Celebrating the Nativity of Christ is an important, bright, Orthodox holiday in Cyprus, preparation for which begins in advance. On the eve of December 25, Christmas trees and scarlet poinsettias can be seen, and there are plastic figures installed at large intersections, depicting the main characters of the holiday — baby Jesus in the manger, Mary, animals.
To learn more about how to celebrate Christmas and other holidays on Cyprus, how holidays and secular traditions are associated with this holiday, as well as what dishes can be found during the holiday, check out our list in our review section.
Christmas Church Traditions
First, Christmas is, of course, one of the main Christian holidays, celebrated by millions of people around the world. The holiday is dedicated to the birth of Jesus Christ, and on this day we usually remember Mary, Joseph, as well as the shepherds who came to bow to the baby, and the wise men who followed the miraculous star.
The culmination of the holiday is a solemn service, which is held in Cyprus early on the morning of December 25th. Starting on November 15th, and continuing on throughout the 40 days before Christmas, Orthdox Cypriots observe a fast, during which meat and dairy products, as well as eggs (fish, vegetable oil, and wine can be consumed only on certain days) are excluded from the diet.
After the festive service, which is customarily attended by the whole family, the locals congratulate one another on the coming of Christmas and subsequently go home to indulge in a festive feast.
It might seem curious, by in some mountain villages on Christmas night, it is customary to leave the doors of one’s house open, so that the Mother of God and Christ can look into the house in form of wanderers, and be assured that everything in the house is ready for the holiday, i.e. the table is set and all the rooms are carefully tidied up.
In many families, housewives will have baked the so-called “Bread of Christ”, a homemade ritual loaf decorated with a cross, by Christmas. Previously, the owners shared this break with livestock and even with fish (by throwing pieces into the sea). In addition, in almost every house on the island they make Christmas cake (“Christopsomo”) from butter yeast dough. The cake is also decorated with a cross, ornaments, edible figurines with sometimes even complete storylines. To top that all off, in-shell walnuts, which symbolize the birth of Christ, are inserted into the very center.
This Christmas cake — in fact, an analogue of the Russian Easter cake — has an important symbolic meaning. It is not only a guarantee of health and well-being in the coming year for believers, but also indicated the unity of the people and the church.
Another Christmas tradition in Cyprus is the carols, familiar to many — Christmas carols that children play to the sound of a tambourine and musical triangles. For their carols, they are usually generously awarded nuts, oranges, and other treats (sometimes even money). It is believed that the visit of caroling children brings good luck and prosperity to one’s home. Local carols are called “kananda”.
Adults on Christmas Eve will most definitely visit the graves of their relatives, lay down flowers, and pray that the souls of the departed rest in peace.
There is a legend that says during the Twelve Days (the period between Christmas Eve and New Year), harmful and mocking demonic creatures, or “Kalikanzari”, can enter the house. You can be saved from them if you use the fireplace to burn the logs of a spruce or olive tree — Christoksilo (translated — “Christ Tree”). Since few people now go out for firewood in modern-day cities, the tradition has been simplified a bit, but, nevertheless, a burning fireplace in your home until the day of the Epiphany is still considered a good sign.
Epiphany Day (January 6th) in Cyprus coincides with St. Epiphanius Day, so it has a certain special significance for local residents. St. Epiphanius was born in Palestine, ut at the age of 17, he decided to become a Christian. For three years, Epiphanius lived celibately in the monasteries of Egypt, and then returned to his homeland, after which he was elevated to the rank of bishop in Cyprus. Epiphanius became the first archbishop of the island, and was canonized.
On the Feast of the Epiphany on the Mediterranean coast in Cyprus, the sacrament of lighting the water takes place. On this day, priests throw a cross into the nearest body of water, and many swimmers rush after it in the hopes of having luck bestowed upon them. On the eve of the holiday, women attend church and illuminate the water, which is then sprinkled on their homes, land, and even livestock. According to popular belief, all water on this day becomes blessed.
Secular Christmas Traditions
Christmas preparations in Cyprus begin at least a month before the holiday. The first sign of the upcoming celebration is the scarlet flowers that appear on the streets of the city and in house windows. These are called the “Christmas Star” (the Latin name for these flowers is Poinsettia, and in Russia they are called “euphorbia”). Streets are decorated with garlands and string lights, and colorful greetings are printed on billboards. Animals, seemingly out of a fairytale, Santa Clauses, and pastry chefs and their sweets all walk around the city. Residents decorate their balconies and courtyards, and wreaths of fir or olive brancges are hung on their doors so that, by December 23rd — the official beginning of Christmas week — a festive atmosphere reigns in almost every corner of the cities and villages of the island.
Another integral party of citywide preparations for the holiday is the Christmas discounts in stores and supermarkets, which peak at the end of December, and contribute to a slightly tedious, but still pleasant fuss: the Cypriots wander around the shops for a long time, choosing gifts and souvenirs for their friends and relatives, and also buying clothes and shoes for themselves by Christmas.
The tradition of decorating an artificial Christmas tree is quite popular on the island, but almost more often you can see decorate boats. This not only reminds one of the proximity of the sea and its significance for Greece and Cyprus, but is also a symbol of happiness and serenity. Ordinary trees grow on the street, and with the onset of darkness, the city shimmers with the glow of Christmas lights.
