Clean Monday is today and people across Greece are dusting off their kites and preparing the famous delicacies of the festive day to take with them on their outdoor excursions, also known as koulouma. The first day of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Lent requires the consumption of shellfish, taramosalata (fish roe dip), a special kind of azyme bread, baked only on that day, called “lagana”, halvas, gigandes and beans. The day refers to the leaving behind of sinful attitudes and non-fasting foods for the Christian believers, but the origins of the koulouma remain rather obscure to date.
Etymologically the word “Koulouma” is open to various interpretations. Greek folklorist Nikolaos Politis (1852-1921), argued that the word comes from the Latin “cuuiulus”, which means both abundance and end. Thus, the koulouma stand for the culmination of the carnival period and also the beginning of the season of the Lent (the forty days before Easter). Another theory has it that the koulouma derive from the also latin word “columna” (meaning column) because the people of Athens used to celebrate this day at the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and later on at the Philopappou hill. Others also claim that the custom comes from Konstantinople and the Greek population there would go to the seven hills of the city to celebrate.
The Clean Monday name (also Pure Monday, Lent Monday, Ash Monday) is of Christian origins meaning spiritual and physical purification. Some say the word clean was added to that day because housewives had to clean their houses and utensils all day long after the Carnival feast was finally over.
For most Greeks, celebrating Clean Monday means going to the hillside or by the sea to enjoy their fasting picnic and fly their kites, a custom that also varies in interpretation. Some claim it has Asian origins and was passed on to the west over the centuries. People would write wishes on their kites and fly them as high as possible so that the gods could answer them. Others suggest that ancient Greek mathematician Archytas of Tarentum (440-360 BC) was the first to design and use a kite in his aerodynamics experiments, and there is evidence from pottery dating back to the classical period showing a young woman holding a kite.
Special traditions celebrated in Greece on Clean Monday
Vonitsa, the custom of “Straw Gligorakis”
Popular legend has it that Gligorakis was a fisherman who turned his back to the sea and moved to live in the mainland. Contemporary anglers in Vonitsa condemn to date his act and punish Gligorakis every year on Clean Monday by making a fisherman figure of straw, tying it on a donkey and wandering it around the village. When the day passes by with singing and dancing, the men throw “straw Gligorakis” in a boat set on fire to burn away in the open sea.
Thebes, the “Vlach Wedding”
This custom dates from 1830 and refers to matchmaking of the time. Today it revives with the shaving of the groom and the bride’s preparation for the wedding, who is actually a man. In the meantime, all participants celebrate the Koulouma with satirical songs and lots of dancing.
Polysito in Vistonida, the custom of the “Smeared People”
Preparations for this custom begin the day before with the women of the village baking the traditional lagana bread and boiling the bean soup for their guests on Clean Monday. When the guests arrive, a surprise is awaiting them. Two men dressed up then sneak from behind and try to smear the incoming guests with soot from the cauldron boiling the soup, so that everyone celebrates the day in disguise.
Mesta in Chios, the custom of the “Aga”
The custom of the Aga has its roots in the Ottoman occupation period and remains to date a very funny and unique custom of the people of Mesta celebrated on Clean Monday every year. The Aga and his followers invade the village and move to the central square. There he gathers the people and puts everyone to trial for various misdeeds attributed to them and makes them pay the appropriate fine. The money collected from the fines goes to the fund of the cultural association of the village.