During Christmas, women cooked and baked special treats like the turkey, usually with a pine-nut stuffing, the Christopsomo bread, and sweets like melomakarona and kourambiedes as well as all the other goodies for the Christmas table. These cookies were arranged on a large baking sheets and baked in domed stone-built ovens in the small front yard, filling the narrow lanes with their aromas.
According to the folk historian Y. Poulakis, in the days before Christmas, homes were meticulously cleaned and exterior walls were spruced up with a quick coat of whitewash. More affluent families also put up a Christmas tree, usually cut from the island’s hills. Fishermen and boatmen decorated their boats with a lanterns, creating a festive atmosphere.
On Christmas Eve, gaggles of children filled the town with their voices as they raced from house to house caroling with their triangles. Their imaginations were inflamed with folk tales of mischievous creatures like the kallikantzaroi, adding to their excitement. Everyone welcomed the carolers as doing otherwise could bring bad luck to the household. Carolers were tipped, but from poorer households were given a cookie or other treat.
Adults indulged in a different holiday tradition, some friendly gambling for luck at hangouts like Roukoutima and Halasma.
There’s an entire ritual surrounding the kneading of the Christmas bread. Only the finest ingredients were used: finely sifted flour, rose water, walnuts, almonds, sesame, cinnamon, and cloves. But the artistry wasn’t only in the bread’s preparation but in it’s presentation too. After kneading the dough, it was separated in two: one half was shaped into a round loaf and the other half was used to shape four dough ribbons which were placed over the loaf in the form of a cross. A whole walnut was pushed into the center of the cross, while almonds were placed at the edges of each of its four sections.
The loaf’s was then decorated with flowers, fruits, leaves, or other shapes created by drawing a knife or fork over the surface. The bread was then brushed with a mixture of beaten eggs and olive oil, then flecked with sesame seeds. The Christopsomo was prepared with extra care because it was an offering to Christ so he would watch over and bless the household.
Tradition also dictated that women make smaller loaves called kotsones for their god-children—even if they were too poor to buy other presents.
The Christopsomo was a centerpiece of the Christmas table and the first thing served when the family sat down to the table. It was carved with as much ritual as a turkey: the father would first trace the cross on the bread three times with the knife before cutting the bread. A slice was then handed to everyone around the table in turn as they exchanged wishes. Dinner was not served until the bread had been cut and shared.