Though the primary religion in Cyprus is Greek Orthodox, most people celebrate Christmas on 25 December rather than the traditional Orthodox date in January. Typically, gifts are opened on New Year’s Day rather than at Christmas, to honour Saint Vasilis, the Greek saint associated with Santa Claus.
Staying true to the food culture on the island, many Cypriot traditions revolve around meals. The two most popular treats of the season are melomakarona (cinnamon and orange cookies, glazed in honey syrup and covered with nuts) and kourabiedes (almond biscuits coated with icing sugar). Those honouring Christmas tradition make their own, and it’s usually a great opportunity for children to enjoy some time with their grandparents as they bake together.
Traditionally, those practising the Greek Orthodox religion fasted for 40 days before 25 December to cleanse their bodies and celebrate the birth of Christ. Though few maintain the tradition today, Christmas Day still marks the end of the fast and is celebrated with heaps of food.
As well as traditional sweets, people bake christopsomo on Christmas Eve, a sweet bread whose name means ‘the bread of Christ’ and typically has a cross kneaded into it. It is eaten on Christmas Day along with a huge buffet.
Vasilopita, an orange and mastic-infused cake, can be found in every home on New Year’s Eve; it is left out on the table with a glass of red wine in order to be blessed by Saint Vasilis on his way to deliver the gifts. On the first day of the year, during another family lunch, the vasilopita is cut up and each family member selects a piece. Inside the cake is a hidden coin, and it is believed that the one who finds it will have a lucky year.
“The vasilopita is my most cherished memory of Christmas. My father would put a candle on the cake and a glass of Commandaria for Santa on New Year’s Eve, and in the morning we would rush to see if it had been drunk. It was so exciting to find crumbs on the plate!” says Marlene Michaelidou.
Carrying triangles and other musical instruments, groups of friends gather and go from door to door singing carols on Christmas Eve. They knock on doors, asking “Na ta pume, na ta pume?” meaning “Shall we say them?” After singing, they are rewarded either with small amounts of money or kourabiedes and melomakarona. Many believe that this tradition stems from the Byzantine times or from Ancient Greece, when children would go around singing carrying small wooden boats to honour the god Dionysos.
Singing also takes place after the 12 days of Christmas are over on 6 January, or Epiphany. Children go over to their grandparents’ house and say a short phrase and are given a small tip. These 12 days are considered to be the most dangerous of the year, as myth has it that mischievous little spirits, the kalikantzari, will appear, causing mayhem and playing tricks on people.
Legend has it that they find their way into houses through the chimneys, so many keep their fireplaces lit to keep the spirits away. On Epiphany, the official end of the festive period, people throw honey dough balls known as loukoumades onto their roofs to scare them away. Some people even hang an olive branch blessed by church water on their front door to protect their house from malicious spirits.
In some villages, it is common for people to make a cross by a fireplace with an olive leaf, then make a wish and throw it in the fire. The person throwing the branch is meant to think of someone they love; if the olive leaves crackle and jump when thrown in the fire, it means they are loved back.
In the Orthodox tradition, 6 January is the date of Christ’s baptism, and large-scale celebrations take place at local harbours to honour the water, a traditional symbol of christening. A bishop throws a cross in the sea and dozens of people dive into the cold January water to find it. The person who finds it is blessed by the church and is said to have a lucky year ahead.