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Kólyva - Food for the Soul

Kolyva (also spelled koliva; Greek κόλυβα) is a traditional dish in the Greek Orthodox Church made with boiled wheat and a variety of other toppings prepared in memory of someone who has passed away to commemorate and remember the life of the deceased person(s).

The practice of making and offering kolyva is an ancient one with origins from the earliest days of the Orthodox Church. The dish is enjoyed by the faithful after the memorial service, or mnimosino ( μνημόσυνο in Greek) is completed. This dish holds both cultural and spiritual significance in Eastern Orthodox churches and communities around the world. In fact, the dish is actually used as part of the church service at a memorial. During the memorial, a candle is normally placed in the center of the kolyva. It is then lit at the beginning of the memorial service and subsequently extinguished when the service is over.

I would like to mention that I am only writing based on my own personal experiences. Although I recognize that other Orthodox churches may do things a bit differently, these are the traditions I have experienced. I look forward to learning about the traditions of other Orthodox churches someday!

Finished kolyva in memory of my dear Pappou (with initials in Greek).

How is kolyva made?

In simple terms, kolyva is made by boiling the wheat and then letting the boiled wheat cool down and dry out a bit. It is then mixed with a variety of other ingredients, depending on the tradition of the person who is making it. Common additions include pomegranate, nuts, cinnamon, sugar, raisins, Jordan almonds, parsley, mint, spices, and sometimes mastiha.

The kolyva’s presentation is also a significant part of the preparation of the dish. After being arranged in a serving bowl or dish, it is often covered with a layer of powdered or icing sugar and designed in a visually appealing way. Common ways of decorating the kolyva include decorating the top of the dish with the deceased person's initials, the sign of the cross, a physical cross, or the symbol of Jesus Christ (IC XC NI KA). The idea is to decorate the dish and create a beautiful design.

Above: My yiayia's process of making kolyva - starting from letting the boiled wheat dry out.

Every part of the process, from the start to finish, holds a special significance. Even the nine main ingredients used hold a symbolic significance and are said to symbolize the nine ranks of angels who watch over us. Each one has a special meaning:

  1. Wheat - symbolizes the body, as throughout our lives we are fed and nourished with wheat. Wheat can also be symbolic of the cyclical nature of life and death as it is grown and harvested year after year. Even after being harvested, wheat will be grown again the next season; this is likened to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the idea of eternal life in God’s kingdom.

  2. Pomegranate - often portrayed as the 'fruit of the underworld' as Hades is said to have given this to Persephone to keep her tied to the underworld

  3. Parsley (or mint) - the green color is said to represent "a place of green pasture" [in a place of refreshment, from whence pain, sorrow and mourning have fled away.]

  4. Sugar - the sweetness of paradise or eternal life

  5. Nuts - the cleaned almonds are like our bones

  6. Bread crumbs - can symbolize the "lightness of the soil"

  7. Raisins - the sweetness of life on Earth and Jesus being "the true vine"

  8. Spices - representative of the fullness of life

  9. Jordan almonds (or "koufeta" in Greek) - the white (or silver) outside coating represents the bones that remain unchanged as the body wears away

Presentation of multiple kolyva dishes and bread at church.

When is kolyva offered?

Kolyva is offered at various intervals after a person’s death. After somebody passes on, the first offering would typically take place 40 days after the death, or close to 40 days depending on whether or not the fortieth day falls on a Sunday. After this, kolyva is most commonly offered at certain intervals after death for the first year. After this, one can offer kolyva during the year on Psychosabbata, or Saturday of the Souls.

After the divine liturgy has finished, the kolyva is then distributed using a spoon to divide the mixture into cups or bags so that those attending can partake in it. People speak of the deceased person and say "May God forgive (insert name of deceased)." People also wish the family or friend who has offered kolyva in memory of the deceased "Memory Eternal." This is a beautiful way to pay tribute to a person who is no longer with us on Earth. Nowadays, some people bring it to the church pre-bagged so that it is easier to distribute to the congregation after church. Throughout the year in the Greek Orthodox Church, you will see kolyva being offered as different families come together to offer this special dish in memory of their beloved family members or friends who have passed on to eternal life.

Who can eat kolyva?

Anyone can eat kolyva, but please remember to be respectful when doing so. To enjoy kolyva is to remember with reverence someone who has passed on to eternal life, and this is an honor to be held in high regard. As tasty as the dish is, one must remember though that you are not consuming a regular 'dessert,' but rather taking part in an ancient tradition that holds a great deal of significance for millions around the world.

Decorated kolyva in memory of my Pappou.

When my beloved Pappou passed away, my mother-in-law helped me make this beautiful dish of kolyva which I took to church for his 40-day memorial. This too was a labor of love as, unfortunately, she never had the opportunity to meet my Pappou.


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