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A Traditional Christmas in Cyprus

Forget Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – when it comes to Christmas in Cyprus, it’s still relatively uncommercialised compared to other European countries.

But Cypriots still celebrate in their own way. Unlike the UK, where Christmas is advertised very early, nothing much happens in Cyprus until November.

I couldn’t believe it this year, when I saw the first Christmas advert on British TV in August. We were absolutely sweltering in temperatures of 40 degrees and it was the last thing on my mind.

In fact, Christmas in Cyprus actually starts officially on the first Friday in December.

When you think about the weather we have, it’s not surprising. It’s quite hard to get into a Christmas mood when it’s still hot and the sun is shining – in fact, you don’t even want to think about it until the last minute.

Cypriots do buy Christmas presents and children are very spoilt. It’s easy to see why, when the shops are crammed full of toys. And it probably has something to do with the fact that they often give presents twice – more about that later.

Oh, and here, you don’t have to buy batteries for toys (the main supermarkets give them away for free) and you don’t even have to wrap your presents yourself. All you do is take them to customer services, choose the wrapping paper (which is also free) and they do the rest. I can’t imagine that ever happening in the UK.

Cypriot ladies bake a lot, particularly at Christmas and Easter. They are excellent cooks – if my neighbours are anything to go by! Their Christmas cakes are very different to ours, although they look quite similar.

They’re made with seasonal fruit preserved in sugar syrup, lots of different local nuts and orange flower water. It’s true to say they are sickly sweet. The thick coat of marzipan that decorates the top of the cake is nearly always home-made. That used to be how they finished their cakes, but not now. In the last few years fondant and royal icing has been available in Cyprus, so now, cakes look like those in the UK.

Christmas here is a time for visiting friends and family. Housewives are kept busy making huge quantities of biscuits for these occasions. There are different types. Kourambiades are small, shortbread biscuits, filled with roasted almonds and dusted with a thick coat of icing sugar. Melamakarona are gorgeous honey biscuits and daktyla, which are known as “ladies fingers”, are pastry fingers filled with almond and cinnamon and drenched in syrup. It’s all very fattening - so forget diets until the New Year!

Turkey is popular, but the favourite Cypriot Christmas meat is pork. It’s traditional to make hiromeni, which is a leg of pork soaked in wine for several days. After its finished soaking, then comes the pressing, under heavy stones. Then the family fire is lit, and it’s left hanging to smoke. The final touch is flavouring it with fresh coriander. I’ve never tried it, but it sounds delicious.

Gammon is very popular in the UK. Here, the most popular smoked ham is called lountza, which is now available all year round. There are many different types. It has a wonderful taste.

Well, with all the food and presents ready, it’s time to move on to Christmas Eve. There are many candlelit church services, and children go carol singing together.

A fairly new addition to traditional Cypriot celebrations is decorating a Christmas tree. And with the amount on sale now and the number of decorations and lights, it’s clear to see it’s become very popular.

Although Santa Claus is destined to arrive in Cyprus on Christmas Eve to visit all the children, traditionally, he doesn’t come. Instead, Ayios Vassilis, St Basil, arrives on New Year’s Eve. This means a lot of children in Cyprus get presents twice over the Christmas period, once on Christmas Eve (adopting other traditions) and again on News Year’s Eve!

Then there are the menaces. These are mischievous little pixies, which mysteriously arrive in Cyprus on Christmas Eve. They play tricks and cause havoc to everyone for the twelve days of Christmas. Tradition says they are the souls of unbaptised babies, but how true this is no-one really knows.

To stop these naughty pixies, (known as kalikantzari) housewives hang olive branches blessed by the village church outside their doors to keep them away. But, should they appear, apparently if you show them a piece of red thread they vanish pretty quickly!

Christmas Day traditionally begins with a church service and everyone wishes each other kala chritouyenna – Merry Christmas. Then just like the UK, celebrations continue at home with their families.