The Fast before Christmas. The polysporia.

The period of forty days before Christmas is considered as a Fast, although not so strict as the pre- Easter one. Historically, the Fast before Christmas has been developed rather late. It was established in 1166, at the Council of Constantinople, where it was decided that it would begin on November 15 and last until December 24. However, scholars do not agree about the real time it began. Some believe that it began during the sixth century, while others insist that it began later, in the seventh or eighth century.

This fasting course is often called ‘St. Phillip’s Fast’, because it begins on the day after the feast of St. Phillip. The consumption of dairy products and olive oil is not allowed on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and the use of meat is prohibited during the whole period. Vegetables and legumes constitute the ordinary diet on those days. The consumption of fish is generally permitted at Sundays and during religious feasts. It is interesting that those performing manual labor were at first permitted to eat fish on other days, too. At 12th century, the famous Byzantine canonist Balsamon expressed the opinion that the laymen could fast only one week before Christmas. Of course, the monastic rigoristic influence prevailed, and the labor people followed the ususal dietary prohibitions.

Generally, this forty days Fast is more lenient than the Lenten before Easter because is interrupted by various feasts. The days of Presentation of the Virgin Mary to the Temple, the days of St. Caterini, St. Stylianos, St. Nickolaos, St. Varvara etc., offer the opportunity of different tastes during the fasting diet. Traditionally, in Crete, fish- or more often salt codfish because the winter weather prevents the fishing- is cooked with chickpeas (Rethymno) or any other legume or vegetables. Despites the bad weather, a fresh- fish soup, kakavia, is the traditional dish of these feasts at Sitia (Eastern Crete).

We must emphasize that one of the very special elements of the Feasts before Christmas is the connection of the offering of special foods with the fertility of crops and special rituals. The offering of polysporia, which, as its name implies, is a multigrain and legume food, descents from  ancient strong traditions. One of the primary characteristics of these traditions, established in the earliest days of human society, is the association between the man and the nature. Since farming economy depends a lot on the nature, economy and cult continue to be associated and sprinkled with magic. The great importance of agriculture and cattle-breeding could not be more clearly attested than it is in the preparation and offering of legumes, grains and, less often, dietary products to the Saints who are associated with their blessing and protection.

  • Novemeber 14, Feast of St. Philipe, who is considered the protector of ploughmen. It is time for the preparation of soil and sowing. Cretan farmers and cattle-breaders eat cheese pies or foods based on dairy products, thanking St. Philipe for his help.
  • November 21, Feast of the Presentation of Virgin Mary in the Temple. It is the middle of the seed- time, that’s why the Virgin Mary is also called ‘Mid –sowing’ or ‘Mary of many seeds’. On this day, legumes and grains are boiled together and brought to the church in order to be blessed by the priest. Then they are eaten by those attending the liturgy, under wishes for a rich crop. It is said that the grains grow faster if they are sown until the 21th of November.
  • November 26, Feast of St. Stylianos. He is protector of the children and healer of ill children. On this day, the polysporia are offered in return for their health.
  • November 30, Feast of St. Andrew. The winter- weather has been wild and the polysporia are offered with the wish to be the crops as strong as the wheather. This very St. Andrew is connected with another custom, the tripotiganitis, which means the one who make holes to the frying pans. Every housewife must fry something if she does not want the Saint’s holes. At certain districts, pastry ribbons (lagites or lalagites) are fried, while some dough of them is shaped like cross and put on the wall or on the door of the store houses, with the wish to be full of goods and the owners be strong and healthy (Vaio of Kozani). At Ioannina (Epirus) they also offer polysporia made of wheat, corn, and some grains of oats, barley, rye, beans, lentils, chick-peas, lathyrus, and pomegranate. They boil grains and legumes together, they add nuts and sugar and they bring them to the church. The priest bless the mixture and on the next day he offers it to the people. They all wish plenty of crop.
  • December 4, Feast of St. Varvara. She also protects children because she heals the small-pox. In Ioannina (Epirus) the women distribute boiled half –grinded wheat, wishing health to the children. They also boil lentils, wishing health to everybody. In Thraki the housewifes prepare a sweet wheat- soup which also has some chickpeas, corn, raisins, dried figs, apples etc. This polysporia soup is also called varvara, after the name of the Saint. It is served to the family in deep dishes or cups, sprinkled with browned flour, coarsely ground nuts and cinnamon powder. The women of Ioannina also make very thin pancakes (lagites) which are baked on an oiled pan and they are served sprinkled with a mixture of water and oil, coarsely ground walnuts and honey or sugar. It is said that lagites of St. Varvara are made since the day that her cruel, pagan father took off her teeth as a punishment for her Christian faith, so Varvara could eat only the lagites.

Varvara (Chania/Crete)

100 gr. lentils, 100 gr. chickpeas, 100 gr. beans, 100 gr. broad beans, 100 gr. lathyrus, 100 gr. corn, 100 gr. wheat. Slices of onions, olive oil, dill, pomegranate seeds, lemon juice.

Place the legumes, except lentils, in a large pot, cover them whith water and leave them all the night. Place the wheat in another pot and cover with water. The next morning boil the wheat and the chickpeas for about ½ hour and then add the other legumes. Boil until cooked, but not let them overcook. Add salt and pepper, and serve the varvara either as soup or as a salad, with onions sliced into thin rings and sprinkled with dill, pomegranate seeds, lemon juice and olive oil.

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