No doubt Christmas around the world will be very different to other years, Zakynthos will be no exception.
Christmas, like many places around the world, is something special in Zakynthos. Having her own special traditions, food and culture. Zakynthos Informer has put together a few traditions that Zakynthos keeps to year after year, some however, due to covid restrictions were not able to happen in pubic eye.
Traditions that differ.
Zakynthian traditions differ from those of the rest of Greece. Traditions that have prevailed for many years and have been passed on from generation to generation. It is how these traditions delivered by grandparents and parents are kept and that are still kept alive today. Not because they had to, but because it was their choice to follow. This is what makes Zakynthos so different.
Carols and decoration
Christmas in Zakynthos has always been an important celebration. Based on religious character its traditions have been well kept even till today.
Carolling will have started within the villages from Saint Nicholas Day, which is on the 6th of December. A tradition that the women’s choir in Ambelokipi have kept, as Saint Nicholas is the village’s Patron Saint. Songs will be heard within the church courtyard and afterwards a celebration is held, where villagers come together wishing each other well over a few Zakynthian delights of ‘kourαbiethes and melomakarona” and a glass of mulled wine.
It is Christmas Eve morning, when you will see the children go caroling, walking around with their triangular shaped musical instrument (trigona) and singing the first Christmas carol in exchange for a coin.
In earlier years, the children would set out after sundown with lanterns and sing their carols around the neighbourhood.
Families who had invited them into their household to listen to the carols would then offer them raisins, nuts or other simple sweets as a treat to the young children, because then money was not much, nor sweets.
In addition, the decoration was simpler in the earlier years. In some houses a tree branch was cut, and adorned with handmade decorations and small ornaments. Even paper made ornaments were made for children to hang from the branches so that treats would be placed inside.
Christmas Eve Day
Christmas Eve in Zakynthos something quite different happens from our English traditions, every household will be preparing for the evening meal of which consists of boiled broccoli and the famous Zakynthian Kouloura (sweet bread).
This may sound strange to us as broccoli would not be our choice of food especially on Christmas Eve. However, don’t forget that the traditions were established based on a strict religious character of this time, as most Greeks were in a period of Lent.
The Traditional Kouloura, symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem, which lead the Three Wise men to baby Jesus, would be prepared in the morning.
It is a sweet bread, with basic components of Zakynthian (Zante) black currants, sultanas, nuts, aniseed, cinnamon, clove,red wine and Zakynthian olive oil.
This Kouloura will even have a lucky coin placed inside, which was called “ eirema”(“ηύρεμα”) and not flouri (“φλουρί”.) like most call it these days.
There are also two types of Kouloura, the Zakynthian sweet bread, which is usually eaten in the evening and the Christmas bread Christopsomo (Χριστόψωμο), which would have a symbol of The Cross decorated on it.
This type of bread is not so sweet although it is made from the same dough as the sweet, but does not consist of currants, sultanas and nuts and is usually eaten at lunch time.
In the evening, the whole family eats only broccoli without oil, having fasted since November 14 up until 24 December in preparation for communion, which will be held in the early hours of Christmas morning.
In the evening the Family is gathered to cut the Zakynthian Kouloura, in which the coin is placed. The coin, which happens to mean good luck for the whole year to follow to whom it may fall symbolizes the Birth of Christ.
It’s usually the eldest member of the family that does the honours of cutting the bread. First by taking the bread to the fire and pouring a mixture of wine and olive oil over it in a form of a cross…
then each member will have a piece, starting with Christ, the household and then all the family members in order of age, even those who maybe away.
According to historical and folklore writings dated between 1865 through to 1956 the actual Christmas kouloura symbolizes the star of Bethlehem, which lead the three kings to the place where Jesus was born. The coin, represents Baby Jesus, the two pieces of wood on the fire shaped in the form of the cross symbolizes Adam and Eve, who burnt in hell. The wine and the Zakynthian olive oil which is poured over the Christmas kouloura symbolizes the presents laid before Jesus and the flames represents the resurrection of Christ and the redemption of Adam and Eve.
The sounds of shotgun fire will be heard throughout the night as each household cuts their Kouloura, symbolizing the sign of rebirth and the redemption of Adam and Eve.
When the person who fires the gun, the words “for Herod” ( για τον Ηρώδη) will be said to show the indignation of the people who were persecuted in the name of Christ.
Another long tradition that is not as common these days on Zakynthos Island, was to keep a large log burning for 12 days. During the ceremony of the Kouloura, they would make sure that a log large enough to keep for 12days would be placed in the fire, the wine and oil that had been poured over the Kouloura was a sign of “good” that way ensuring that any evil spirits (kalikantzari) would leave the house. Day and night, they would keep the log burning twelve days until the feast of the Epiphany, which is on the 6th of January.
In the wee hours of the morning around four o’clock, church services would take place, a tradition that most churches even today still keep. St. Dionysios is one of these churches. It will be open for mass at this time and the service will end around seven in the morning.
The whole family would go to church for Communion and then, early in the morning return home to cook the Christmas meal … egg and lemon soup.
A Christmas dish that is for special occasions, here in Zakynthos. Women put in the pot various types of meat, depending on what they had at their disposal, such as chicken, turkey, pork or goat, they let it boil well, and then they made soup with rice, which was completed just before serving at lunchtime.
A notable difference in Zakynthian tradition compared to English tradition is the Christmas dinner table and that presents are not usually exchanged on Christmas day. Over the years and due to English influence we are seeing Greek families placing Christmas presents under the tree for their children to open, but most will do this on New Year’s Day, awaiting the arrival of Ai Vassilis.
The day held in honour to our Virgin Mary. This is the day that all who are named in her honour celebrate their name day.
In Zakynthos only with the name that is derived from Panagia (H Παναγία), Panagiotis, Panagiota and not Mary will celebrate their name day.
Most households after breaking their fast at Christmas, will have some type of roast in the oven, the most common meat at this time of the year is turkey.
So, to all of our families and friends, we hope you enjoy the Zakynthian way.
This Christmas, may the star of Bethlehem shine bright on you all and give a sense of new hope, to you and your family. Merry Christmas (Καλά Χριστούγεννα)