A Comforting Winter in Greece Amidst The Crisis

When home for the holidays, I initially welcome the onset of New York’s holiday season, but as it progresses, I find myself packing my bags for Timbuktu. Christmas lights, goofy-looking Santa Clauses, and jeering reindeer envelop our neighborhood all too quickly. The family at the end of the block positions a blow-up snowman in their front yard, with a top hat that surpasses their house’s second story. As you near the city, it only gets worse. Any pine tree you see, even the small potted pine plants on doorsteps, has been suffocated with lights, tinsel, and bows. Meanwhile, the bare-branched trees find themselves susceptible to onslaughts by ornaments and lanterns of all kinds. While every radio station blasts the same holiday songs on repeat, proud menorahs, berry-ridden wreathes, and trumpeting angels beckon to shoppers from store windows. The season’s materialistic overtones ooze from all that you see, tainting the buildings with a new claustrophobia.

As the economic crisis infects the city of Athens, it erodes commercialism from the holidays, leaving behind the season’s raw spirit. The usual glamor and glitz of this time of year has dissipated in the face of severe salary cuts and skyrocketing taxes. Shopping streets have become eerie, given the widespread closings, and decorated store fronts are far and few between. But within this sorry state of affairs, the lone Christmas wreath coveys beauty and charm unlike any wreath in Rockefeller Center. The bells that jingle overhead as you push open the store door produce a sweeter tune than any Broadway musical.

With the ever-escalating cost of electricity, holiday lights have become scarce. In years past, it was not uncommon for building residents to join forces and fashion a Christmas tree made of green lights, or a massive star, that would span the entirety of the building facade. This year, even balconies decorated individually were in short supply. But then, the families that did manage to drape lights and tinsel from their balcony banisters made an impression unlike ever before. With Greeks refusing to allow the austerity measures to stifle the season’s true beauty, Christmas decorations conveyed an unprecedented elegance and beauty.

In addition to the cost of electricity, the cost of heating has gone through the roof. As a result, many families have decided to stoke up their fireplaces, rather than grapple with the mounting gas bills. They spent the holidays around the fire, recovering a Christmas spirit that had evaporated from much of the modern world. Customs from bygone days were brushed off and reinstated. The traditional Christmas sailboat, for example, made a reappearance this year. Greeks used paper and wood to assemble boats, just like they had done for centuries in the island villages, decorating them with simple ornaments and colorful lanterns. Placing this timeless symbol of Greece in windows across Athens, people reminded each other of their culture’s resourcefulness and resilience.

Despite crushing economic hardship, Athens overflowed with traditional Christmas treats, a tribute to the prevailing value of hospitality. Whether in a nail salon or a taverna, I found myself constantly being offered complimentary melomakarona, the honey-brandy cookies, and kourabiethes, the almond sugar cookies. In addition to the sweets, a variety of other delicacies turn up during the holiday season. The Christmas table is characterized by the Christopsomo, a sweet Christmas bread containing raisins, nuts, and spices, while the Vasilopita, a sweet bread harboring a good-luck coin, is the staple of the New Year’s table. There are endless regional delicacies as well, like the kalitsounia kritis, sweet cheese pastries from Crete, the sesame baklava from Evros, and the walnut cake of the Ionian Islands known as karidopita.

"Melomakarona," the honey-brandy variation of Greek Christmas cookies
"Kourabiethes," the sugar almond cookies that make their appearance during the winter season

Prior to spending this winter in Greece, my mind could not comprehend a Greek dinner table without staples like the horiatiki salata, or “village salad”, comprised mostly of tomatoes and cucumbers. How could a meal end without the summertime’s juicy watermelon? Aside from the traditional Christmas sweets, Greece’s winter cuisine is comprised of much more meat and much less fresh produce than that of the summer. In the summer, most dishes involve fresh vegetables, especially eggplant. In the winter, Greek cuisine is dominated by variations of stews and keftedes, or meatballs. The only vegetable that now abounds is cabbage, with a cabbage-carrot salad completing every meal. In fact, lahanodolmades, a dish involving meat wrapped in cabbage, is particularly common. Whereas in the summer much of the produce is served straight from the earth, winter produce –like greens and potatoes– must be boiled and prepared. Perhaps the lemon, salt, and olive oil trio is what unites summer with winter cuisine in Greece. Almost any dish, whether prepared in the sunlight or the shadows of the snow, can be seasoned with this simple, but magical, trifecta.

Another characterizing feature of Greek winter cuisine is the boiled fruit that produces glyko tou koutaliou (“spoon sweets”) and various marmalades. Though glyko tou koutaliou can be made with almost any fruit or nut, the most common varieties are probably cherry and grape. Generally, the process involves boiling the fruit, before adding sugar and lemon juice, to create a syrup-like substance that can be preserved and kept through the winter. Traditionally, this substance will be consumed by itself as a “sweet in a spoon” (as the term itself roughly translates to), but can also serve as the perfect topping for yoghurt or ice cream, or even an ice-cream-covered waffle.

