Sweet Cretan Traditions for Christmas and New Year

 Winter Holidays Full of Sweet Treats and Festive Spices

 The winter season, marked by the long-awaited holidays of Christmas (Christougena, the Birth of Jesus Christ), New Year, and Epiphany (Theofania or Fota, Baptism of Christ), brings new flavors in the kitchens and on tables of the Cretans while offering tourists the opportunity to explore the culinary traditions of Crete. Sweets occupy a special place in the menu of this period, concluding the family festive meals, being offered as a treat to guests of the house, or accompanying the aroma of hot drinks, from the cafes in the city.

 Dressed in Christmas decorations, the sweet shops, bakeries, and supermarkets display their assortments of cookies and pastries specific to the season. But the real joy and pleasure that keeps housewives busy around the winter holidays, flooding the homes of Cretans with mouthwatering smells is the custom of homemaking sweets, following the "family recipe" inherited from parents and grandparents.

 Respecting the Christian tradition and the dietary rules of Christmas fasting, Cretans - especially the elderly and those living in rural areas, temporarily eliminate meat, milk, eggs, and alcohol from their diet. Naturally, many recipes for fasting sweets contain ingredients such as olive oil, honey, orange syrup, sweet spices, and various kinds of nuts and seeds in addition to flour and sugar. Once fasting is over, desserts containing eggs, milk, butter, and cheese are also served at Christmas and New Year's tables.

 Here are the favorite traditional sweet treats you can try on a Christmas holiday in Crete:

1. Melomakarona / Christmas Honey Cookies

 Melomakarona, a variety of egg-shaped, honey-syrup cookies topped with crushed walnuts, is one of the most popular and delicious desserts in Crete and Greece during the winter holidays. They are made of flour, semolina, olive oil, orange juice, grated orange peel, and cinnamon. After removing from the oven, the cookies are soaked in a syrup prepared from a generous mixture of honey, orange juice, cloves, and cinnamon. When ready, Melomakarona floods Cretan homes with Christmas flavors and perfectly accompanies the family breakfast or the tea and coffee moments.

2. Kourambiedes / Christmas Almond Butter Cookies

 Kourabiedes are crunchy, bite-sized butter cookies, usually shaped into crescents or balls, with a signature flavor of roasted almonds and vanilla and richly sprinkled with powdered sugar. For an enriched aroma, before being coated in sugar, Kourabiedes can be sprayed with rose water or orange blossom, mastic, or bitter almond liqueur.  A staple sweet in Cretan households during Christmas time, these delicious melt-in-your-mouth cookies are also present during larger family celebrations such as weddings, christenings, and birthdays.

3. Christopsomo / Christmas Bread

 Considered a blessed bread, Christopsomo, which literally means "Bread of Christ", is an essential food on the Christmas table in Crete. This festive round, semi-sweet bread, made of leavened dough in which raisins and nuts are incorporated, and flavored with cinnamon, oranges, and cloves, seems to have its origin before Christianity in ancient Greece when it served as a bloodless sacrifice offered to the gods. It can be found under the name of Tsoureki in many areas of Greece and Crete and is also baked for the festive Easter meal in similar versions.  

4. Vasilopita / New Year’s Cake

 Vasilopita, the “sweet bread of Basil” is a traditional Greek cake served at midnight on New Year’s Eve in honor of Saint Basil the Great, which Christians celebrate on the 1st of January. Vasilopita is prepared from different doughs depending on the region, and almost every family has its own recipe. But usually, Vasilopita is described as a sweet and soft yeast egg bread scented with orange, which - and that's the charm of the tradition - has a hidden coin inside.  When cut and divided at the New Year's festive meal, it is said that the person who finds the coin will be lucky all year round.

5. Bougatsa / New Year's Hot Cheese Pie


 Nutritious and high in calories, bougatsa is a breakfast snack and a coffee or tea accompaniment rather than a dessert. In Greece, the recipes vary by area.  Nutritious and high in calories, bougatsa is a breakfast snack and a coffee or tea accompaniment rather than a dessert. In Greece, the recipes vary by area. Basically, bougatsa is a pie with a sweet filling made from a mixture of local cheeses, milk, eggs, semolina, and butter wrapped in crispy dough. In Crete, it has become customary for pastry shops in the old center of Chania and Heraklion to remain open until the early hours of the morning to serve the partygoers who come out of clubs and bars and stop to eat a hot portion of bougatsa on the street before heading home. 

 In wintertime, you also may find in many households of Crete the delicious Christmas sesame cookie rings called Koulourakia Christouyennon, and the Avgokalamara or Xerotigana, a sort of crispy fried dough with honey syrup, cinnamon, and nuts that are served on New Year's Eve.

 Do not waste the chance to taste the Cretan amazing traditional winter sweets! They will certainly set you in a festive mood!

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