The 12 days between Christmas Eve and Epiphany have been associated with myriad local customs throughout the Cyclades – and one of their main roles was to strengthen family ties. This is where food enters. The traditional Cycladic Christmas dishes were one of the means through which the locals interpreted the events of the divine birth and the coming of the new year – and the best excuse to gather communities around the dinner table to reaffirm their connections.
Smack in the heart of the Aegean Sea, the Cyclades is not the typical winter wonderland you’d be normally inclined to spend the holiday season in. Yet Christmas and the New Year come with some wonderful age-old (and perhaps somewhat bizarre) traditions in which gastronomy plays a central role. Ever thought of going off the beaten path for the festive season? Here is what you’d be eating in Greece’s pearly-white islands.
Traditional Cycladic Christmas dishes
Hailing from antiquity, the custom of “hirosfagia” (pig slaughter) continues to exert a significant influence on the Cycladic Christmas dishes. In rural agricultural communities, as tradition and necessity dictated, every family would raise a pig throughout the year. This was to be ceremoniously slaughtered at the end of November in a big friends and family feast. As there was no electricity or fridges, the only way to preserve large quantities of meat was by curating it. That’s why the animal’s leftover bits were then smoked and salted to create an array of delicacies which would secure sustenance throughout the year – sausages, siglino, apaki… Even though the procedure is nowadays largely simplified, pork still features prominently on Christmas tables around the Cyclades.
In Mykonos, housewives cook pork lard with greens or cabbage, which symbolizes abundance, oven-roasted pork meat, onion pies with a local cheese called “tyrovolia”, and honey pies with tyrovolia, honey and cinnamon. They are also 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. These sumptuous delicacies are to be savoured around the family table on New Year’s Eve.
In Amorgos, on New Year’s Day, they serve “kofto”, a concoction of wheat, onion, grated cheese, oil and water to ensure a good harvest.
At Christmas in Anafi, homemakers prepare the “coufeto”, a spoon-sweet made of peeled almonds and pieces of pumpkin boiled in honey. On New Year’s they’ll bake a special bread that has the taste of saffron and the colour of the sun, in their wood-fired ovens.
Sifniots at Christmas will eat roasted pork and bread made with aniseed. Chrisopsomo (Christ’s bread) is one of the most typical Cycladic Christmas dishes – and it comes in several variations from island to island.
The Naxiots’ version of the Christmas bread is cross-shaped with a whole walnut in the middle and kneaded with raisins and walnuts. They’ll also consume kid goat stuffed with various vegetables and rice, on both Christmas and New Year’s.
On Christmas Day in Paros, women bake Christmas bread with flour and nuts and place a cross made from dough on top of the loaves, which they’ll then feed to the animals of the house. On Epiphany’s Day, priests visit Parian houses and bless them with holy water and a basil twig. In return for their “enlightenment” housewives offer priests and their aides, Lenten pastry dainties.
The Catholic residents of Syros after Mass on Christmas Eve, head home for a traditional meal consisting of fish and cauliflower. Traditional Cycladic Christmas dishes in Tinos are somewhat different, however. In the small, quaint village of Tripotamos, the ancient custom of the Brotherhood Meal is revived on December 25th and 26th. As tradition mandates, every year one of the male heads of the local families is appointed as Kavos – caretaker of the community’s church. Following the Mass, the men and the priests of the parish gather at the acting Kavos’ house for a formal lunch that’s packed with symbolism. Before sitting down at the table, participants will shake hands as a show of goodwill and reconcile past disagreements. Then they shall savour a generous meal consisting of veal soup, grape leaves with rice, meat cooked with onions in tomato sauce and boiled meat – all abundantly served by the housemaster. On this occasion, the stew onions represent sweetness, the stuffed leaves stand for brotherhood and unity, and the beef tongue is meant to expel gossip. Following the announcement of the new Kavos, on December 26th, all villagers – women and men – gather once again at the home of the soon-to-be-discharged Kavos to eat and drink the leftovers of the previous day’s meal. His obligations end with this meal – though he remains responsible for lighting the icon’s candle until the end of the year.
Around the world, food plays a pivotal role in Christmas celebrations – and the Greek islands are no exception. Ladden with metaphors and meanings, traditional Cycladic Christmas dishes bind communities together around the dinner table in feasts that delight young and old.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Semeli best 5* luxury hotel in Mykonos town
For all of us at the Semeli Christmas is a truly magical time of the year. As we are preparing for the upcoming holidays’ gastronomic extravaganza, we’d like to take the opportunity to 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 see as many of you as possible in our luxury Mykonos rooms and suites in 2023!