Ah, it is “kourabiedes” time, and the sweet aroma of “melomakarona” cookies will soon be filling the kitchens through Cyprus.
On Christmas Eve children, sometimes adults as well, often go out singing ‘kalanda’ (carols) in the streets. They play drums and triangles as they sing. Sometimes they will also carry model boats decorated with nuts which are painted in gold. Carrying a boat is a very old custom in the Greek Islands.
An old and very traditional decoration is a shallow wooden bowl with a piece of wire suspended across the rim. A sprig of basil is wrapped around a wooden cross and hangs from the wire. Some water is kept in the bowl to keep the basil alive and fresh. Once a day someone, usually the mother of the family, dips the cross and basil into some holy water and uses it to sprinkle water in each room of the house.
This is believed to keep the ‘kallikantzaroi’ Καλλικάντζαρος (bad spirits) away. The kallikantzaroi are meant to appear only during the 12-day period from Christmas to Epiphany (January 6th). They are supposed to come from the middle of the earth and get into people’s house through the chimney! The kallikantzaroi do things like putting out fires and making milk go off. Having a fire burning through the twelve days of Christmas is also meant to keep the kallikantzaroi away (burning old shoes is meant to be a very good way of scaring off the kallikantzaroi).
Turkeys have invaded Cypriot Christmas customs, and so travelers will find this dish prepared for Christmas feasting. For many Cypriots the holiday is preceded by a time of fasting. For Cyprus, the season is full swing by December 6th, the Feast of St. Nicholas, and will last through January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany.
There is no doubt that Melomakarona Cookies will be found in every single household in Cyprus.
Cinnamon, cloves, orange—a traditional combination of tastes identified with the holiday season—are the common factor in these fabulous cookies that are (most often) dipped in a lightly spiced syrup after baking, then topped with sprinkled nuts. In many parts of Greece, the term “Christmas Cookies” means melomakarona.
Kourabiethes (also kourambiedes, κουραμπιέδες, say: koo-rahb-YEH-thes) are sugared shortbread cookies that melt in the mouth! Often made with toasted almonds, they also can be made with other nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts). They can be made in circular shapes, crescents, shaped by hand, or rolled out and cut, but the one thing all versions have in common is that they are rolled in, dusted with, or buried under a flurry of confectioners’ sugar.
Along with melomakarona, kourabiethes are rarely absent from homes all over Cyprus at Christmas.