Spending the year as a fly on the wall in Athens, I conclude time and time again that the difference between American and Greek cultural behavior is vast. Americans love tailgating, amusement parks, parades, and cross-country road trips. We grow up writing letters to the tooth fairy and making cookies for Santa, while Greek kids are sipping wine at the dinner table with their parents. In college, we teach each other a broad spectrum of drinking games and plan elaborate theme parties, like 60’s nights, disco nights, and Latin dances. We look for any excuse to dress up in costume, whether that means painting our faces for football games or organizing a classy wine and cheese party. Walk into any bar or nightclub in Athens, and you can pick out the Americans instantly: they’re the group dancing the macarena to the Greek tsifteteli, or belly dancing beat. While the Greeks sit and casually bob their heads as they sip their drinks, the Americans will hoot and holler, trying to convince one another to get up and dance on the table top.
But this weekend, the Greeks proved all of my conclusions to be completely off the mark. Apokries, the three weeks of celebration in Greece prior to the onset of Great Lent (Sarakosti), a period similar to Mardis Gras, culminates in a weekend of drinking, carousing, and hilarious costumes. The Carnival in Patras is the focal point of the weekend, hosting the country’s largest festival, with hordes of people gathering from near and far to celebrate. Rethymnon in Crete and Xanthi in the north are also known for their elaborate Apokries festivals. In Athens, the weekend is much less organized. There is no city-wide fiesta and no parade, but a large portion of the city will still don their glad rags.
With children dressing up for school and refusing to take their costumes off afterward, you will find the city filled with miniature princesses and superheroes. Disparate night venues host their own Apokries events and find themselves teeming with Elvis and Marilyn Monroe look-a-likes. The celebration is similar to Halloween, but lacks the element of creepiness. No one will be wearing maggot-ridden fake teeth, nor axes protruding from their foreheads. There are no vampire fangs, gaping bloody wounds, or stitched-up gashes. Instead, you’ll find an overabundance of fairy wings, colorful wigs, and bushy pasted-on facial hair. As the young and the old dress up in costume, a fresh breath of humor and good cheer makes its way across the economically devastated city.
Athens needs this celebration more than ever before. Laughter and fun reign once again, albeit temporaraliy. The weekend is complete with silly string, crazy foam, confetti, and blow horns. The streets, restaurants, and town squares are decorated with lights, streamers, and large colorful displays of carnival figures. Although the festival has its roots in the ancient worship of Dionysus, the god of wine, this week technically ushers in the fasting period, marking the traditional end of meat and dairy consumption for the next 40 days, 47 with holy week. The final day of Apokries also marks the last day that church weddings may take place until after Easter; however, tradition has it that the final day is an unlucky day for a wedding.
In the villages and smaller cities, there are many Apokries traditions that are actually very similar to Halloween. For starters, it is the time of year for friendly pranks. In fact, there is a custom quite similar to trick-or-treating, in that cakes and traditional treats are offered to the masquerading children that ring your doorbells. The adults in costume accompanying the kids are presented with shots of local tsipouro or raki.
Tsiknopempti is the date that marks the beginning of the festivities. The second week of Apokries, Kreatini or “Meatfare Week,” is traditionally the last week during which the faithful can enjoy meat. While pempti means Thursday, the term tsikna refers to the smells of smoke and burning fat that fill the air, as the people cook their meat and indulge. In Athens, the fully inundated tavernas do their best business of the year. Decorated with colorful streamers, lanterns, and balloons, most eateries will feature live music performances. Tsiknopempti also marks the beginning of the costumes, with most customers transitioning into the festivities gingerly by donning bunny ears or feather boas.
The next notable dates within the three-week period are the Saturday of Souls, two of the several Soul Saturdays mapped out within the Eastern Orthodox liturgical calendar. Given that it was on a Saturday that Christ lay dead in the tomb, these Saturdays are traditionally set aside for honoring the dead. Scholars believe this observance (like Apokries as a whole) to have its roots in pagan ritual, as evidence shows that the ancient Greeks would celebrate their deceased loved ones’ ascension into the “upper world” around March 1st. These festivities connected the soul’s ascension with the arrival of springtime and the celebration of “new life,” as trees, vineyards, and flowers began to bud.
With parishioners giving their priests lists containing the names of their departed relatives to read during the church service, the two Soul Saturdays (the second and third Saturdays of Apokries to be exact) commemorate those who have passed away. Last Saturday, a friend’s aunt returned from church to report that the priest had read off names like “Tomatoes,” “Lettuce,” and “Milk,” as an older woman had accidentally slipped him her grocery list. People prepare koliva, boiled wheat with dried fruits, spices, and nuts, especially almonds, to bring to church and divide among the congregation afterward in memory of their loved ones. This dish is a tradition that scholars also believe can be traced back to ancient ritual.
