Christmas in the Cyclades comes with a pinch of salt. Experience the islands’ wonderful and somewhat weird Christmas traditions with a winter escapade that goes beyond the ordinary.
Brimming with symbolism and energy, Christmas is a time of elation and joy around the world, whether you are a devout Christian or not. And what is putting the icing on the cake are these special, one of a kind rituals that small societies retain and cultivate over the years.
The Cyclades, smack in the heart of the Aegean, are markedly more serene and quiet in the winter than in the uber touristic summer season. Yet they are equally thrilling, precisely because they preserve their close-knit community ethos and customs. If you are looking to spend an alternative kind of holiday this year, then Christmas in the Cyclades will no doubt enchant you.
Throughout this sunkissed cluster of islands, several, rich, and sometimes bizarre, Christmas traditions continue to bond people together in a way like no other. From December 25th until Epiphany day on January 6th, locals experience the Twelve Days of Christmas, in their homes, with their families and friends, with plenty of delectable food and a wealth of unique rites and superstitions.
Christmas in the Cyclades: Decorations
While the western- imported, ornament-laden Christmas tree has prevailed in most of Greece, the Cycladiots continue to decorate a model sailing boat as per their time-honoured custom. Accomplished seamen as they were, this was their way of saying welcome back to the menfolk of the family: All those husbands, sons, brothers and fathers who toiled away at sea for months on end, while their spouses, mothers and sisters waited for their safe return at home.
Nowadays, in tribute to their nautical legacy, Mykonians, like all the other islanders, decorate their boats with all sorts of flags and colourful lights, in their homes and in public spaces for the world to admire.
Christmas in the Cyclades: Food
Aesthetic pleasures aside, the few fortunate visitors spending Christmas in the Cyclades will be invariably tempted by the seasons’ culinary delights.
The labyrinth alleyways of Mykonos town will be permeated with sweet scents wafting from most households: Homemakers are busy baking diples (fried dough dipped in syrup), foinikia (baked biscuits dipped in honey syrup), kourampiedes (butter biscuits dusted with icing sugar), and the traditional Christmas bread. They will also be cooking onion pies with their local cheese (tyrovolia), lard with cabbage to attract abundance, baked meat and sweet honey pies with tyrovolia and cinnamon. This gastronomic feast will be savoured along with family and friends on New Year’s Eve.
Likewise in Anafi, New Year’s Day is celebrated with the famous zaforisto, a bread that has the taste of saffron and the colour of the sun, and Christmas Day with koufeto, a spoon sweet made of peeled almonds and pieces of pumpkin boiled in honey. On this day Sifniots will eat roasted pork and bread made with aniseed and Naxiots their Christmas bread with raisins and walnuts. In Syros, on Christmas Eve, the catholic residents shall consume fish and cauliflower while in Tripotamos, a small village in Tinos island, locals will enjoy their Brotherhood Meal: According to the ancient custom, each year one of the villagers (always male) is appointed as the Kavos -the caretaker of the community’s church. Following the Mass, the men will gather at the former Kavos’ house for a lunch meal heavy with symbols. Before sitting down at the round table, participants will shake hands and reconcile past disagreements. Then they shall savour great portions of veal soup, grape leaves with rice, meat cooked with onions in tomato sauce and boiled meat that the master of the house serves abundantly. In this case, the stew onions represent sweetness, the stuffed leaves stand for brotherhood and unity, while the beef tongue is to expel gossip.
Christmas in the Cyclades: Rites, Superstitions & Traditions
The Christmas season comes with certain prevalent beliefs across the Cycladic islands. If the wind comes from the North on New Year’s Day, it will bring good luck. Likewise, a pigeon landing in the house yard will be a good omen. If on the other hand, there is a raven flying over your roof, chances are it’s a sign of misfortune. On the first morning of the New Year, many islanders will also touch their faces with a piece of iron: In this way, they will be healthy and robust -as if made of iron.
Hailing from Byzantine times, the custom of Kalichera in Santorini demonstrates kind intentions. On the first day of the year, schoolchildren will bring money, eggs, or chickens to their teachers, as a present of goodwill.
The universal myth of evil spirits trying to foul humans at Christmas finds a unique manifestation in the island of Folegandros. According to lore, the whole earth stands on a tree. The Goblins or Kallikantzaroi, who live underneath it spend the year trying to axe it down, but they normally fail. However during the 12 days of Christmas -since Christ is yet to be baptized- those little evil spirits can roam the earth freely, mocking, frustrating and generally upsetting people. The upheaval ends on Epiphany with the revelation of God in the body of Jesus Christ who gives an end to their horrible plans and exiles them to their subterranean existence.
To keep those kallikantzaroi away, in Naxos, as the legend goes, locals will burn what they call Christokoutsouro, which is essentially two logs placed on top of each other in the shape of a cross. The log of the Christ, whose ashes are thrown to their plants and pets as a blessing, also represents the bond of the household’s couple. It is quite challenging to keep the fire going for 12 days non stop, and that’s not to mention ensuring that the two logs stay together as they burn. But with this laborious gesture, it is believed that the couple’s bond becomes stronger and enhanced.
Epiphany Day signifies the ending of the brief uprising of the underworld’s evil spirits. And it is celebrated all over the country with The Blessing of the Waters -a ceremony that is as ancient as it is fascinating. In Mykonos, like in the rest of Greece, the local priest shall throw the holy cross in the sea in order to bless it. Then a bunch of young men defying the ice-cold waters will jump in to catch it -thereby securing good luck for the year as tradition mandates.
January 6th on the island of the winds also marks the commencement of the balosia: An antique custom hailing from Venetian times which is zealously celebrated on the same evening, with traditional island dances to the sounds of violins, bagpipes and tubas.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Semeli best 5* luxury hotel in Mykonos town
Indeed Mykonians know how to have a good time -and for all of us at the Semeli Christmas is a truly magical time of the year. Let us raise our wine-filled glasses and toast all of our friends, family and guests! Here’s to you! Kala Christougenna and Happy New Year to everyone! We hope to host as many of you as possible in our luxury Mykonos rooms and suites in 2022!