Bread has always been a staple of the Greek table, inexorably associated with life and substance, the staff of life. For Orthodox Christians, bread has always had symbolic, sacred importance; indeed, Christ himself is referred to as “the Bread of Life.” The convergence of these two currents in Greek Orthodox society produced a nearly two thousand year-old living tradition in which the preparation and baking of bread for holidays and other special occasions has functioned as a creative, expressive medium for celebrating faith and hope. This tradition is most well known for yielding the annual appearance of Tsoureki, the renowned “Easter bread” found in every Greek Orthodox home at Pascha. But just as Easter has its own traditional bread, so too does Christmas.
Christopsomo—bread of Christ, or Christ’s bread—has been used to signify and celebrate Christ’s birth probably since early Byzantine times, if not earlier. Great care goes into the annual preparation of Christopsomo in many Greek Orthodox homes. Only the most superior ingredients are to be used, and, according to tradition, no expense should be spared in making this mildly sweet, light, yet rich, spice-infused bread. Reflecting its religious inspiration, Christopsomo is usually round in form, the loaf serving as a circle, symbolic of eternity, the passing of this life, and the hope of life everlasting through Christ. Indeed, the prominent chef, author, and authority on Greek cuisine and foodways, Diane Kochilas, observes that “the very fact that the bread is edible folk art, consumed, after so much hard work, is itself symbolic of the ephemeral nature of life itself.”
Although special Christmas breads are common to many Orthodox cultures and peoples (Cesnica among Serbs, Cozonac among Romanians, Kolach among Ukrainians, and Krendel among Russians, for example), the decorative customs associated with Christopsomo are unique to Greek tradition. In fact, all such Christmas breads are meant to be decorated in ways symbolizing good wishes, hope for the future, and God’s grace through imagery that touches on the livelihood of the family. In rural villages, the Christopsomo is adorned with ornate, sculpted dough figures representing crops, livestock, plows, farming traditions, and more. In the region of Kastoria, villagers traditionally honored their animals by also making small individual Christopsomo biscuits representing each of their sheep, goats, donkeys, and horses. In fishing or other coastal or island communities, the Christopsomo may feature images of boats, fish, or sponges. Common Christopsomo symbols found throughout Greece include grapes and vines, olive trees, sheep, and daisies, the petals of which represent the number of family members. Despite an abundance of regional variations, the most common symbol is the Greek letter “X,” the early Christian representation for Christ.
The Christopsomo is broken by Greek Orthodox Christians in much the same way throughout the world, whether in Albania, Cyprus, Greece, Greek America, Turkey or elsewhere. In the historic Greek world, Christopsomo was traditionally made the day before Christmas and eaten on Christmas Day. In the Greek Diaspora we encounter both continuity and some change in this practice. As Marilyn Rouvelas concisely points out in her wonderful and deservedly ubiquitous book, A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America, “Some families attend church on Christmas Eve and return home for a meal that begins with the cutting of the Christopsomo by the head of the household. Others wait until a main meal on Christmas Day. The head of the house makes the sign of the cross on the bread with a knife saying, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,’ and then cuts a piece for each person with a wish of ‘Kala Christouyena (‘Good Christmas’) or “Chronia polla’ (‘Many years’).”
With characteristic generosity and grace, and in the spirit of Christmas, the talented Diane Kochilas shares gratis with the public a traditional Cretan recipe for Christopsomo from her website, “Diane Kochilas: Greek Food for Life,” originally published in 2001 in her superlative book, The Glorious Foods of Greece:
CHRISTOPSOMO FROM CRETE (makes 4 breads)
¼ ounce beer yeast
3-4 cups hit water
5 ½ pounds flour used for bread
3 cups plus 1 tsp sugar
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup fresh orange juice
1 tsp mastic crystals
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp ground fennel seeds
4 walnuts, in their shell
1 large egg, slightly beaten with 2 tbsp water
1 ½ cup sesame seeds mixed with ¼ cup sugar
1. Make the starter: In a large bowl dissolve the yeast in 1 cup hot water and add 1 cup flour. Mix well, cover the bowl, allowing the yeast to rise for an hour. Add 1 cup sugar, ½ cup oil, the orange juice and 1 cup flour. Mix with a wooden spoon, add more flour if necessary in order to make a soft dough. Knead until smooth. Let sit covered in a warm place until doubled in bulk, approx. 2 hours.
2. Using a pestle and mortar grind the mastic crystals with 1 tsp sugar. In another bowl, large enough to fit all the remaining ingredients, mix the rest of the flour, 2 cups sugar and spices. Create a well in the middle and place the starter there. Start kneading working progressively and adding the rest of the water in doses until you get a firm, yet smooth dough. Continue kneading, either by hand on a floured surface, or in a mixer with a dough hook (you might need to divide the dough mass to fit inside the mixer bowl). Knead until smooth, about 10-12 minutes. Add flour as needed to achieve the desired silky, non-sticky texture. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and leave to rise, about 2 hours, until doubled in bulk. You can also divide the dough and knead two or four pieces separately, leaving them, if desired in the same oiled bowl or in separate ones.
3. Once the dough has risen, punch it down again gently. Depending on whether you have kept one big piece or four smaller ones, divide so that there are eight equal balls altogether. Shape these into ropes about 8 inches long. Take two per loaf and shape into a cross, pressing to secure in the middle. Let rest in oiled pans, covered with a kitchen towel, until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour or so. Press a whole walnut into the middle and bake in a preheated oven at 390 degrees Fahrenheit. Brush with an egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake until golden, about 40 minutes. Cool on a wire rack and serve. Wrapped well in cling film, the breads will last for about a week. Or, wrap well and freeze.
For a traditional round shape loaf, follow the directions above, except where the recipe calls for two 8-inch ropes of dough coil a 24-inch roll of the dough into a mounded circle (similar to a snail shell). Of course, if you, like me, lack the basic skills for success in the fine art of baking, you can also use a very modern approach to enjoying this centuries-old custom: visit your local Greek bakery or other purveyor of fine breads and make off with several loaves of Christopsomo for home, family, and friends.
Whether you make your own Christopsomo or others do so for you, remember and take joy in the fact that when you break this bread at your Christmas table you are partaking in an ancient custom that connects you, in living tradition, to the community of Orthodox Christians past, present, and future, with whom you share this special bond in celebration of the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.