Greece and goodwill

Categories: Features

Victoria Brown explores lesser-known winter celebrations from around the globe. This time, Greek new year

This holiday season Marianna Kolokotroni is planning to find a boat for her shop, Oliveology, at Borough Market. In Greece it is traditional to decorate a boat rather than a Christmas tree “because Greeks were sailors and surrounded by sea.”

Unable to get back to Greece for Christmas, she tries to keep the Greek traditions alive at the shop, which “in a way is [her] home now”. In fact, one of the reasons Marianna started Oliveology was because she had decided to stay in the UK after studying, and she was keen to retain “a link between home and my roots with Greece and Greek produce”. She promotes traditional recipes on her blog and tells customers how things used to be made.

“In Greece, food is something that brings people together, particularly around big celebrations,” she says. “Christmas and New Year is mostly about spending time together as a family. In Greece, in general, this is very important.”

A rare treat
As well as the boat, she is trying to source a piglet for the staff Christmas party. “On New Year’s Eve, my mum always did a small piglet,” she tells me. “In the old times, meat was a rare treat only eaten on festive occasions. A family would raise a pig especially, to slaughter and eat on Christmas Day or New Year’s Day.”

A person can reveal a lot about their cultural or religious identity by what they do and do not eat. It is equally, if not more, common for religions to prohibit certain foods as it is for them to prescribe them for particular events or celebrations. Some religions proscribe certain foods at all times, while others, such as the Greek Orthodox Church, prohibit some foods, usually meats, during periods of fasting.

In The World Religion’s Cookbook, Arno Schmidt and Paul Fieldhouse suggest several reasons for these dietary laws. Regarding fasting, it is not only about showing a devotion to spiritual rather than worldly values, but also about the “conservation and judicious use of scarce resources”. Marianna tells me that “fasting was traditionally a very important thing before any type of big celebration in Greece. They would fast for 40 days before having all this food. People will sacrifice all these things, so they are able to enjoy this massive meat feast.”

St Basil’s pie
She has had difficulty sourcing a piglet, as we tend to raise them for a lot longer in the UK, but a traditional dish that Marianna always makes at New Year is vasilopita. The literal translation is ‘St Basil’s pie’, but her mother’s recipe is more like a cake. It can be a cake or a pie, depending on the region, but it always has a coin or token hidden inside it. “This coin has no monetary value, it is more symbolic. It is said that whoever gets the coin will have prosperity and luck for the full year.”

The entire family gathers around the table either on New Year’s Eve or in the morning on New Year’s Day for the cutting of the cake. Traditionally, the father of the house performs the ceremony. He crosses the cake three times, then cuts all the pieces equally. St Basil usually gets the first slice. He was a 4th century bishop of Caesarea and one of the founders of the Greek Orthodox Church. New Year’s Day is his feast day.

In Marianna’s family, they cut the first piece of cake for Christ, then one for the home and then for each member of the family from eldest to youngest. I ask Marianna if the religious element of the ceremony is important to her: “For me it is more about family,” she replies. “Even when I am not there, they always cut a piece for me.” She does the same for absent staff on her stall and for those who work remotely for her from Greece. Marianna is keen to keep these traditions alive because she worries that “these things are very easily forgotten nowadays.”

“New Year’s Eve is very important, because it’s a day to think about what you have done the previous year and what is going to be your resolution,” she says. “It’s mostly a day of reflection and gratitude.”