Olive Oil – The Cycle of Life

Any Greek household that can boast olive trees is considered blessed as well as having their income secured. The cycle of the olive tree for every Cretan family starts in the beginning of November with the preparation of the grove for picking. The presence and importance of olive oil is obvious in every family and is a vibrant part of most family celebrations.

The Symbolic Olive Oil

It is a common custom in Greece to give a portion of the first olive oil produced every season to a beggar so that he can offer his blessing and thus make this year’s harvest lucky. Another Greek tradition is to offer oil to the church every time we ask for a blessing of health or for a blessing for our beloved ones who have departed to rest in peace. Olive oil is also used in the ritual of baptism to seal the enlightenment of the newly christened child. It is believed that olive oil from the baptismal font can calm rough seas, as can the oil from a candle of the church of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of sailors. Even in a burial, olive oil plays an important part where it is used to prepare and bless the body. Precious drops of olive oil from the candle of a church are commonly used to heal wounds and alleviate minor pains. In Greek tradition, olive oil is also considered beneficial in warding off the evil eye.

Olive Oil as Light

Olive oil is used in all oil burning lamps and candles in Orthodox churches all over Greece. The light of these lamps and candles remains forever lit, never going out. Traditionally, when the construction of a new church commences, a lamp is lit and placed in the earth in the position where the alter will be built.

Medicine and Cosmetic

Among Greeks olive oil is considered a panacea – a “cure all” in a sense. It is believed to have preventative as well as therapeutic qualities and is used for a variety of ailments and conditions. In the past a newborn would be cleansed in a bath of warm olive oil and a few drops would be used to wash its eyes. As a cosmetic, Greek women commonly use olive oil on their skin, their hair, their face and their nails. Hunters have been known to give a spoonful of olive oil to their hunting dogs to protect them from poisonous plants which they may have accidentally bitten. This practice, by the way, also contributes to the health of the dog’s skin and fur.

Olive Oil Soap

Once a year, usually in August, each household produces soap made of olive oil. The process and the recipe are handed down from generation to generation – from mother to daughter. The key ingredient is of course pure olive oil, though in the past during difficult times, inferior quality was commonly used. Olive oil soap is used on a daily basis in household cleaning as well as for personal hygiene. Soap made of olive oil is cut and shaped into various forms depending on its uses.

Olive Oil – a liquid commodity

Blessed is any household whose larders are full of olive oil. In Greek tradition olive oil has always been used as a bartering tool and means of trade. It is a major income of many families and it was a common Greek custom to offer olive oil in the dowry of a young girl wishing to marry. It was customary to offer olive oil to the priest when he would come to bless the house during the Celebration of Enlightenment every January. Olive oil was often given as a donation to the needy as well as to carolers at Christmas. Workers in the olive groves were commonly paid in olive oil. And finally, olive oil was often used to bribe. To this day, the expression “to oil somebody” in Greek, is used to say he was offered a bribe of any form.

In times of difficulty in the past, the olive oil reserves of certain families would run out before the new harvest. Then, neighbor would borrow from neighbor or family from family. Usually two liters were borrowed, but three had to be returned. The olive oil which was borrowed was considered “settled” or mature, yet the oil which was given in repayment was virgin olive oil – first press.

Also, it was considered fair to allow families who had no olive trees of their own to enter the olive grove once harvesting was done to pick any olives which remained for their own use.

Let’s enter the kitchen…

Olive oil is not only used in the preparation of foods and confections as a key ingredient, it is also used as an excellent preservative of food. A variety of foods such as vegetables, cheeses, meats and fish can be preserved in olive oil for a lengthy period of time while retaining their freshness.

November 30th – The Celebration of Saint Andrew

By the end of November the first press of olive oil is ready for consumption. On the day that Saint Andrew is celebrated olive oil is poured into a pan in the sign of the cross as blessings of health and prosperity are announced. Traditional pancakes are fried in the olive oil and are then eaten with an accompaniment of “petimezi” a traditional Greek molasses made of grapes. It is tradition on this day to make an offering of olives and olive oil to any family who was not lucky enough to have any of their own.

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