There’s nothing quite like a candle to add a sense of warmth and occasion to a meal, but for much of my life, I didn’t think that breakfast — unless it was served in bed on a silver tray — was candle-worthy. Now, of course, I know better. Breakfast is an event that should be celebrated, and I owe the mother of my friend Chryss for my change in perspective, at least in terms of candles at breakfast.
Maria was a widow in her 60s when I met her. Now deceased, she came to this country when she married Chryss’s father. Born on Kalymnos, a Greek island in the south Aegean Sea that is part of the far -flung Dodecanese chain, she arrived in the States with her own sense of whimsy and style.
The first time I was an overnight guest in her home we gathered for breakfast on New Year’s Day. Outside it was icy and drear, but in Maria’s kitchen all was toasty and bright. Fresh perked coffee awaited us. A baguette was ready for portioning and butter and jam sat by a sweating hunk of fresh feta cheese. In the center of the table, a candle glowed. I remember thinking that the votive cradled in a squat crystal holder was a nice touch, and assumed it was there to celebrate the nascent year.
That June, I was back for breakfast – which consisted of another crusty baguette, feta cheese and coffee, but this time Maria added luscious honey dew wedges. I wasn’t expecting it, but once again a candle glimmered on the table. Was it a summer solstice celebration? “Oh no,” Chryss said. “Hathy lights a candle most mornings. It always makes breakfast seem special and cozy. She’s done it since I was a kid.”
Hathy, the Greek nickname Chryss gave Maria after her husband died, loosely translates to “spoiled.” Bereft after his death, everyone rushed to comfort her. While “spoiled” might seem like an odd name to give such a lovely and gracious woman, I think it was her daughter’s way of ensuring that everyone would continue to treat her mother like the treasure she was.
Hathy had a genius for making people feel welcomed and loved. And she was a true original — I didn’t know anyone else who regularly added a candle to the morning table. I loved the idea, and I started lighting my own candles at breakfast. Over the years I haven’t kept up with the tradition, but it’s time to start again. It’s a lovely rite that adds charm and a sense of celebration at the day’s start. There’s also something quiet and meditative about a solitary flame. If you add a candle to your breakfast table, you may fall into reveries, like I do, remembering dear ones who are gone. It’s good to hold them in the light.
I wondered recently if the candle at 8 a.m. was a Kalymnian practice. Chryss says that as far as she knows, it was her mother’s whimsical nature that ignited the ritual. “She never spoke about it – she just did it,” she says, adding that her memories of the breakfast candle are bundled with the happiness of her childhood.
“When I was a little girl, my favorite was the Christmas candlestick, a little mouse tucked into a bed sleeping soundly on the candlestick’s base that we would keep on the table for months after the holidays,” Chryss says. “Hathy’s instincts were keen. Winter was the best time to enjoy the breakfast candle — it helped to keep depression away. ”
Candles bring light to the darkness. I wish you warmth and happiness this holiday season, and hope that your mornings are enlightened by many candles at breakfast.
Notes on a Traditional Greek Breakfast
According to Chryss, Greeks were not very big on breakfast until recently. Since they eat their main meal in the afternoon, breakfast was usually never more than coffee, bread, butter and fruit. But in Kalymnos during the summer, freshly picked figs, melons, olives, feta, bread and their award- winning honey made from the plentiful thyme that grows wild on the mountains are a staple for breakfast. Now, they also add protein, like a boiled egg and milk — and the new crop of Kalymnians are taller.