It stands to reason that Greece should have an endearing, if waning, tradition of highly symbolic, decorative holiday breads. In agrarian communities, long before the advent of pre-fab loaves and high-tech ovens, bread was two things to almost all people: the daily sustenance and the tableau upon which the milestones, trials, tribulations, hopes and fears of life were carved. Decorative breads were part of life in Greece long before Christianity took root. In fact, many of today’s religious bread customs were co-opted from ancient pagan ritual.
The importance of bread has to do with the importance of wheat, the staff of life, in the Mediterranean. Its growing cycle is rife with symbolism, from the myth of Persephone, Demetra and Hades to the Christian imagery of bread as the symbol of God and of Christ — who is often referred to as the Bread of Life. Special breads are baked to celebrate marriage and birth and to commemorate death. At Christmas, they are made to symbolize hope for the crops and the fortunes of the family in the coming year.
Symbols include sheep, flowers and farm tools
Despite a wealth of regional variations, the figures, sculpted in dough on top of these loaves, are often similar. Yokes, threshing tools and wheat staffs are common, as are sheep and shepherds. In parts of Macedonia, oxen are almost always one of the sculpted decorations. Some are related to crops or farming traditions of a specific area. In Kastoria, which is in Macedonia, farm families make sweet biscuits in honor of their animals. In Thrace, where both farming and husbandry have been traditional professions, sheep, cows, oxen and sickles are part of the bread decorations.
Among the itinerant shepherd communities of northern Greece, especially among the Sarakatsanoi, Christmas bread garnishes include all the tools of their lifestyle: sheep, ewes, the hut and its fence, the shepherd with his long woolen cape and staff, and buckets for milk; even sheepdogs are sometimes depicted. Grapes, grapevines and daisies (the number of petals are representative of the number of family members) are often sculpted, as are some symbols we usually interpret as representative of evil, such as the snake. These, explains the author Nikos Psilakis in his excellent book [in Greek], “The Bread and Sweets Traditions of the Greeks,” explains a way of neutralizing these forces. “In villages, people thought it good luck to find a snake inside the house and that killing it would bring misfortune.”
The cross is most popular
But most common of all the Christmas bread symbols in Greece is the cross motif or the Greek letter X, the start of the word “Christ.”
Overall, these ornately sculpted figures, often created by teams of women, fellow villagers or family members represent good wishes for a prosperous harvest, as well as a kind of magic. It’s as though placing the figures on the bread protects the crops, animals and family.
All the foods of fertility and prosperity as interpreted by agrarian societies, enrich these loaves: dried fruits, nuts, sesame seeds, spices and honey or sugar foremost among them. Their typically solid round shape, sometimes with a dough cross studded with nuts baked into the top (see recipe below), is symbolic of the cycles of nature and life, of eternity.
Bread symbols as offerings
The bread has to be broken, or sacrificed, but not necessarily consumed, and tradition has it that, year in and out, it must be broken by the same member of the family, usually the male head of the household who will first make a sign of the cross over the loaf. In some parts of Greece, a piece of the Christmas bread takes its place near the family icons, which many families still keep in a corner of the house. Elsewhere, it is brought to church as an offering or set among burning incense.
There are endless traditions surrounding Greek symbolic holiday breads. The Christmas and New Year’s breads are baked with that which springs eternal: Hope. This year, more than any other perhaps, every Greek household should dig out their old recipe books to find the Christmas bread that will spread some cheer during what promises to be a tough year.
Greek Christmas Bread
Makes two 12-inch round loaves
Begin one to two days ahead to make the starter:
For the starter:
For the bread dough:
For the starter:
- In a large bowl, dissolve 1 teaspoon active dry yeast into ½ cup warm water and mix to combine. Let stand 10 minutes until creamy.
- Add a half cup more of warm water and stir in 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour. Mix until a dough mass forms, adding a little more flour if necessary.
- Cover with plastic wrap and let stand for one to two days; it will rise then fall back on itself.
For the bread dough:
- Combine the flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Add the olive oil and work the mixture with your fingertips until it is mealy and moist. Make a well in the center and pour in warm water, ouzo, nuts and raisins. Break the starter up into small pieces, adding them to the well. Mix to combine with a wooden spoon, then knead well on a lightly floured surface until the dough is smooth and soft. Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm draft-free area until doubled in bulk, about 2½ hours.
- Punch the dough back down. Remove a fist-size piece and set aside. Shape the dough into two equal balls, flatten each a little with your hands and place in two oiled, 12-inch round pans. Place five walnuts, forming a cross, in each of the loaves. Take the fistful of dough you’ve set aside and roll it into thin round strips. Cut and wrap around each of the walnuts to secure. Let the dough rise again, which will take about one hour.
- Preheat the oven to 400 F. When the dough is swollen and almost doubled, place in oven and bake for about 45 minutes, or until golden. Remove, cool on a rack, and serve.
Zester Daily contributor Diane Kochilas, the food columnist and restaurant critic for Greece’s largest newspaper, Ta Nea, is also a culinary teacher, restaurant consultant and award-winning cookbook author.
Photo: A baker sculpts an angel from bread dough. Credit: Diane Kochilas