Greece marks many important holidays with baking, especially with specific breads or pies. Basilopita for St. Basil’s and New Year’s, tsoureki for Pascha, but there is also a favored bread for making before Christmas–Christopsomo or “Christ’s Bread.”
An old Greek tradition, this bread is baked on Christmas Eve and eaten on Christmas day. Baking this bread bestows a great blessing upon the family. It is a light, sweet, buttery bread spiked with cardamon and orange spices. The tradition says that this bread must be made with the greatest care as the effort that goes into its making is both an offering to Christ whose birth is an offering to humanity and its care ensures the well-being of the family for the year to come.
The bread’s design
The dough is divided into two pieces. The first portion, the largest, forms the main base. Using the second portion, the dough is made into a large cross with inward curled-split ends and several other personal symbols.
This style of cross is one of the earliest designs created by the ancient Christians. The cross has four arms of equal length representing Christ’s perfection and balancing force in the Universe. There are eight split ends which curl inwards representing Christ’s infinite power and authority – the Alpha & Omega – which never ends, existing before time itself. The number of split ends is symbolic of the eight day of the Resurrection. The four branches represent not only the four ends of the Cross, but the four compass points of the world in which the four Gospels were preached.
Using small pieces of dough, the loaf is decorated with images representing aspects of the family’s life and profession. For example, if the family are fishmongers, images of fish would be baked on the crust. In more agriculture-based times, the surface of the bread would be covered with flowers, leaves or fruits indicating the family’s expectations of good harvests and animal fertility. This could be done with dough or actual flowers.
In the middle of the cross a walnut is placed, symbolising life and fertility. The walnut shell can be interpreted as representing the cave which the Christ Child was born – the Lord, who existed before the world, is born within the world to renew it. The shell can also symbolise the womb of Panagia.
The cutting of the bread
On Christmas day, the head of the household makes the sign of the Cross over the bread and cuts a piece for each person present at the table. The walnut and a piece of Christopsomo are placed at the icon corner for a year of blessings, replacing last year’s.
Serve with honey and figs. Honey represents the sweetness of Christ’s birth and the hopes for a year of happiness. The figs are an ancient symbol of prosperity.
Grapes: for good harvest of a small vine they planted and a year of blessings and prosperity.
Wedding rings: a member of the family recently married –hope for a blessed and joyful marriage.
House: the father is a builder – for his work to be blessed and his business continues to prosper.
Boat: this family’s favourite pastime is fishing – hope for a plentiful season and safety on the waters.
Whatever symbolism chosen, interpretation is entirely based on the family’s situation and interests. For example, the image of a house could mean the family has moved into a new home or they are involved in construction.
2 ½ tsp of active dry yeast
¼ cup warm water
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp crushed cardamom seeds (optional)
¼ tsp salt
¼ cup milk
¼ cup melted butter
1 ½ cups self-raising flour
1 cup plain flour
¼ cup raisins
¼ cup chopped walnuts
½ cup orange juice
½ tsp orange rind
1 egg yolk
During the blending procedure, the following is sung:
Christ is born, the light is on, so that the leaven is done.
- Grease an 8-inch circular cake pan.
- Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and allow to stand for a few minutes. Meanwhile, combine the sugar, salt, egg, milk, cinnamon and cardamom and butter in a large bowl and mix well.
- Add the yeast mixture, both types of flour, raisins, orange juice, rind and walnuts. Mix well. If the dough is too moist, add a little plain flour to make softer dough.
- Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead by hand until it is smooth and elastic for about 5 minutes.
- Divide the dough into two portions, about 80:20 ratio.
- Shape the larger portion into a round ball and place in the greased pan and the smaller dough in another bowl. Cover both with a towel and allow to rise in a warm place until they doubled in size. Preheat oven to 2300C(4450F).
- Use the smaller portion to make the various objects. To make the curly cross, roll out four long pieces and curl both ends inward. Fashion the other shapes as you please. Stick the shapes on the dough in the pan with a little beaten egg yolk. Then glaze the entire loaf with a mixture of egg yolk and milk.
- Bake the loaf for 35-40 minutes until golden brown or when sticking a toothpick in comes out clean.