The period’s last Saturday of Souls falls during Tyrini, or “Cheesefare Week,” also the final week of Apokries. According to Orthodox custom, the faithful begin abstaining from meat during Cheesefare Week, but are free to enjoy all the dairy products they’d like. This week is also referred to as “White Week,” as many dairy delicacies will make their brief appearances on the culinary scene. Probably because of this misleading term, village superstition maintains that women should avoid washing their hair during this week, so as to keep it from turning white.
Although the liturgical week begins on Sunday, the fast does not begin until Kathara Deftera or Clean Monday because Sunday is a feast day, given that it was the day that Christ rose from the dead, as well as the day on which you celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The last Sunday of Cheesefare week is called Tyrofagis and families gather to make merry and overindulge. This is the day that Patras, Rethymon, and Xanthi host their parades and the day that the festivals reach their pinnacles. This is the high-water mark of Apokries.
There are many folk songs containing the theme of bidding farewell to cheese and welcoming in the onion and leek, and a number of folk traditions to go with them. In the villages of the Peloponnese, the family sits down to enjoy the first course only after raising the table with their hands three times. The main course will consist simply of macaroni sprinkled with lots of cheese and, over the course of the evening, the young people who have yet to marry are supposed to “steal” a piece of macaroni and sleep with it under their pillows. In doing so, they will dream of the person they are to marry.
On the island of Karpathos, the entire town is traditionally invited to the home of the mayor, where guests will be offered an impressive buffet of local seafood and dairy specialties. Special sweets made with traditional mizithra cheese will also be served, as well as rice pudding and sitaka, a local alcohol spiced with butter and honey. The Vlach communities that reside in the mountains of central Greece make traditional galatopites, or milk pies, along with cheese pies, and pies filled with trahana, a homemade meal of wheat flour or cracked wheat wrapped in phyllo leaves.
In the region of Arcadia, in the mountain towns surrounding the city of Tripoli, villagers eat tyrozoumi, a stew of wild greens heavily garnished with chunks of mizithra cheese. On the islands of Kea and Milos, legend has it that the leftovers from Sunday’s feast must be left on the table until the following morning, just in case “the ghost of the house” gets hungry during the night.
In Athens, I attended a friend’s evening get-together at which most of the guests had roots near Agrinio, on the western coast of the country. After everyone had eaten, our hostess came out with a carton of hard boiled eggs and a roll of string. She tied the string around an egg and left enough extra string, so that the egg could dangle about two feet. Then, she proceeded to go around to each guest, swinging the egg into his face as he attempted to grab hold of it with his teeth. It is quite a difficult undertaking, involving coordination and timing that I lack. Once a guest manages to sink his teeth into the egg, you switch the string to a new egg and continue the endeavor. It is hilarious to watch. Often the egg will miss its mark, instead bouncing off the person’s forehead or hitting him in the chin. Everyone heckles both the thrower and the receiver, hoping for failure as they impatiently wait their turn. Like a pit bull, the receiver viciously snaps his chompers at the oncoming egg, as all the onlookers try and capture an action shot with their camera.
On Monday morning, Kathara Deftera, Apokries officially ends and the fasting begins. The day is a public holiday in Greece and almost everything stays closed. Families hold koulouma, making excursions to the countryside or the beach shores, or at least the closest park, to enjoy a Lenten picnic. While most of Athens will not abstain from meat and dairy over the course of Lent, the city does recognize the significance of this Monday. Though supermarkets do not open on Sundays and will stay closed for Clean Monday, most will offer drastic deals and discounts on Lenten products throughout the last week of Apokries. Shopping carts overflow with octopus, lobster, shrimp, squid, mussels, and clams.
The picnics across Greece will involve traditional staples like taramosalata, the thick paste made from salted fish roe, onion, and lemon juice, pureed with bread or potato, and halva, a sweet dish made from a combination of ground roasted sesame seeds and honey, which sometimes incorporates fruits or nuts as well. Many Clean Monday meals will also include the traditional flat bread known as lagana, salads, and different pickled vegetables, like artichokes, peppers, and tomatoes.
Perhaps the most striking Clean Monday custom is the fact that the city will be enveloped by colorful kites. While many traditions have been diluted with the onset of globalization and modernization, and in the midst of the current crisis, kite flying on Clean Monday is one that seems to have only intensified. The young and the old will go to the many parks across the city, launching their kites into the air and hoping for the best.
The kites playfully hovering above the city with their bells and streamers is perhaps the most cheerful scene I have yet to witness in this financially crippled city. Symbolizing the country’s ardent hope for a more promising future, these kites remind us that we must remain forever youthful, forever lighthearted, and forever optimistic. They remind us that we must be able to adapt and regain our flight, regardless of how the winds of fortune might choose to toss us about. But perhaps most importantly, they remind us that we must stay true to ourselves, to tradition, to our cultural heritage, and endure despite it all.