Carnivals are held all over the world, as a child I have very happy memories of village carnivals in Devon. The tradition in Greece dates back to the ancient Greek gods and Dionysus. In spring there would be parades in the name of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of ritual madness and fertility. Some say that the Greeks invented carnival. Today the tradition continues but is now closely linked to the Orthodox Calendar and Lent.
Known in Greece as apokries (απόκριες) the tradition of carnival takes place over 3 weeks before Lent. Depending on where you are you will sometimes see posters calling it καρναβάλι, karnaváli or karnivale. It’s a preparation for Lent and originally would have been the final feast of winter. A time to eat up all the meat and dairy food that otherwise wouldn’t keep and a time to wait for the new harvest in spring.
Officially carnival starts 40 days before Lent with the opening of the Triodion a sacred book. This isn’t generally celebrated outside the church, the first week of the carnival is a religious week and if you are in Greece during the first week of apokries you won’t see any signs of carnival parades.
Burnt Thursday – Tsiknopempti – February 8th 2018
Today the first open signs of partying start on “Burnt Thursday” or “Tsiknopempti” when you’ll find lots of BBQ’s being lit up and cooking lots and lots of meat. 11 days before the start of Lent it’s all about grilling up and eating meat. Tavernas will be busy and village streets smoky as every home lights a BBQ. The whole week is called ‘Kreatini’ or “Κρεοφάγου” meaning meat week. The weekend after Tsiknopempti will also see the start of carnival events and parades with more parties. Traditionally the Sunday of Tsiknopempti weekend is the last day you’re allowed to eat meat and is known as meat-eating Sunday.
Main Carnival Weekend – February 16th-18th 2018
Carnival is a day when little girls get to be princesses, boys become superheroes and adults get to behave like children. All over Greece, there will be carnivals during the weekend with the big main carnival being the Sunday. The biggest of the Greek carnivals are held in Patras on the mainland closely followed by Rethymnon on Crete. The numbers are such that they have separate days for the children’s carnival with the main event always taking place on the last Sunday of the carnival season.
The last week of Carnival is also known as “cheese week”, “white week” or “Tyrini” it’s the week to consume and use up all the cheese, eggs and milk. Back home it’s traditionally the week when we have “pancake day” or “Shrove Tuesday” for the same reason to use up everything in preparation for Lent.
Clean Monday – Kathari Deftera – Monday 19th February 2018
Although it’s officially the first day of Lent ‘clean Monday’ still has a sense of carnival and partying about it. Throughout Greece it’s traditional to fly kites on ‘clean Monday’, it’s also a day of eating nothing that has a backbone so the smell of grilling octopus fills the air. Menus in tavernas will offer squid and the Greek fish roe dip taramasalata.
There is also a bread that’s unique to clean Monday, made without yeast or olive oil, here on the island it’s flavoured with aniseed. Lagana bread is a flat bread, it’s just a shame it’s only available on one day of the year.
In Rhodes, there’s also another carnival that takes place on ‘clean Monday’ in Archangelos, a street party where everyone blacks up, there will be costumes, lots of loud music and you’ll either get blacked or have flour thrown at you. Barrels are lit in the street, old vehicles drive up and down with more music blaring and it’s a great party atmosphere. You can find out a little more about the unique way clean Monday is celebrated here.
Tsiknopempti in the hills
We celebrated Tsiknopempti with friends, we had a long walk in the woods above Laerma. We started at Thari Monastery with lots of dogs and people and walked along the hills to Elpida’s Ranch for a BBQ. Everyone brought along something for the feast and the weather was warm enough to sit and eat outside. It really felt like spring is in the air.
Elpida’s Ranch is a great place to visit if you’re on the island, find out more about the ranch here. We took so many pictures of the dogs I’ll be posting them on a separate post soon.
Carnival in Pylona Village
Sunday 11th we celebrated with a carnival in the village. They decided to hold it a week earlier than the main carnival in Greece this year so that all the surrounding villages could join in. A really fun day for all the family with lots of costumes, souvlaki, loud music, dancing and plenty of drinking. The village provides free beer and the whole place has a wonderful party atmosphere.
In the week leading up to the carnival, everyone was busy preparing their floats and costumes. The village hall became the centre of activity. A selection of very old vehicles, trucks and trailers were all put to use. The village mechanic came out in the evenings to weld cages and make sure everything can move. They’re not exactly roadworthy or legal, but will make it down the hill and along the village road.
There were of course last minute panics. The wind the night before threatened to destroy floats but it all came together in the end, even if it did mean transporting a table and ladder on a moped whilst dressed as a flamingo!
Most of what is needed to decorate the carnival floats were provided by the village including the paint with money raised by a raffle and the sale of food on the day. Painting goes on daily and into the night, only stopping for the village Tsiknopempti BBQ on Thursday. BBQ’s feature heavily on the floats too, it’s another excuse to eat more meat. I’ve not seen BBQ’s on the back of a truck anywhere else in the world yet.
Early Sunday morning a group of us were out putting up the carnival decorations on the main road, hanging balloons, setting out the tables and chairs and pinning tablecloths. The food and beer arrived, everything was set and everyone just had enough time to change into their costumes.
The parade began with the carnival king and queen pulled by a donkey of sorts. The children of the village come along first with parents, teachers and lots of smiles. It’s a real family day with a real sense of community. By holding the event a week earlier there were more people than I’ve ever seen at the carnival in Pylona before. Floats came from Lindos and Lardos, the compere was a local celebrity from Rhodes (though I’ve not found out who she was yet). The local press were there and it seemed extra special this year.
Slightly different to carnivals I knew of in the UK, here in the village each entry in the parade stopped and performed for about 5 minutes each at the end by the music stand. There was a variety of dancing, mini plays, sword fights and even a tug of war.
Confetti, streamers, glitter and spray foam all mixed with ballons, costumes, hats and facepaiint. Most of the spectators made as much effort as the those in the parade.
Have you spent carnival season in Greece? Now I just need to decide where to go and watch carnival next Sunday? This year I’m going to try and stick to no meat throughout Lent. I’ll be experimenting with lots of vegetarian and vegan recipes and will share some with you. What are you favourite Lenten dishes? If you found this article interesting and useful please comment and share. Thank you