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Maria Georgallis is in her happy place. It’s Christmas Eve, and she’s spent most of the day scurrying about the kitchen inside the Chapel Hill home of her son, George,

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Maria Georgallis is in her happy place. It’s Christmas Eve, and she’s spent most of the day scurrying about the kitchen inside the Chapel Hill home of her son, George,

This Soup for the Soul is a Greek Christmas Staple

Greek cookies, avgolemono soup, and a holiday table setting.

Maria Georgallis is in her happy place. It’s Christmas Eve, and she’s spent most of the day scurrying about the kitchen inside the Chapel Hill home of her son, George, and daughter-in-law, Angela — chopping, boiling, basting, and taste-testing for the holiday feast that will take place later tonight.

A pot of chicken-and-rice soup with celery, leeks, and carrots simmers on the stove. The scent of freshly baked bread fills the air. And the sweet treats that Maria has made for dessert are cooling on baking racks. But the star of this Christmas Eve menu is avgolemono soup. It gets its name from the distinctive egg-lemon sauce that Maria creates through culinary alchemy requiring patience and timing, something that she perfected years before she and her husband, Steve, arrived in the United States in 1971.

Maria Georgallis carves a roast chicken

Among roasted chicken, fresh baked bread, and platters of sweets, the real star of Maria Georgallis’s holiday feast is avgolemono soup. photograph by Joey Seawell

Born on the island of Kos, Maria learned how to make avgolemono soup as a young girl by watching and helping her mother and grandmother. She grew up on a large farm that was divided into 13 sections, one for each family member — essentially, an extended-family commune.

A small road ran through the property, and people would often stroll from house to house to visit. Maria recalls fond memories of impromptu meals with aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, and any other unexpected guests who might pass through her parents’ home on a given day.

Speaking rapidly in Greek, Maria describes lively scenes from her childhood, which George translates for visitors. Food, she says, was always at the center of laughter, storytelling, and memory sharing, particularly around the holidays. Those traditions are the essence of Greek culture, and they bring great joy to Maria.

• • •

For the Georgallises and many other Greek-American families living in North Carolina and beyond, avgolemono soup is a holiday tradition, often served as the first meal after the Christmas Eve church service. It’s been a staple of Greek cuisine since as far back as the 15th century, when Sephardic Jewish immigrants fleeing the Spanish Inquisition settled throughout the Mediterranean. There, they introduced their new neighbors to an egg-lemon sauce that they called agristada (“avgolemono” in Greek).

Cherished for its nutritional benefits and its simplicity, avgolemono soup is the ultimate comfort food. In addition to being served around holiday tables, it’s often fed to children during wintertime when they catch colds.

Before moving to North Carolina in 2015, Maria and Steve raised George and his sister, Catherine, in Pennsylvania. There, the kids grew up surrounded by a vibrant Greek community of friends and relatives. In the Triangle area, the Georgallis grandchildren — George and Angela’s daughter, Sofia, a freshman at Syracuse University, and son, Seb, a senior at East Chapel Hill High School — have experienced the same close-knit environment. Maria is proud that she and Steve have been able to preserve their centuries-old Greek traditions for family members living here in the United States.

The Georgallises family in their Chapel Hill home

Maria (center) shares her Greek traditions with two generations of Georgallises: her son, George (far left), and daughter-in-law, Angela, and their kids, Seb and Sofia. photograph by Joey Seawell

“Food is a huge part of Greek culture,” George says. “When I was young, my mom would send me to school with moussaka for lunch, which was mortifying at the time because I just wanted to fit in with other kids.”

In time, George came to embrace his heritage. When he married Angela, the couple returned to his parents’ homeplace of Kos for their ceremony, which included hundreds of friends and extended family members. Angela laughs remembering the wedding festivities, which seemed to attract everyone on the island and perhaps even nearby islands.

“George’s yia yia [the Greek term of endearment for grandmother] and my beloved mother-in-law made baklava for 600 people,” Angela recalls. “I was amazed by the skill and labor of love involved in baking such a sentimental dish representing love, sweetness, and happiness in our new life together.”

• • •

It’s later in the evening, around 9 o’clock, and the Georgallises have just returned home from Christmas Eve Mass at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Raleigh. After they hang their winter coats and scarves, the holiday ritual begins. Since Maria has already prepared almost everything required for the late-night feast, she only needs to whip up the sauce, while the others nibble on her traditional Greek appetizers — tiropites (cheese pies in layers of crispy phyllo dough) and spanakopitas (similar but with spinach).

Maria assembles all of the ingredients and plugs in the mixer. She cracks three large eggs, beating them on low until they’re a pale yellow. Slowly, she adds the juice from three lemons and continues mixing until everything is nice and frothy. Dipping a glass measuring cup into the soup pot, she removes a generous amount of savory chicken broth and adds it to the egg-lemon mixture.

Like any experienced cook, Maria doesn’t use precise measurements or kitchen timers to re-create this beloved recipe. When she’s satisfied with how it looks — not too thick, not too runny — she pours the sauce into the soup pot and gently stirs

Sofia and Maria Georgallis share a laugh during their Christmas Eve feast.

Laughter is a big part of Greek gatherings. At the holiday dinner table, Sofia (left) and her grandmother Maria share a giggle over bowls of avgolemono soup. photograph by Joey Seawell

The Christmas table is set. The candles are lit. A simple Greek salad of feta cheese, kalamata olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions sits alongside a platter of chicken, carrots, and lemon-seasoned potatoes. Sofia and Seb bring the bowls of steaming avgolemono soup to each place setting, and George pours Greek red wine for the adults.

Everyone takes a seat and bows their heads.

Our Father, who art in Heaven … the family says in unison. George follows the prayer with words of gratitude for the food and fellowship of those gathered here tonight.

After second helpings of soup, everyone finishes up the main course. Sofia and Seb clear the plates and bowls, and return with platters of kourabiedes and koulourakia, sweet butter cookies that Maria has been preparing all week. It’s been a long night, and as Christmas Eve turns into Christmas Day in the wee hours of the morning, the Georgallis family winds down. Just after midnight, they’re all in bed asleep.

When the family awakens a few hours later, they’ll open presents, laugh, tell stories, and enjoy leftovers of Maria’s avgolemono soup. It’s a scene that’s repeated in the Georgallis household — and in Greek homes across North Carolina and around the world — every year. A comforting, age-old ritual of food, family, and faith.

This story was published on Nov 27, 2023

Bridget Booher

Bridget Booher is a writer and editor based in Hillsborough. She is the director of the Duke Women’s Impact Network at Duke University and was previously a writer and editor for Duke Magazine.