Most Cypriots follow the Greek Orthodox traditions and associated folklore, from the gift-giving of Saint Basil, also known as Ai-Vasilis, on New Year’s Eve to those little goblins, the kalikantzari, who are said go wild over the holidays. The interior of the island is thickly wooded, and the Department of Forests runs a network of stations selling real pines for domestic use as Christmas trees.
The seasonal atmosphere in mountain villages is particularly ‘Christmassy’ with choirs of young people walking door to door to sing traditional carols known as kalanda, the sound ringing off the whitewashed houses and old stone walls. Some of those songs are believed to be pre-Christian, evolving from ancient Greek verses sung to honour Dionysus, the pagan god of ritual madness and religious ecstasy.
Down at ports and harbours on Epiphany Day, or 6 January, a priest will throw a cross into the cold midwinter water, and brave, or foolhardy, locals will dive in after it. Whoever retrieves the cross is believed to have good luck all year.
Again, most of the Greek Christmas foods are also eaten on Cyprus, though the popular doughnut-like snacks called kserotiana are sometimes thrown onto rooftops to appease those pesky kalikantzari goblins. The region’s citrus-heavy gastronomy infuses the popular egg lemon soup served on Christmas Day, and its long tradition of spit-roasting meat takes care of the main course. Stuffed turkey or roasted lamb are popular dishes enjoyed at family gatherings.
Christmas bread, or Christopsomo, is baked in a plain style or slightly spiced up, and believed to be a Christian variation on the ancient bloodless sacrifices offered to much older pagan gods. Melomakarona – delicious cookies with cinnamon, orange, nuts and honey syrup – have been made from the same unchanging recipe since the height of the Byzantine Empire.