From the beginning of time to present day, bread is a signifier of health and comfort in many cultures and religions. We even still use the term "breaking bread" to mean coming together for a meal or in broader terms, to engage in a friendly, familial interaction. In a Greek Orthodox household such as my own, bread is a big staple during the holidays. Baking, decorating, cutting and even handing out the pieces to family members are all surrounded by tradition and significance. In this article, I will detail three types of bread shared and celebrated during their respective holidays.
Some families celebrate Christmas on December 6th, the Feast of St. Nicholas, but traditionally, my family has always celebrated on December 25th. Traditionally, the matriarch of the house bakes christopsomo on Christmas Eve and then the family attends a Christmas Eve church service, sometimes midnight mass.
Christopsomo is a sweet bread (tsoureki--see below), and generally flavored with nuts, fruits, cinnamon and other spices, and sometimes mastic. Mastic is definitely a staple ingredient in my family's household-- my mother chews this resin taken from the mastic tree as a supplement to soothe stomach ailments!
Interested in trying it out for yourself? Here's a great recipe:
1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp ground cardamom seeds (out of the pod)
1/4 cup milk
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup melted butter
1 and 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
Grease an 8-inch circular cake pan. Dissolve yeast in the warm water and allow to sit for a few minutes. Combine the sugar, salt, egg, milk, cardamom and butter in a large bowl and mix well. Add the yeast mixture, both types of flour, raisins and the walnuts. Mix well. If the dough is too moist, add a little all purpose flour. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead by hand until it is smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Shape into a round loaf. Place the dough into the cake pan, cover with a towel and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in volume. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 F. Bake the loaf for 35 to 40 minutes or until brown. Tap on bottom to test for doneness- if it sounds hollow, it is ready to be taken out of the oven.
New Year's (Protochronia)
Although my family does celebrate New Year's on the American January 1st, many Greek families observe the Theophany (or Feast of Epiphany), on January 6th, which celebrates the visitation of the Magi to the baby Jesus. In Greece (and at various Greek Orthodox churches across the world), a great celebration is had on this date, which includes an activity where a cross is thrown in the frigid waters and a group of young men race out to retrieve it.
Vasilopita is a bread baked on New Year's Eve. It is also round, and sometimes a tsoureki, but it has a whole system of traditions that differ from christopsomo. The name vasiliopita means St. Basil's Bread. (Fun fact: St. Basil is also the Greek version of Santa Claus, Ayos Vasilis.) It is customary to bake a coin into the cake, and whoever receives the piece of bread with the coin will also receive good luck for the year. For as long as I can remember, my yiayia has used a very old Greek coin wrapped in tin foil. The cake is sliced, and then passed out to the members of the household from oldest to youngest. However, my family also first cuts a slice for the Trinity (which gets left on the table.) The first slice goes to my papou, who has a suspiciously long record of always getting the coin! I think he and my yiayia are in cahoots.
Check out our video on tips for a healthier new year here!
Similar to Christmas and New Year's, Greek (Orthodox) Easter is also commonly celebrated on a different date than Western Easter. This is because Western Easter is based on the Gregorian calendar, and the Orthodox religions use the older Julian calendar. On Pascha, there is usually a week's worth of church services and on Saturday night just before midnight, the entire congregation lights candles and processes around the church singing hymns. Easter also marks the end of Lent, which for strict Orthodox Christians means no meat or dairy, so the service ends with a huge feast -- including lots of Easter bread, called tsoureki (sweet bread) or lampropsomo (derived from the word for 'bright light', referencing Christ's resurrection.)
Tsoureki itself is filled with egg and butter, and has a flavor profile similar to brioche or Italian panettone. These ingredients are banned during Lent, and are much appreciated and craved by the time Easter comes around! The hardboiled red egg nestled in the dough is a symbol of Easter, and it is dyed red to symbolize Jesus' blood. Many Greek families, including mine, play a game passed down from generation to generation with these eggs called tsougrisma (which means clinking or clashing.) Here are the basic rules: two players hold a hard-boiled egg in one hand. One player tries to crack the other's egg with the pointy tip of their egg with one light hit. Whoever's egg cracks, loses, and the other player moves on to the next player.
Many cultures use bread during the holidays! Here are some of Fiorella' traditional Italian Easter savory breads: