Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Koliva- A Memorial Tradition of the Orthodox Church

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls
into the ground and dies, it remains alone;
but if it dies, it produces much grain.

John 12:24

I used to watch my mom (and grandmother) make koliva for family and church members for years.  I'd watch her sort through the wheat looking for rocks and abnormalities, boil it for hours, dry it on the dining room table, toast the almonds and walnuts, sift the powered sugar, and carry it to church early in the morning.  She would patiently copy the list of names of our departed family members, names that repeated themselves generation after generation:  Vasili, Vasili, Nicholas, Nicholas, Nicholas, Maria, Maria, Kalliope, and so on. She would place the names in an envelope with a small offering for the priest who read the names.  She prepared koliva like an iconographer "writes" an icon, with prayer and awareness of her offering.

The first time I made koliva on my own, I was preparing it for my father's one year memorial.  I gathered the ingredients, wrote out my names and began the process.  Of all the things I had done up to then- traveled abroad, moved to various cities, got married, had a child... making koliva offered me the strongest sense of passage into adulthood than I've ever experienced.  This time I was the one who experienced loss that cannot be described and so I was the one making koliva for those asleep in the Lord. 

Before I begin with the step-by-step, I want to be clear, preparing the koliva, boiled wheat, for those asleep in the Lord is prayer more than following a recipe and combining ingredients.  We pray, "Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on your servant." throughout the preparation.  We have a quiet house.  We aren't watching the news in the background.  If it helps you, play a CD where hymns or services are chanted.  You really want to keep the environment prayerful.

Some of the ingredients can be expensive, but they aren't all necessary.  You don't need walnuts, blanched/slivered almonds AND Jordan Almonds.  But I will offer you the full recipe here.  You can edit as needed.

For a small memorial service, like Saturday of the Souls or a family memorial, you will need the following ingredients: 2 c whole wheat  (uncooked), 1 c chopped walnuts, 1 c blanched / slivered almonds, 1/2 c raisins, 1/2 c golden raisins, 1/4 c Italian (flat) parsley, 1 c whole sesame seeds, 1 t cinnamon, 1 t pumpkin spice, 1 t honey, 2 c powdered sugar, Jordan Almonds.  Please note: there are two different kinds of wheat berries available for koliva.  Peeled berries only need @ 30 minutes to cook.  Unpeeled berries need to sit overnight in water and then cooked for another 2-4 hours.  Be sure which kind you are purchasing before you start. 

Also, I cooked 4 cups of wheat and used about 2 c cooked wheat in my recipe.   The remaining cooked wheat was put in a plastic bag and frozen.  I will thaw portions out for the next 2 weekends for the remaining Saturday of the Souls services that are celebrated in association with Holy and Great Lent.

For a Memorial Service your portions will look more like: 5 lbs whole wheat (cooked in 2 large pots) 4 c chopped walnuts, 4 c blanched / slivered almonds,  2 c raisins, 2 c golden raisins, 1 c Italian (flat) parsley, 4 c whole sesame seeds, 2 T cinnamon, 1 T pumpkin spice, 1 T honey, 2 lbs powdered sugar,  1 lb Jordan Almonds.
  • Spread the whole wheat berries in a jelly roll / cookie sheet and inspect the wheat.  Look for small pebbles and dark grains.  It's best to start with all the grain on one side and slowly pull the grains across the tray, little by little, so you can see one layer of grain at a time.  Do this three times, remembering to pray for those departed while you work.

Whole wheat berries

Spread out on a cookie sheet to remove pebbles and abnormalities.

Here is a sample of good grain on top and grains I plucked out on the bottom.
It's impossible to get it all, but after three passes you should find the most obvious abnormalities. 

"Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on your servant."
  • Rinse wheat grains with cool water in a large pot till water is clear. 
  • Fill pot with plenty of water to cover wheat and allow movement when boiling.  If you don't know if you have the peeled or the unpeeled wheat, you will know after 20-30 minutes... because if it's not tender in 20 minutes it could take 2 hours to cook. 

Not ready yet.


  •  When wheat is cooked, drain in large colander and rinse VERY well with cold water by placing wheat back into pot with fresh cold water and stir with your hand to release starch from wheat.   Return to colander and let sit for a few minutes.
  • On a large flat surface like a dining room table I like to lay a plastic garbage bag to protect the surface, then I use a clean towel and a lint free sheet.  I try to use the same sheet every time. 

This will absorb the moisture while the wheat dries overnight, 6-8 hours.

After a few hours I spread my hand over the wheat to rotate the grains. 

"Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on your servant."

THE MORNING OF (or maybe even the night before):

I usually do this step the morning of, but you could also prep the next set of ingredients the night before.
  • Toast the almond, walnuts and sesame seeds and allow to cool in separate bowls. 
Toast the almond slivers.  I use a dry stainless steel pan because I tend to burn them when I toast them in the oven.
  • Toast sesame seeds to a golden color.  

"Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on your servant."

  • Rinse raisins in warm water to soften and remove sticky sugars. 
  • Pat dry on a paper towel and remove stems. 
  • Reserve 1/4 c mixed raisins for decoration.


  • Gather dried wheat into a large mixing bowl. 
  • Drizzle honey into wheat and mix by hand.  This keeps wheat tender.

  • Add chopped parsley, cleaned raisins, spices almonds and walnuts to wheat.  Mix ingredients together and pour wheat into decorative bowl.  Firmly pack the wheat down. 

I forgot to buy parsley in this batch.

"Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on your servant."

  • Grind the toasted sesame seeds to a grit.  You will see the seeds on the edge of the food processor fold over when it is almost done. 


  • Spread the ground sesame seeds over the nuts and pat down till a smooth surface.  The seeds and nuts serve as a barrier for the wheat and the powdered sugar. Otherwise the sugar would melt, the wheat would start to ferment and your koliva will be watery and tough.  Other recipes will use zweibach crackers, graham crackers, bread crumbs or toasted flour for this step. 

  • Place decorative plate over a large sheet of wax paper.
  • Fill a strainer with powdered sugar and tap side to sift sugar onto mixture in decorative bowl until all the toasted sesame seed is covered in sugar.  The more the better... within reason. 

"Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on your servant."

  • Using a piece of wax paper, press down the sifted powdered sugar to a smooth surface.  I recently made kolyva and couldn't find my strainer to sift the sugar... turned out just fine by pouring 1/2 c powered sugar at a time and smoothing out each layer.  .


 When the powdered sugar is smooth use the Jordan Almonds, raisins, nuts, even cinnamon to decorate the koliva.  A perfectionist will take way too much time trying to get this part right,  so before you panic over it too much, you should know that the priest will put a candle in it and then after the prayers are said will most likely use the end of the candle to make the sign of the cross IN your beautifully designed koliva. 
"Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on your servant."

You can search online for more information on memorials, when they are offered and the Miracle of the koliva. You can also search for decorative ideas. Basically all you really need is a cross in the middle.
There is plenty of room for artistic expression in decorating koliva.

Be sure to arrive to the church service early so as not to disrupt the prayers and have your list of names written legibly. 

Visit our website for note cards



Vassi said...

Please note: When using pomegranates, have parishioners sign a waiver stating that they have dental insurance. Or just don't use them. I bit into a pomegranate seed and cracked a tooth. :(

Greek Weddings said...

Thank you for sharing this lovely post and your personal reflections about the preparation of Koliva.

If it is OK with you Pres. Vassi, I have linked to you via my own blog post about 'How to Make Koliva' on the Greek Weddings and Traditions Blog.

Many thanks,


Vassi said...

Sia, thank you for sharing the link. Kolyva is a practice that we can't afford to lose. Anything to encourage the tradition is appreciated.

Anonymous said...

We will include your blog in our Resources for an upcoming spiritual retreat discussing Psychosavato and Koliva. Thank you for your information and wisdom.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to take a moment and thank you for your blog on koliva. My mother in law's 1year memorial service was today and we were told on Friday the church would not be able to provide the koliva. I used a 30 year old"guide"from my husband 's aunt; it was missing alot, your recipe, and my good judgment of how it should end up. Their koliva is a little different then the one you shared but your proportions and steps helped me. I can't say I had a quiet home throughout the process but I did my best! Thank you for sharing the prayer component, No where else did I find that information and I agree it is important. My two year old daughter and I even drew hearts in the flour that covered the koliva, for added love. I am pleased to report it came out perfect! Yai Yai even had calls from the Greeks at the church raving how good, if not better, it was. Not too bad for an Italian Catholic! Thank you again, I would not have been able to pull out off without your guidance.

Vassi said...

Anonymous, Thank you for your comment. Someone asked why I bothered with a blog. Your comment explains it all. I am thankful that people find it useful.

