When you think of Samothrace the first thing coming to your mind is the island during summer, dressed in blue and green colors. But, beyond the touristic season, the island has its own life and rhythms, with traditions and customs which deserve to be discovered.
Christmas and the Kallikantzari
The twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany are considered to be a critical period, when the normal order of things goes upside down and the evil spirits come to our world. Greeks called these spirits kallikantzari. According to the tradition, they live in the center of the earth and try to ruin its foundations. After Christmas Eve they attempt to enter the people's houses, usually by going down on the chimney. Many of the customs of this period were intended as a means of protection against them. Most often a thick log called dodekameritis (of twelve days) was burnt in the stove for all the 12 days time and this should have driven away the evil spirits. The ash was kept and used on Epiphany Day, by making a big cross on the roof of the house, thus sending away the last demons. The Epiphany was considered "the day when the waters lighten" and marked the end of this 12 days period.
The Christmas carols
Greeks called the carols kalanda. On Christmas Eve groups of children wandered through villages singing carols and receiving fruit, nuts, figs, sweets and sometimes money.
The Christmas menu
On an island with so many goats one would expect the traditional Christmas dish to be goat meat. But it's not, it's pork. The pigs were usually slaughtered one-two days before Christmas and the snout was put at the door as tradition went that it protected the house from lightnings. Nothing was thrown away – they made jelly out of head and trotters, they made shoes called tservoulia out of skin and they prepared greaves, bacon, lard and sausages. The meat and the entrails were fried and put in clay pots, preserved in lard, thus providing a winter food.
A specific custom which still continues today is called souvla (or sougla, as the Samothracians say). The pork meat, coming either from the household slaughtered pic (as it was usual until the 60s), either bought (as it's most often the case today) is prepared on Christmas Eve. It is cut in somehow rectangular big pieces, it's spiced with salt, pepper and oregano and a hole is made in each piece in order to be easily put on a spit.
On Christmas morning men wake up early in order to prepare the fire. Years ago everything started at dawn, but today it usually happens later, around 9 or 10 o'clock. They put the meat pieces on the 1-2 meters wooden spit which came to weigh 10-25 kilos or even more. Lard bites were inserted in order to help tendering the meat. The meat spit is then turned rotated over the hot coals. Some hours are needed to be ready and in the meantime the men have appetizers (meze), drinks and fun. At home the women prepare the side dishes – rice, potatoes, salads.
The Vasilopita, the pomegranates and the New Year
In Greece the gifts are offered not on the Christmas occasion, but on New Year, as the Greek equivalent of Santa Klaus is Saint Basil (Agios Vasilis). Also on the occasion of the New Year a traditional tart called vasilopita is baked and a coin is introduced into it. In the first moments of the new year the vasilopita is cut into pieces and the member of the family who finds the coin in his cake will be lucky during that year.
There is a legend on which the tradition is based. According to it, in St Basil times, the emperor had established a very high tax on the sheep flocks. In order to pay it, the people sold their jewels. The tax was later cancelled, so St Basil wanted to give back the jewels, but didn't know for sure which one belonged to whom. So he baked a cake in which he put the jewels, cut it intor pieces and asked God to do so that each man should receive what was his. And so it was.
The traditional vasilopita is only prepared by wheat flour and on the top dough symbolic representations of grapes, clover or birds are made. The women used to protect the cakes from the evil spirits with the help of the olive branches.
Another New Year tradition is to break a pomegranate, which is a renewal symbol. The more seeds are spread around, the more that family will be lucky.
Greeks call the Epiphany Theophania. According to the Orthodox tradition, after the Mass a wooden cross is thrown into the sea at Kamariotissa harbor and several men dive into the water in order to recover it. The one who succeeds and brings it to the priest will be blessed in the new year.
Kalà Hristùgenna! = Merry Christmas!
Kalì Hrònia! = Happy New Year!
Kalès giortès! = Happy Holidays!