The Carnival season, or “Apokries” in Greek, is slowly coming to an end this weekend, but not without a bang. Greeks across the country are going to celebrate the last days of freedom before the 40-day Greek Orthodox Lenten season which leads into Easter.
The Apokriés celebrations last for three weeks and commence sixty days before Easter, as the faithful bid a fond farewell to rich foods and prepare for the long meatless fast of Lent.
However, tracing the history of the Greek carnival, and its cultural connection to the ancient cult of Dionysus, the god of wine, celebration and ecstasy according to Greek mythology, is not difficult.
The pagan rituals celebrating nature’s rebirth during the famed ancient festival of Dionysia taking place in Athens were passed on to the Romans, who honored Dionysus’ transformation into Bacchus with the Bacchanalia. The latter was an equally important event as the Saturnalia, held around the end of the calendar year.
Especially during the Lanaea, one of the parts of the Dionysian festival, followers of Dionysus would dress up as satyrs, the goat-like companions of Dionysus, or hide their faces behind masks. The masked revelers would then run wildly through the streets of the city acting obscene or silly. Theatrical performances were also held at this festive time.
The Dionysia was meant as a celebration of spring’s return and the earth’s regeneration. As such, the festival included rituals dedicated to the souls of the dead, who the ancient Greeks believed rejoined the living world again around March 1st.
As Christianity spread, and its belief system began to dominate over pagan cults, the Orthodox Church tried to subdue the importance of pagan rituals and substitute them with the new Christian practices and ways.
However, it still incorporated many ancient pagan ceremonies which it deemed harmless, and which are still performed to this day.
Customs and Traditions
Different customs and traditions will come to life in every Greek city this weekend, with the most spectacular feast taking place in Patras. Carnival season is an especially grand celebration in the Peloponnesian city.
Thousands of locals and visitors gather each year for the spectacular chariot parade that takes place on Sunday morning and the burning of the Carnival King in the evening.
The Carnival in Xanthi, in northern Greece, is also a huge event which offers an unforgettable experience for any lucky visitor. The event focuses on local traditions and folklore with just a touch of modern influence.
People roam the city streets disguised, playing pranks on each other and having a good time. Over forty cultural associations participate in the Carnival program, offering wine and local delicacies to guests.
In Galaxidi, central Greece, people gather for the Flour-Throwing Festival. Every year, the small harbor town organizes the traditional flour battle, where more than 1.5 tons of colored flour is used as a “friendly” weapon against locals and tourists who attend the insane event.
What starts out as a “war” ends up being a fun party, with people running and dancing in the streets, throwing flour in the air and literally creating a colorful atmosphere over the entire town.
These celebrations lead up to “Clean Monday” or “Kathara Deftera,” the first day of Greek Orthodox Lent. Clean Monday refers to the leaving behind of sinful attitudes and non-fasting foods.
This first day of Great Lent, also known as Koulouma, is a public holiday in Greece and Cyprus, and is celebrated with outdoor excursions, and the widespread custom of flying kites.
The consumption of shellfish and other fasting foods is another very important aspect of the festive day. Greeks also eat a special kind of azyme, or unleavened, bread, baked only on that day, named “lagana.”