May your mother in law's memory be eternal.

Anonymous said...

Helen from South Africa living in Australia now
I loved the way you explained the peace and serenity of making the koliva. My pethera died a year ago and I have made it several times recently and in the past for late Theo Pavlo. What spirituality you share. Thank you

J. Kampiziones-Ying said...

This is a wonderful post, Presvytera! I appreciate the step-by-step instructions, pictures, and above all, the prayers (when to say them, etc.) I will be using this as my guide, since I haven't had the opportunity to make the koliva with all of you in person. Much love and many thanks from S. Fla., Joanne :-)

Vassi said...

Thank you J K-Y. I am glad the post will be helpful. Your koliva will honor your parents and comfort your heart.

Unknown said...


Thank you for your step by step guidance. My daughter and I prepared the koliva for my father's 40 day memorial. It was reassuring to have the step by step instruction along with the photos. I could hear your words of advice. At church they are making a cookbook and gathering recipes. They asked for the recipe to the koliva. I may have tweaked the recipe a little, but you will get the credit. Thank you and God bless you.

Klea Gallegos

Vassi said...

Thank you, Klea. I am honored that the post was comforting. And thank you for the credit in the cookbook. May your father's memory be eternal.

Unknown said...

Presvytera Vassi,
I was so pleased to find your recipe for koliva when I needed to make it for a Saturday memorial service in our small mission church in colorado. It is a wonderful and authentic version, and the explanation and prayers you include made me so mindful of the meaningfulness of our tradition.

I plan to make this again, and will hope to have my daughters and grandchildren participate in the process.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing!

Vassi said...

Marlene, I am so thankful that you found the post useful. May this tradition continue to establish itself in your family.

Anonymous said...

I think the Macedonian culture is so beautiful. Having a Macedonian Orthodox funeral would be quite the experience. I would have to study it out well before I went to make sure that I would be respectful and understand everything going on.

Vassi said...

Dear Anonymous (Divinity Funeral) an Orthodox funeral is offered by an Orthodox priest for Orthodox faithful. If you are interested in an Orthodoxy funeral, visit your local Orthodox church.

Luise said...

Dear Presvassi, lots of thanks for this post. It just made me feel closer to my parents (they passed away long ago), to our old traditions, to church, to God, to good people and to myself. I have never prepared koliva so far because I am afraid it will not satisfy my mom's taste (she was really strict and demanding in everything connected to koliva; it was a complete ritual for her to prepare koliva and she always did it so so perfect). Thus, whenever commemorating, someone else prepares the koliva that I took to church and then share with people. This time I do promise to myself to have a try as your post is so challenging. God bless you!

Helen Paizes said...

Good evening Vassi from another Helen from South Africa and still living in this beautiful country.My mum was the Koliva Lady in Pretoria till she passed away at 85 in 2004.Having lived in different parts of South Africa and just relocating to Pretoria from Cape Town,I can honestly say my mum made the best Koliva I have ever tasted.Though she never put parsley in hers.Perhaps Helen from Australia will remember my mum,as she was known (i Maroulla tis eklisias)one of very few woman allowed into the Ghero.Most Sundays she made at least 4 large trays of Koliva starting her work from Friday and people asking "Thosè mas pou tis Maroullas"I
loved the zoumi from the wheat which we had with cinnamon and sugar.What a treat,come May I will make her Koliva,but I will try a few times before that.I remember each and every ingredient she added so hold thumbs.

anna livaditis said...

Helen Paizes, I am interested in your recipe and how it differs from Pres Vassi's. If you wouldn't mind, could you please post it here?
P. Vassi, your recipe and blog came to me at a time I really needed clear, concise instructions which gave me the 'tharos' to prepare my own Koliva for my mum's, 40 days, 3, 6 & 9 month memorials. Sadly, I did not prepare the Koliva myself for her 1 year service as I wanted it to look perfect and was afraid I would damage it transporting it 20-25 minutes to church. The end result, it looked lovely but the taste wasn't there. Obviously wasn't made with the same love. I will have more faith in myself and worry less about appearances next time I make it.
Thank you sincerely for sharing and God Bless. Anna (Australia)

Unknown said...

Thank you for the information.,Can Koliva be frozen.

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Presb. Maria said...

Thank you so much Presb. Vassi for this wonderful resource! We will be using this for our upcoming Family Night on the Saturday of Souls and preparation of Koliva. :-) God bless you!