Crete is a wonderful island to visit in winter, and especially at Christmas. This is one of Greece’s most interesting all-season destinations. Crete has a strong culture, with its own cuisine, own music, and even its own style of traditional dress. It also has strong traditions. Some of them are old, and some of them are new. Christmas is a great time to get to know the Cretans at their festive best.
Cretan Christmas Sweets
Like everywhere in Greece, in Crete there are special foods, especially sweets, associated with the holiday season. You will find the sweet and spicy moist melomakarona, and the buttery, sugar dusted snow-white kourabiedes like you find everywhere throughout Greece. But one of the most special and symbolic sweets of the holiday season in Crete is Christopsomo – the bread of Christ – (Christos – Christ, psomi – bread). Sweet yeast-raised breads are a favorite for several celebrations – like tsoureki at Easter.
Christopsomo is special in that it is beautifully decorated, and magnificently fragrant. The bread is scented with orange, mastic, and spices, like cinnamon, anise, mahlepi, and coriander. This gives it an exotic fragrance. Shapes of dough decorate the Christopsomo. The shapes relate both to the holiday and, sometimes, to the community. There will be an “X” (this Greek letter is pronounced “Chi” – with a soft ch) – the first letter in Christ in when written in Greek – and a cross. Then there may also be agricultural tools or sheaves of grain. In fact, this bread may have pre-Christian roots. Wheat, as a symbol of the seasons and rebirth, has held great meaning throughout the millennia.
Another Cretan holiday sweet is avgokalamara. Delicate dough is rolled thin and shaped into cones, knots, and any number of decorative shapes before being fried until crisp and bubbling. Avgo means egg, as this dough is rich with them. The dough is also made even more crisp with the addition of another Cretan specialty – the grape marc spirit tsikoudia is the secret to many a crisp Cretan phyllo dough. The fried shapes are dipped in syrups, dusted with cinnamon walnut, and sesame, and stacked high on platters to offer to family and friends.
Christmas Carols on Crete
Throughout Greece, there are special Carols for the holiday season. These are called Kallanda. One is for Christmas, another for New Years, and another for Epiphany. Sometimes starting very early in the morning, children go door to door, singing the carols that bring good wishes to the household. They are given some money and treated to some avgokalamara or other holiday treats.
In Crete, there is a special addition to the Kallanda. Crete is famous for the Lyra, a traditional string instrument played with a bow with speed and skill. It gives the traditional Kallanda a distinctively Cretan flair.
A Unique Manger Scene
An elaborate and beautiful Nativity Scene, with Christ in the manger, Mary, Joseph, the three kings bearing gifts, and the animals witnessing the scene, is a common sight in cities where Christmas is celebrated. But you may not have seen one like you will in Marathokefalas, Kissamos (near Chania). Here, in the Cave of Agios Ioannis, on Christmas Eve, you have the opportunity to experience the divine liturgy in an extraordinary setting, a nativity scene with real people and animals. This nativity scene transports the visitors’ hearts and minds to Bethlehem. It is both a meaningful spiritual experience, and a beautiful sight to behold.
A Modern Tradition – The Santa Run of Chania
This, of course, is a modern tradition. But just imagine the Venetian harbor of Chania filled with cheerful red. Hundreds of participants dressed as Santa Claus fill the streets of Chania for the annual Santa Run – now in its ninth year. Participants jog through a route of three and a half kilometers through Chania’s historic and commercial districts.
More than just a festive tradition, the Santa Run is a philanthropic event capturing the spirit of the season. Over the past years, over 400,000 euro have been raised for charitable organizations benefiting children. The Santa Run is on December 26th. This is perfect timing, as Santa Claus in Crete – as throughout Greece – is known as Agios Vassilis, and he visits on New Year’s Eve. The holiday season in Greece is a long and festive one.
A Christmas Feast, Cretan-Style
Pork is the festive meat of choice at Christmas on Crete. This comes from the tradition of slaughtering a pig before the holidays to make all the festive foods of the season. There will be a pork roast, but also the delicious cured pork specialties, like the smoky, seasoned pork treats siglino and apaki. There are also Cretan sausages. The most delicious are xydato – with vinegar – for a pungent meze to enjoy with raki.
Even if there is a turkey – a tradition adopted from abroad – you will know you are in Crete from the delicious stuffing. Cretans, who love their traditional pilafi (rice pilaf), stuff their turkeys with rice and the rich, flavorful local chestnuts.
Christmas in Crete
The holiday season – from before Christmas until the Epiphany on the 6th of January – is a wonderful time to experience the true spirit of Crete, with its customs both ancient and modern. Christmas on Crete – and throughout Greece – is not a very commercial holiday. There is gift-giving, of course. But the emphasis is on the spiritual. This is a time for family, friends, and festivities.
Have you ever been to Crete during the holiday season?