Historically, Christmas was never a major celebration in Greece. Easter is our biggest feast, and besides parading form house to house on Christmas and New Year's Eve to sing kalanda--the Greek version of carols--collecting money or sweets, there was little else traditionally observed.
So when we came out of the hardships of the Second World War and the civil war that followed, we happily adopted the German and northern European Christmas customs of decorating the tree, exchanging gifts, and stuffing and baking the turkey--even though pork was traditionally the festive meat (see my piece on pork slaughtering).
Going through some of our childhood pictures the other day, Costas pointed out a particularly common shot, where he was made to stand on a chair, next to this pathetic little Christmas tree made from colored chicken feathers, decorated with oversized ornaments and grotesque pieces of cotton-wool snow.
We may lack in dazzling Christmas traditions, but we have two particularly wonderful cookies for the holiday.
I, and most Greeks of my generation, and even younger, have similar pictures. Now of course there is a whole industry around the holiday, from growing or importing the Christmas trees, to the more and more elaborate lights and decorations, and many people spend a fortune keeping pace with international trends.
We may lack in dazzling Christmas traditions, but we have two particularly wonderful cookies for the holiday: melomakarona, almost guilt-free, are made with olive oil, orange, spices, and are infused with honey syrup. The recipe is very old, and brings to mind gingerbread cookies.
Photo by Aglaia Kremezi
This is my late mother's recipe. Every Greek woman has her own version, plus the ones the bakeries prepare in bulk this time of the year. Our family preferred drier cookies, so my mother submerged them in syrup the next day, when completely cold and hard, so that they absorbed less honeyed syrup. If you prefer more honey-doused, softer melokarona, dip them in the syrup when they are still somewhat warm.
Kourambiedes, the other special sweets of our holiday season, are melt-in-the-mouth cookies, rich with roasted almonds, and sprinkled with confectioner's sugar. In the old days, lard was used, making the dough crunchy and light. Keeping true to the island tradition, I have resisted today's more common butter version and make my dough with a combination of lard and olive oil.