New Year as with every other religious period within the Christian calendar have their own particular traditions both Christian and pagan, and it is no different in Cyprus, although it must be noted that most of these traditions seem to focus around food. Funny that, on an island which is renowned for its love of all things of the palate?
In past, during the time of the ‘Advent Fast’ before Christmas, known in Cyprus as Paskan ton Gennon, every family would slaughter a pig and the fresh meat was salted, cured or smoked to last through the winter. Nowadays, although many families still make and smoke their own loukanika sausages for Christmas, much of the traditional foodstuffs can be purchased prepared.
Christmas baking only really gets underway just a few days before December 25th. This is when powdery, icing sugar covered, Kourambiedes, or shortbread biscuits, are baked as well as Melomakarona, spicy buns drenched in honey syrup, and of course Koulouria, traditional sesame bread. Also, during the 40 days of fasting, special loaves of bread called Christopsoumo, or Christ bread, are prepared for the meals. The loaves are round and decorated with a cross, around which people make symbols shaped in dough representing whatever it is they do in life.
40 Days of Christmas
Christmas preparations actually begin forty days in advance, with house cleaning, Christmas shopping and fasting. Buying new clothes and shoes for Christmas is a Cypriot tradition I’m all in favour of carrying on, as you can imagine! Just like the rest of Europe, on Christmas Eve children go from door-to-door singing Christmas carols, and most Cypriots attend Midnight Mass. On Christmas morning, following an early mass, steaming egg-and-lemon rice soup ‘Afkolemony,’ is served for breakfast and the feasting continues throughout the day, with friends and relatives visiting each other’s homes and enjoying sweet Christmas delicacies.
The 25th December is also the beginning of a twelve day period marked by religious solemnity and beautiful old customs regarding love and prosperity, and in particular, superstition. During each of the 12 days of Christmas, houses are blessed with holy water sprinkled using a cross and basil, as protection against the Kallikantzaroi. These goblin-like creatures, said to be the souls of unborn babies, live in the centre of the earth and make their way into homes through chimneys, a bit like Santa Claus! They create all kinds of mischief, such as dousing the fire, riding on people’s backs, braiding the tails of horses and making milk turn sour. It is believed that showing them scarlet thread will make them behave and on the eve of their departure, housewives throw pancakes and sausages on their roofs, where the demons are believed to dwell. This is in order to please them, and hope that they will leave contented, without causing any major trouble. Can you see any similarities to our own Northern European Christmas customs – I certainly can!
New Years Day
Known as St. Basil’s Day in Cyprus, this is a day for optimism, when Cypriots hope for a fruitful forthcoming year. Most families bake a special cake, Vasilopitta. The cake is always cut by the head of the family on New Year’s Day, in the presence of all family members to bless the house and bring good luck for the New Year. A coin is wrapped and hidden in the cake; one slice is then cut for Jesus Christ, one for the house and one for absent family members. Another piece is then sliced for each member of the family in order of age, as well as pieces for the Church, the poor, and the Kallikantzaroi. The person who finds the coin is considered to be the luckiest member of the family for that year.
Although Cypriots have become much more Westernised during the past forty odd years, since the invasion, it is on this day, rather than Christmas Day, that Cypriots exchange seasonal gifts. Children of all ages eagerly await the arrival of Saint Basil (Ayios Vassillis) who celebrates his Name Day on New Year’s Eve, and who brings gifts of happiness and prosperity for the coming year to all the family. He also, reportedly, brings love and romance to the unmarried, so I won’t need him, finally. An old village custom encourages the young and single to test the affections of their loved one by throwing small olive branches into the open fire. If the branches jump and crackle their love is happy and true, but if the branch simply smoulders away quietly … Anyway, who cares when you have a hot water bottle?
It is also on the first day of the new year, that the ‘renewal of waters’ takes place, a ritual where all water jugs in the house are emptied and refilled with Saint Basil’s water. The other big New Year superstition is that; how you feel on New Year’s Day is how you will feel all year through, so everyone makes the effort to spend a happy time with their family – especially as the family is usually in a generous mood!
Epiphany or Phota
On January 6th, Epiphany is one of the most important Greek Orthodox religious celebrations of the year. It is the only occasion during which the Sanctity of the Holy Trinity, (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) appear together, and it commemorates three important events: the baptism of Jesus, the visit of the wise men to Bethlehem, and the miracle of the changing of water into wine. It is aka the Feast of the Light or Phota, as it is on this day that Christ was baptised in the River Jordan symbolising the spiritual rebirth of man.
On the eve of Epiphany
known as Kalanda, people gather in church for the blessing of the waters, which are supposed to have held evil spirits for the past twelve days. Children also travel from house to house offering good wishes and singing Kalanda, Greek carols handed down from Byzantine times. Often, these carols are accompanied by metal triangles and clay drums, and the children are given sweets as a reward for their singing, or to get rid of them and their racket depending which way you’re inclined 😉
After Mass, when Cypriots go to church to ask for a fruitful and prosperous year to come, the priest visits houses to cleanse them from the demons, or evil spirits. In coastal towns, he then makes his way towards the port or harbour, where he will bless the sea by throwing the Holy Cross into the water. Plucky divers then jump into the cold sea, competing with each other to catch the cross and return it to the priest. Brrrr! Doves are released and at the same time, boats sound their horns. Many families then ‘promenade’ enjoying the last day of the mid-winter celebrations, feasting on a variety of mixed dishes, with Loukoumades being the popular sweet of the day.
By Stanna Wieclawska Kyriakou
Originally Published in What’s On Cyprus Magazine 2002