It's Christmas-time once again and I see pomegranates everywhere. Since I don't live in an orchard, that fact may appear a little surprising. But trust me, it is not.
I live in Athens and indeed, the humble punica granatum is currently omnipresent here. There is a good and double reason for this. Firstly, the fruit is in season right now (it has been since October and will remain so for about another month) and market stalls or supermarket shelves are brimming over with pomegranates of all shades and sizes. Secondly, it is considered a symbol of Christmas in Greece. The fruit is frequently depicted in seasonal contexts, be it on Christmas cards or posters, or replicated in three-dimensional form made of pottery, silver, brass, glass, even gold or - the horror! - plastic, as a tabletop ornament, a bauble or tree ornament, or as a precious and pretty attachment to classy gift wrappings.
It has grown on me. Christmas in the western form is a relatively modern phenomenon in Greece, where Easter was always the most important religious festival. Unsurprisingly, in November and December the country is swamped with temporary Christmas-themed stores selling mass-produced seasonal trinkets. Nearly always, those are Chinese-made derivatives of more or less "traditional" American Christmas paraphernalia, which are in themselves a derivative mostly of 19th century British imagery, which is, in turn, derived from Central German traditions introduced to Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria.
Thus, the Christmas pomegranate is a breath of fresh air, a truly local and meaningful symbol of the season. It shares that distinction with the karavaki, namely a model sailing ship, usually illuminated and prominently displayed in shop windows or private homes, evoking the idea of prosperity for the coming year. That tradition comes from the Aegean islands and makes perfect sense in a maritime nation.
But back to the pomegranate. Early last October, as I was guiding on our Lycian cruise, we walked through a grove of near-ripe pomegranates. One of our guests remarked how much the fruit looked like baubles on Christmas trees. It had never occurred to me, but they really do.
Furthermore, that deliciously tangy and richly flavoured fruit (in Ireland, they are sometimes sold as "wine apples") with its fascinating texture and colour, especially the contrast between the tempered yellows, greens and pinks of the skin and the deep ruby red of the seeds inside, has long carried symbolic meanings. Originating somewhere in Asia and recently considered a "superfruit" as it appears to be amazingly good for our health, it had spread, probably through human hands, already throughout the Bronze Age and is mentioned in the holy scriptures of Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. In ancient Greece, it seems to have mainly symbolised fertility, as is indicated by clay pomegranates (often painted) dedicated at sanctuaries of female deities, especially Hera, the goddess of matrimony and motherhood.
In the modern Greek tradition that meaning has shifted a little, the pomegranate now being a symbol primarily of prosperity and good fortune. Habitually, a single fruit is hung up above the door of the house on Christmas Day. On New Year's Day, just after midnight, the fruit is smashed on the doorstep (I am told this can be rather enjoyable) to ensure another year of good luck for the household and those within it.
If I've convinced you that midwinter (or for those of you in the Southern hemisphere, just Christmas-time) really is an appropriate time to appreciate pomegranates, I'd like to suggest three ways to do so, beyond simply eating the fruit. It is easy to make juice from them, by simply halving them and using a conventional orange squeezer. You can also try the spectacularly delicious Pomegranate Margarita, or, with a little more effort, the amazing Ash-e Anar, a Persian pomegranate soup.
With or without pomegranates, we at Peter Sommer Travels wish you a Happy Christmas, or any other winter celebration of your choice, and a prosperous and Happy New Year.
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Postscript: One of our past (and hopefully future) guests, Leonie B. (the very person responsible for the Megas Alexandros blog) has sent us a stunning picture of ripe pomegranates she took on a trip in Lycia some years ago. Here it is.