Food Culture and Tradition

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Greek Special Occasions


To outsiders it seems that “Greeks are always either feasting or fasting.” There is good reason: 98 percent of the Greek population is Greek Orthodox and the calendar revolves around the fasts and festivals of the Church and all public and private activities are geared to it. Feasting preceded by fasting actually only occurs during five important holidays of the year: Christmas, Carnival Time (Lent), Saint George’s Day, Assumption, and Easter. Other festive days are usually marked with special foods, most significantly with the inclusion of lamb or kid. Other occasions include name days, saint’s days, weddings, funerals, baptisms, planting or reaping crops, or the opening of a new business.

Fasting, in Greek Orthodox tradition, is a strictly observed discipline which includes vegetables, fruits, grains (bread), and olives but no animal products such as meat or fish and not even wine or oil. Greek homemakers are scrupulous in their observance of fast days even though their ingenuity in preparing meals is heavily taxed.

Such piety can be understood when it is realized that for the Greek, the Church is not just a Sunday matter but an integral part of traditional everyday life. Papas (the priest) with his long hair, beard, and flowing robes is deeply involved with every family, and presides over every occasion with ceremonies, blessings, and often advice. During the 400-year Turkish occupation, the Church was credited with saving Greek culture and language and became the source of hope and security to each Greek family. Having proven itself in the most difficult times, this faith is still a source of comfort. When talk and worry beads can’t solve a problem, many Greeks prayerfully light a candle to a special saint, consult the papas, or (when in Greece) make a special pilgrimage to a holy site.

Although traditional daily life is strongly inter-woven with the Church, there is also a deep belief in the immortal god of Greece. Within this fabric of mysticism are also some threads of ancient superstitions that are so much a part of Greek life that it is difficult to draw a line between custom and belief.

The ten or twenty beads on a string commonly called Greek worry beads do not have the religious significance of the Catholic rosary; they are used by all classes as an aid to meditation, a substitute for nervousness, or simply to “chase the bitterness away”. Furthermore, the casting of spells, the fear of the “evil eye,” the concern for “bad-luck Tuesdays,” or the grim connotation given events in May – like the worry beads – are often practiced more as a custom than out of any tangible conviction. Nonetheless superstitions persist. Rural children and animals often wear necklaces of blue beads, and May Day wreaths often include whole buds of garlic, the blue heads and fresh garlic considered effective means of warding off the evil eye. The cutting of cloth for clothes, the scheduling of weddings, and even the planting of flowers during the month of May are all considered activities fraught with bad luck.

One of the most prevalent superstitions occurs each year in the days between Christmas and Epiphany (January 6). At this time, it is believed that strange crippled ghosts known as kallikandzaris rise from the earth’s depths to poison foods and frighten people. For this period of time all edibles are carefully hidden or disguised; torchlight searches from house to house and strong crosses nailed on doors and over windows are believed to help ward off evil attacks. In the evening, sieves are placed on windows and in doorways because it is believed that the ghosts become fascinated by the holes in the sieves and spend the night counting them rather than inflicting harm. The frightening season of the kallikandzaris comes to a close when the papas blesses the waters on January 6, and all the ghosts are believed to return from whence they came.

For the Greeks and for many other people with ancient roots and traditions and profound religious feelings, myths and even pagan traditions have become such an integral part of daily life that distinctions or rationalizations are often difficult to make and the prevailing principle seems to be quite simply, “Why take a chance?”

The most important festival for the Greeks is Easter, with its emphasis not on Crucifixion, but on Resurrection. Apokria (carnival time or a “farewell to meat”) is gaily ushered in with parades, costumes, and many parties filling two weeks of merrymaking before Lent. The forty days of Lent are solemnly observed with a diet of bread, olives, vegetables, grains, legumes, and fruits. Invertebrate seafood are used in coastal areas. Most Greeks observe these fasting traditions strictly during the first and last week of Lent, while the devout follow the ascetic diet for the full forty days. But even for them, the usual daily fare of bread and olives and boiled beans and sliced raw onions may be relieved by a traditional sweet called halva, made from farina or semolina, and flavored with almonds and sugar.

The week preceding Easter Sunday is called Holy Week and is busy with the preparations of the holiday which even include “spring cleaning” indoors and the exterior whitewashing of all homes. On Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, the lambs are killed and hung, and eggs are hard-cooked then dyed red and rubbed with oil to make them shine. On Good Friday, the tsoureki (Easter bread), fragrant with caraway seeds and nestled with the red eggs, is baked. The evening meal is traditionally bean or lentil soup flavored with vinegar to represent the vinegar believed given to Christ when he thirsted. Saturday includes the joyful marketing and preparations of the festive foods for Easter Sunday. But through all these preparations, the fast continues with the austere bread, olives, legumes, and fruits.

The spiritual climax of the Easter festival is the midnight service on Saturday when all lights in the church are extinguished while the papas chants. Finally the announcement of Christos anesti is greeted by the lighting of everyone’s candles from the priest’s three-branched candelabra. Then, carefully shielding the flame, people carry each candle home to be reverently placed before the family’s icon. Now the happily traditional midnight meal of myeritsa soup, olives, tsoureki, and citrus fruits is enjoyed by all. After the meal, the game of egg-cracking keeps everyone laughing.

Easter Sunday finds most of the men busily preparing a shallow trench filled with glowing charcoal over which the souvla (spit) of lamb will be cooked with an occasional basting of olive oil and lemon juice. Soup, stuffed vegetables, and many sweet pastries will be a part of the festive meal. Understandably, after the austerity of Lent, it will be the mayeritsa and roasted lamb that will be relished most.

By comparison, Christmas is a much quieter and less significant festival on the Greek calendar. Fish is traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve and eel dishes are especially popular. Special sweets such as kourabiedes (buttery cookies), christopsomo (walnut and sesame seed breads topped with a cross of dough), and fried treats such as diples and loukomades, crispy fritters dusted with cinnamon sugar or served with sugar syrup, are the highlights of the season.

January 1st is called Saint Basil’s (Vassilio’s) Day and this is the day not only for exchanging gifts (Saint Basil was known to be a philanthropist), but also for enjoying old rituals designed to foretell fortunes in the coming year. Splitting open a pomegranate and counting the seeds is used to suggest the abundance of the coming year. The evening is spent singing kalandra (carols) and then at midnight, vasilopeta (Saint Basil’s Cake) is served. Everyone watches the serving with suspense, for somewhere in the cake a good-luck coin is embedded. Tradition states that the first slice is for Christ, the next for Saint Basil, and if one of these should have the coveted coin, a donation must be made to the church. But if one of the family or guests receives the slice with the coin, good luck is said to be theirs for the coming year.

Like other Greek occasions, funerals too have a share of both religious and superstitious ritual. Surviving family members usually eat a quiet meal of fish, bread, and wine followed by Turkish coffee. Special memorial services are held on the fortieth day after the death and also on the first and third-year anniversaries of the death. A special plate of kolyva is prepared for blessing at the church, then it is eaten by all the family. Kolyva represents one of the most symbolic dishes: the wheat for everlasting life, the raisins for sweetness, and the pomegranate seeds to symbolize plenty. A very old tradition holds that when Greeks leave a house of mourning, they must sprinkle themselves with water to drive away the spirit of death. Modern Greeks leaving a funeral will seldom return directly home, but will stop at a pastry shop to eat and drink. This seems to be a form of ritual purification similar to the older one of water sprinkling.

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