Greek Christmas in Australia

From kalanta to melomakarona, Sophia Darzanos explores whether the next generation are doing their bit to keep Greek Christmas traditions alive

Many Christmas traditions have been kept by first generation Greeks that have migrated to Australia, but how many second and third generations actually know about the Greek traditions that come with Christmas?
Like with many customs in the Greek culture, food is one way that second and third generations find a connection point. A Christmas table for Greek Australians reveals a blending of two cultures with tzatziki, salads and lamb bringing through the Greek heritage, alongside seafood such as prawns gracing the table due to the Australian summer. But way before the Christmas table is spread, second and third generations find themselves being involved in making the kourabiethes and melomakarona.
Kourabiethes and melomakarona are the well-known biscuits when it comes to Christmas. The week before Christmas you will find the ladies in the kitchens from early in the morning kneading the dough to make the traditional Christmas biscuits. As the house fills with the smells of freshly backed biscuits it is clear that celebrations are around the corner. The exchanging of platters filled with kourabiethes and melomakarona wrapped with Christmas cellophane from one person to another has become a major tradition for second and third generation Greeks to participate in.
“My mother, yiayia and sisters would get together and bake sweets mainly melomakarona, I guess that would be the one main tradition that we have held on to that is Christmas focused,” says Dean Pagonis, a second generation Greek.
“On Christmas Eve, we would bake Greek sweets, myself, my mother, sister and yiayia would spend the day planning what sweets to make and we would bake and discuss the Christmas day events,” Dionne Psarros, also a second generation Greek Australian, said.
Nicole Miglis tells Neos Kosmos: “I am from a Greek-Australian background, my mother is Australian and my father is Greek, so the typical traditions of baking Greek sweets wasn’t passed down to me, however improvisation works best and reindeer cakes are always great with kids”.
It seems the religious aspect of Christmas isn’t followed rigidly by second and third generation Greek Australians compared to Easter. Unlike the Easter tradition of attending church during holy week and forty days of fasting, Christmas fasting is not as strict. However, closer to the day of taking communion the rules tighten up and it’s back to no meat, fish, dairy or oil, until Christmas day. Many of the older generations have grown up with attending church service on Christmas eve however as the years have gone by, fewer second and third generations are following suit.
“Some of the traditions I grew up with were going to church on Christmas day, I don’t really go like I used to and that is more of a choice thing, when you are younger you do what your parents say and as you get older your views change and you have the choice of doing things,” Ms Psarros tells Neos Kosmos.
“We weren’t really raised up with going to church at Christmas but we do go for Easter, it’s not that we aren’t religious, we look at celebrating the day differently,” says second generation Greek Australian Margarita Strouzas.
“For my family Christmas is held at my grandparents place, because my pappou’s name is Christos it’s his name day so rather it being a Christmas tradition it’s a family one. We spend the day with the immediate family and then the extended family will join us Christmas night. We don’t fast or go to church for Christmas, we do that for Easter though. The focus is on my pappou and family rather than it being a religious day where we go to church,” Mr Pagonis tells Neos Kosmos.
For my family, attending church at Christmas hasn’t been a tradition, I think that comes from how I was brought up and having a mixed background, so I don’t think my kids in the future would attend either, then again it’s their choice to decide later on,” says Mrs Miglis.
“Growing up I used to fast and go to church, I was influenced by my parents and grandparents, however now that I’m older I don’t go. I think fasting and going to church for Christmas isn’t as well known as it is for Easter,” said Stephen Pashidis, another second generation Greek Australian.
A Christmas feast may consist of many different foods: the traditional lamb and pork are roasted in ovens and open spits and there are large family lunches, dinners or both. However, every family adopts a new tradition and the Christmas lamb seems to be making way for succulent seafood including prawns and octopus.
Ms Strouzas tells Neos Kosmos: “We don’t really stick to the older Greek Christmas traditions much anymore, but we definitely try to get the family together and celebrate with our Grandparents. We usually have the Christmas day feast with a lamb on the spit and octopus and have the traditional sweets. I would say that’s as traditional we would get during Christmas”.
“Christmas day we would have a family lunch or dinner. A big thing for my family is having a lamb on the spit and another tradition for us is having prawns, every family would have different family traditions that they like to go by. We may all be Greek, but we all follow different traditions when it comes to food, family and how we spend the day,” said Ms Psarros.
“The feasts are usually the same for us, plenty of meat although with the hot weather it is always good to have the option of eating fresh seafood. Coming from a mixed background our Christmas feasts didn’t really differ other then the lamb on the spit; that would be the one Greek tradition at Christmas I love and would never give up,” said Mrs Miglis.
The tradition of sending Christmas cards to friends and family is one that has become bigger every year, not forgetting on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day where we wait patiently by the telephone for greetings from Greece. As always, the loud yelling occurs as if they are trying to communicate without the phone.
“For my family phone calls to Greece at early hours of the morning has become somewhat of a tradition. We would call as many aunties and uncles as we can get in touch with just to wish them the best for the day. Although it’s not a common tradition it is one that has evolved as time has gone by,” Miss Strouzas said.
The kalanta, better known as Christmas carols, are continued today. Kids gather together and visit houses of family and friends and sing the much loved festive songs. Many people in Australia still maintain this tradition singing the kalanta in Greek rather than in English.
“I have never actually gone out and sung carols with family or friends, although I wouldn’t mind trying it out. Again, it’s about having the time to go and I think it’s a friends thing too, if my friends were to go I might be more inclined on going too, although you don’t see it happen much here in Australia, in Greece it is a little different, especially if you live in a small village and know everyone,” Mr Pashidis tells Neos Kosmos.
Young married couples with families usually spend the day travelling from parents to in-laws, so that means a double feed and extra gift giving. Nicole Miglis tells Neos Kosmos “we alternate every year from my parents to my in-laws, I think that has become a Christmas tradition for us. We would exchange presents on Christmas eve if we were spending the day elsewhere”.
For many second and third generations Christmas is more about spending time with family and friends. While most say they attended church when they were younger, their views have changed.
Rather than it be a religious celebration, what’s really important is how to spend the day. And one thing that will always remain the same is the food: copious amounts of meat, fresh seafood and plenty of sweets will always be a tradition that will continue for years to come.