As an American traversing a Greek laiki in the winter, much of the products seem to be make-believe. There are the especially durable fruits that can be found at almost any time of the year, like oranges and mandarins, but there are also strange, unfamiliar varieties that don’t have equivalents in the States. There are fruits that appear to be cherry-sized nectarines and yellow-orange plums. There are vegetables that I have heard of before, like leeks, chard, and rutabaga, but had never seen in their fresh, unprocessed forms. There is an over-sized lumpy variety of pears that I recently discovered was kithoni, or quince. Though I once owned quince-scented lotion, I was not aware that quince was a fruit. Like much of the winter produce, you cannot eat quince raw. Instead, the Greeks serve it as glyko tou koutaliou, combined deliciously with vanilla ice cream.

Tavernas in the winter remind me more of ski lodges than what I had thought to be a traditional Greek eatery. There is no octopus hanging from the rafters, no outdoor seating, no beach in the background. Instead, there will probably be a cozy fire burning, and complimentary rakomelo (the Greek liquor tsipouro boiled with honey and spices) served at the end of the meal.

It is during the winter, in fact, that Athens comes alive. Once the cold weather sets in, the islands empty out and people congregate in the major cities, namely Athens and Thessaloniki. The winter season is arguably the best season for nightlife in Athens. The posh bars and clubs in the center flood with people, and the late-night souvlaki joints do their best business of the year. As the beaches and nightclubs along Paraliaki, the coastline just outside of Athens, board up, Athens’ shops and cafés become the new haven for entertainment seekers.

Americans find it somewhat confusing, but mostly just downright odd, that the Greeks wish each other Kalo Himona!, or “Have a nice winter!” as they leave the beaches at the end of August. For the American study abroad student, short sleeves and flip flops remain part of the wardrobe until well into the fall. We have a way of clinging onto the summer for all that we are worth. The Greeks, on the other hand, welcome the end of the crushing airless heat, ushering in the winter season relievedly. They happily don their scarfs, hats, and down jackets and leave the coasts without looking back.

With the onset of colder weather, there is so much more that you can now do. Greece’s mountainside allows for breathtaking hikes, along with trekking, biking, and mountain-climbing. You can find vantage points unlike anywhere else in the world. Greece’s island getaways have historically overshadowed her beautiful ski resorts. Arachova, Kalavrita, Pelion, Delphi, and Epirus boast spectacular mountain refuges.

Karpenisi, one of the world's most charming areas to ski

Still, there are the people that argue that the islands are the ideal place to spend the winter. Kea, the capital of the Cyclades, offers what many claim to be the world’s best system of walking trails. The island climate remains temperate and tavernas feature outdoor seating throughout the winter months; however, without the influx of tourists, most shops, hotels, and eateries will drop their prices considerably. Moreover, it is the places frequented by the locals – the truly authentic stores and restaurants – that remain open through the winter.

Whether in the islands or on the mainland, January 6th, the Eastern Orthodox holiday of Epiphany, a holiday known in Greece as Phota, is one of the most fundamental components of the country’s winter season. The holiday commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ and marks the beginning of the house blessings. A house blessing, one of the oldest practices of the Christian church, is a ritual intended to protect the inhabitants from misfortune, ridding the residence of evil. Accompanied by those who live in the house, the local parish priest will walk through every room, sprinkling holy water and praying for the occupants.

While the religious practice of house blessings is prevalent within Greek Orthodox communities across the globe, the custom of diving for the cross is unique to Greece. On January 6th, parishes in the islands, on the mainland, and across Athens will finish the church service on the shores of the nearest body of water. Traditionally, this Great Blessing of the Waters signified the end of the ban on sailing, cleansing the oceans of the kalikantzaroi – the goblins that would bring sailors to their ruins during the winter holidays. Standing on the shore, the leading priest will throw the cross into the cold waters and all the young men will dive in after it, striving to be the one who retrieves it.

The one who retrieves it is believed to have been granted good luck for the new year. In fact, much of the holiday traditions are centered around the idea of obtaining good fortune. The individual who receives the Vasilopita with a coin embedded in his slice is ushered into the new year with the promise of new-found luck. The first person to cross the threshold into the house on New Year’s Day with the right foot is believed to bring good luck to the family. This year, the promise of good fortune carries more import than ever before.

All of Greece is fervently hoping for a fortunate year in 2012, and a spring with temperate, sweet weather.

"Vasilopita," the sweet New Year's bread harboring a coin for good luck inside