You may not believe it, but Christmas is the second most important religious holiday in Greece, after Easter.
That doesn't mean that in Crete we don't celebrate this festivity as it deserves. Christmas is a great period to visit our lovely island.
Christmas means something special to each and every one of us, and here on Crete, we have some favorite holiday traditions that make the festive season even brighter!
It is usually celebrated with quiet church services, family gatherings, and Name Day parties.
Christmas in Greece is celebrated on December 25th, but presents are usually given to children on January 1st, St. Basil's Day (Agios Vassilis).
There are some sweets – cookies, and pastries – that are traditionally made and served over the Christmas and New Year's holiday season in Crete. They are enjoyed at other times of year as well, but in December and January, they come together to create a fabulous collection of tastes and textures.
On Crete, we love to decorate a small boat, or "Karavaki", with strings of lights to spread holiday cheer. This tradition is linked to our love for the sea, as well as the patron saint of sailors, Agios Nikolaos, who is celebrated on December 6th, which is the day when many Cretans put up their Christmas decorations!
Xerotigana – Honey-dipped spiral pastries
These crispy, lighter-than-air pastry spirals are dipped in a honey syrup, then sprinkled with cinnamon, chopped walnuts, and sesame seeds. Definitely an incredible recipe. Ingredients for the dough: vegetable oil, raki, lemon juice, plain flour, coarsely crushed sesame seeds, coarsely crushed walnuts, and ground cinnamon. How do you make the spiced honey syrup? White sugar, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, honey (preferably thyme honey), and lemon juice.
Xristopsomo or Stavropsomo – Traditional Christmas Cake
For the Christmas table, the Christmas cake is sweet – a blessed bread. It is eaten on Christmas Day, exchanging wishes. Previously in Crete, animals were also served a piece of Christmas cake. People rubbed a little Christmas cake, mixing it with bran, and gave it to the animals to eat in order to bless them too. Women make the cake with great care and patience. Kneading it is a ritual. These talented bakers use finely sieved flour, rosewater, honey, sesame seeds, cinnamon, and cloves. With half of the rich dough, they form a ring. With the rest, they make a cross with strips from the pastry, symbolizing the martyrdom to come. The cross is then laid over the circle of dough. In the center of the cross, an unbroken walnut. Then often, for a truly artisanal effect, the cake receives a final decoration of many beautiful shapes like flowers, leaves, fruits, animals, and birds made from extra dough.
Kalitsounia – Sweet Cheese Pastries
These sweet cheese pastries are a Christmas favorite on the island of Crete, where they are either baked or fried. Unlike many other Greek pastries, this recipe calls for an egg dough instead of phyllo. Ingredients for 6 pastries: 500 gm firm Cretan mizithra cheese, 250 gm Greek coarsely crumbled feta, 1/4 cup coarsely chopped mint, and 1 egg.
Melomakarona - Honey-Dipped Spice Cookies
Melomakarona is a Christmas tradition in Greece (and enjoyed at other times of the year as well). All over Greece, kitchens fill with the wonderful smell of these spice cookies that will adorn tables, be given as hostess gifts, and eaten in huge quantities.
Kourabiedes - Sugared Shortbread Cookies with Almonds
Kourabiedes (also kourambiedes) are traditional celebration cookies, served at Christmas, New Year's, weddings, and baptisms. They are toasted almond shortbread-type cookies topped with a generous coating of confectioner's sugar; they melt in the mouth.
Kalá Xristougenna from lovely Crete!