Christmas is a family holiday; therefore, it is customary to gather church services in the houses of parents and grandparents (for this reason, many city-dwellers leave for the countryside during Christmas). At the holiday table, Cypriots eat traditional Christmas dishes, which we will talk about in more detail later. They sing songs, give each other gifts, and wish one another a Merry Christmas.
The festive mood and the festive atmosphere persist throughout the week, up until January 1st, when the Cypriots again gather around the table to celebrate the New Year. By the way, Santa Claus in Cyprus is called Agios Vasilis (Saint Basil, the younger contemporary of Saint Nicholas the Miracle Worker from Caesarea of Kapadokiya, who helped the poor and homeless, and become literally a symbol of mercy).
On New Year’s Eve, he brings a bag of gifts to each family, and mothers, in turn, leave a special holiday cake for him under the Christmas tree with a baked coin inside (called a “Vasilopita”), and a glass of wine. In the morning, the pie is cut and eaten, and the person who gets the coin is believed to be lucky in the coming year.
January 6th is also a public holiday and a day off for everyone, so people dance, sing, and take part in various competitions outside, in cafes, and other places.
Lenten Recipes in Cyprus Cuisine
During the forty-day Christmas fast in Cyprus, the locals do not lose their taste for good and satisfying food. At this time, they prepare lean soups with lentils, avocados, or broccoli, pastries with additives from juice and the zest of citrus fruits, nuts and raisins, as well as main dishes from chickpeas, rice, vegetables, beans, and other ingredients.
Falafel is quite a popular chickpea dish in Europe, and it is often cooked in Cyprus during Lent (in Greek, these pea cutlets are called “revifokeftEves”). To prepare falafel, chickpeas are cooked, a “mince” is made from it, and the meatballs are sculpted and roasted in oil until golden brown. You serve “revifokefteves” usually with a side dish of vegetables.
Lachanorizo is another lean dish, which is a stew made from stewed cabbage and rice. Cabbage for the lachanorizo is cut into large pieces, and dried mint and basil are used as seasonings.
Other popular Lenten dishes on the island are bean soup, couscous with baked carrots, eggplant stuffed with couscous, lean dolma, rice with pine nuts, and others.
Traditional Holiday Dishes
For the Christmas meal, the Cypriot housewives prepare pork dishes: smoked sausages, pies cooked in lard, ham, jellied meats, and cabbage rolls. The table is also set with lamb dishes, sometimes a baked turkey, wild boar meat, or hare. Pickles, snacks, and traditional sweets are also served, but I would like to talk about this in more detail.
MelamakArona are shortbread cookies for which the dough is kneaded with orange juice and zest. The cookies are baked, and then sprinkled with cinnamon and chopped walnuts.
Taga Nytys are pancakes, served with jam or a syrup made of orange juice and honey.
CurabiedEs are shortbread cookies with crushed almonds and cognac. They are sprinkled with powdered sugar.
KhristOpsomo is a Christmas cake made from butter yeast dough, with oil, wine, spices, rose water, and nuts. The cake is decorated with a cross and ornaments, and a whole, in-shell walnut is inserted into the center. This “Bread of Christ” is one of the main symbols of Christmas, and sometimes its dried pieces are stored for a whole year.
The Christmas table is not complete without ripe pomegranates, symbolizing fertility, nuts, and dried fruits.
Greetings on Christmas and New Year in Greek:
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! — kahlAH khristOOyena kye ehftihizmEHnos oh kehnúrios khronos!
Happy New Year! — kahlEE protokhroniYA!
Merry Christmas! — kahlAH khristOOyena!
May your life be long! — khrOHniya polA!
Happy Holidays! — kahlEHs eeyortEHs!
May the New Year bring you everything you want! — OHti epiphimEEce sto nEoh EHtos na to vris!
Fasolada Bean Soup
Another fast soup popular on the island is made of beans and called fasolada. As in the previous recipe, beans are soaked for the night, but to make fasolada Cypriots also cover them with boiling-hot water. Then mushy beans are stewed with vegetables and tomato paste.
Dry beans: 500 gr
Celery: 3 stalks
1 chili pepper
Garlic: 2 cloves
1 large red onion
Olive oil: 2 tablespoons
Vegetable broth: 600 ml
Salt, pepper, coriander: to taste
Chop all the vegetables finely and roast them in a pan, beginning with onions. Add vegetable broth and previously parboiled, slightly tender beans. Simmer for 15 minutes. Towards the end of cooking time add salt, pepper, and spices. Then whisk the soup in a blender.
Lenten Apple Mat
flour: 2 cups
sugar: 1 cup
water: 1 cup
vegetable oil: 0.5 cups
green apples: 3
honey: 2 tbsp.
salt: 1 pinch
cinnamon: 1 tsp.
soda, quenched with lemon juice: ½ tsp.
Mix sugar, water, and vegetable oil, and heat up a little. Then add 2 tablespoons of honey, and thoroughly stir the resulting mixture with a whisk. Add cinnamon and a pinch of salt to the pre-sifted flour. Add the honey-sugar mixture, chopped walnuts (about ½ cup) and soda to the flour. Mix well, and pour the dough into the mold, topping with peeled apples, cut into slices. Bake at 200°C for 35 minutes.