FASTING and FEASTING Dishes
There are a great many fasting and feasting days in the Greek Orthodox Calendar, and these have a close relation to the Cyprus cuisine. Therefore, we divide Cyprus foods into "Nistissima" -fasting dishes- and "Millomena" -fat dishes. When one is fasting in Cyprus it means that one does not eat anything derived from animal, fish or fowl; no eggs, meat, butter, cheese, fat, etc. One is, however, allowed to eat fish roe, crab, squid and octopus, even mussels and snails, which are cold-blooded creatures. The average Cypriot family does not eat meat at lunch-time on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays, although they include milk, eggs and cheese at the other meals. In order to take Holy Communion in the Greek Orthodox church one has to fast for at least three days. On the day before Communion even olive oil is not allowed. It is customary to take Holy Communion at least twice a year, at Christmas and Easter, but there are a lot of people who take it more often.
Now let us look at the Calendar.
Fasting begins forty days before Christmas on St. Philip's day, the 14th. of November and this period is called "Sarakosti" - Forty-day fast. As one is not allowed to marry after this date until after Christmas, single women are teased about this. They are told to wipe their lips as they have missed the chance of feasting for this year. Marriage is a very serious affair, especially for girls.
So they sing:
"St. Philip's day has come and gone,
and the time goes by,
and Marikkou has married,
But I not yet, not yet!
But I not yet, not yet!
But I not yet, not yet!"
The weeks before Christmas are very busy ones for the womenfolk. They clean the house, sew new clothes for the children and do a lot of baking during the last week. In the old days in the villages, the pig that had been reared that year would be slaughtered on the 24th. in the back yard. This was to commemorate Herod's order for the slaughtering of all newborn boys on that day. But, nowadays, pigs are killed in the slaughter-house every day, and the old custom has lost its religious flavour. Everyone in the village is busy making "loukanika" -sausages, "lountza" -smoked fillet, "hiromeri" -smoked ham, and "zalatina" -brawn. Large earthenware jars are filled with fat in which the "pasta" are preserved. The local sausages are made of coarsely cut up meat and fat, and these as well as "lountza" and "hiromeri" are soaked and cured in red dry wine. The "hiromeri" is also pressed with large stones before it is dried and smoked in the family chimney. "Lountza" is covered with coriander seeds when pressed and also smoked.
The custom of decorating Christmas trees and of giving presents at Christmas has been adopted by families in the towns and is rather recent aquirement. In the villages -and in the towns- many families still exchange presents on New Year's Eve. A few days before Christmas, children go around carolling with their little money boxes; they sing a typical and very old song starting with this verse:
and if, and if it is your wish
Christ's holy birth I will relate
At your, at your mansion".
On Christmas Eve the "Kalikantzari" arrive. These are small and large gnome-like creatures who are said to come to earth for twelve nights and roam about doing all sorts of mischief. They are believed to be either the spirits of children who died before having been baptised, or of grown-ups who had no one to sit vigil during the night after their death; it is said that they are ugly and mischievous because the devil or evil spirit was not exorcised from them. These little fellows rove over the waters and settle in the glens near the rivers, roaming around the villages after midnight, teasing weary travellers and scaring the womenfolk, stealing the sausages from the chimneys, and playing all sorts of harmless jokes. They also dirty the water supply and babies' clothes, which must not hang on the line after sun-down. Therefore, before they arrive the women go and cut olive branches from church property and with these, dipped in holy water, they sprinkle their homes and doors and then cover their water supply and jugs with them as a protection against the pranks of the "Kalikantzari". Should you meet one, you can scare it off by making the sign of the Cross three times, by showing it a black-handle knife or a red thread. They are also terrified if you spit on them or show them a chameleon, at the sight of which they run away in horror! But, although simple people are afraid of the "Kalikantzari" on the one hand, they will put out platefuls of goodies if there has been a dead baby in the family who died before being baptised, so that their "Kalikantzaroudi" -little gnome- is sure of something nice to eat when he comes.
The "Kalikantzari" stay until the Eve of Epiphany Day. At midnight on the 3rd. of January which is the Eve of Kalanta Day, holy water is made at church, and all the women in the village go with their troughs to take some of the water with which they will make their "xerotyana" or "lokmades" -little syrupy doughnuts, and on the 4th. all the houses are sprinkled from room to room with holy water by the priests, to clean them of any evil spirits. It is on this day too the women fry "Xerotyana" and sausages, of which the first plateful is thrown on the roofs for the farewell party of the "kalikantzari", while they jump about singing the little gnomes' song:
"Titsin titsin Loukaniko..."
"Some meaty sausage, some meaty sausage
and something crisply fried
Let's eat and take our leave"
....and so they leave this earth until the coming year.
Christmas Day is not considered the biggest holiday in the Orthodox church. However, everybody goes to church in the morning and after Mass, all who wish take Holy Communion and the long fast is over. People go visiting each other, especially relatives, wishing each other "Kala Hristouyenna" -a good Christmas, and "Hronia polla" - Many years (may you live). Of course, everyone eats well and drinks well. The main dishes are "Makaronia tou fournou" -baked macaroni, and stuffed turkey or chicken and roast lamb or pork. In the evening an "avgolemoni" -soup is a welcome dish. The 26th. of December is the Virgin's Day and therefore, a holiday too.
And so we come to the New Year....
"Beginning of the month
beginning of the year
my little rosemary bush
and beginning, beginning of a good New Year,
a church, a church and a holy mountain...."
Ayios Vasilis is coming
- and who does not admit him -
-You are, you are a rich lady -
holding an icon and a book,
a book and an inkpot.
The inkpot was writing and the book was speaking
- consider me also, the lad...
Again the young children carol in the streets and at the sound of the song every door opens and the children are given coins and sweets for their carolling. New Year's Day is considered a great holiday and "Ayios Vasilis" -St. Basil- is approximately the equivalent of Father Christmas. Many things must now be prepared -especially the traditional "Vasilopitta" -St. Basil's loaf- with a gold or silver coin baked in it. On New Years Eve lucky games are played and a lot of gambling goes on. In the villages the young girls sitting around the open fire, throw olive leaves into the flames to see whether "he loves her, he loves her not". If the leaves crackle, he does! Then, at midnight -or on New Year's Day, after church - the "Vasilopitta" is cut. This is a very exciting moment, especially for the children, because of the lucky coin inside it. The head of the family cuts the loaf in the following manner: first crosswise, then a slice "for the poor" , a slice "for the house" and then a slice for each member of the family starting with the youngest member. Those of the family who may be absent have their slices kept aside - and the loaf is now cut for the guests. This is the only time when the guests come last. Whoever finds the coin is considered the lucky one of the coming year. The first beggar or poor person that comes to the house gets the slice that has been set aside "for the poor" . The slice "for the house" is eagerly inspected by the children if no one has found the coin so far.
The story of the "Vasilopitta" or loaf of St. Basil(the Great 330-379) whose name day is celebrated on the first of January has to be added here. It is said that when St. Basil became Archbishop of Cesarea, the District Commander of Cappadocia was a very greedy and harsh man who used to come with his army and plunder the town regularly. When St. Basil was told that the Commander was again going to come, he asked all the rich people of Cesarea to bring some of their jewels and gold coins, which he was going to hand over to the Commander. When the Commander arrived, St. Basil welcomed him and confronted him by offering him the treasure. The Commander seemed stunned and either out of embarassment or as they say, due to a miracle refused to take anything or plunder the city, and never bothered the citizens again! It happened to be New Year's Eve when St. Basil was left with all the jewels and coins and of course he did not know to whom they belonged. The idea came to him, and he asked his cooks to make small loaves for the whole congregation and in each one he put some jewels and coins. On New Year's Day when all the people came to church, he handed each one, a loaf and whatever they found was theirs! Since then the custom of St. Basil's Loaf has prevailed!
Presents are given in the morning. Lunch is, on this occasion, a family gathering just as for any great holiday, and food is pretty much the same as for Christmas.
The 6th. of January is "Epiphany Day" when all the waters are blessed or "baptised" as we say, and all evil spirits are expelled from the waters for the coming year and the little "Kalikantzari" have had time to sail away and leave us in peace. Many foreigners think that the Orthodox Christmas is on this day. This is true in a way because Jerusalem and some eastern countries still use the old calendar, so that their Christmas falls on the 6th. Actually, East and West only celebrate the movable holidays on the same days. On Epiphany Day, after the church ceremony, the priest says...."Come and take the light....", at which all women go and light their large, triple candles from his and this light is carried home and kept burning for forty days in front of the icons that are kept in each house. It is for this reason that the holiday is also called "Fota" -Day of Lights- and all those named Fotis, Fotinoula, etc. , celebrate their name day. After church, everybody goes to the sea front, if there is one, or near to a river, if there is one. The Archbishop or Bishop, with all the priests and dignitaries of the town, walk in procession, preceded by youths carrying icons and church banners as well as the silver paraphernalia, crosses, etc... Then comes the Town Band -if there is one- playing hymns, followed by the big congregation, and thus is formed a large litany, slowly proceeding through the main streets until the waterfront -already thronged with people- is reached. When they arrive at the jetty, the priests sail out in a boat and "baptise the Cross". After a short sermon, the Cross is thrown into the sea and youths dive eagerly trying to retrieve it. It is considered a great honour to do this and the lad who comes up first is blessed by the Archbishop or Bishop.
This is also the day when children visit their god-parents, from whom they expect a monetary present: the folksong says;-
"Good-morning, also on Epiphany Day,
and the money box first"
because children either take their money boxes with them and get something put inside it, or they get a new box with money in it to save up for the whole year. Local money boxes are earthenware and when they are full they are thrown with great joy onto the floor and broken!