Carnival time!
West Crete Journal, February 2006

Before we undergo the austerities of Lent, here in Crete we are celebrating an ancient tradition believed to have started as a tribute to Dionysos (Greek) or Bacchus (Roman), the god renowned for his love of wine and great parties.

The tradition, known as Apokries from the Greek “apochi apo kreas = goodbye to meat” or Karnavali from the Latin “carne vale = flesh farewell”, runs for the three weeks before Lent and this year is from 12 February until 5 March.

In the first week of Apokries, readings from the Triodeon = “book of the Three Holy Sacraments” are made daily in the churches, and the feast on the first Sunday is called Protofoni = “First Voice”.

The second week of Apokries is known as Kreatini = “Meat Filled” and contains TsiknoPempti = “Burnt Thursday”, which the locals usually celebrate with huge feasts in the tavernas. This tradition is supposed to have started when, during the first sunny days of the year after the winter gloom, village women would leave their meat cooking while going out to enjoy the sun and local gossip. Of course, on their return the meat was burnt, hence the name!

The third week of Apokries is Tirini = “Cheese Filled”, because meat used to be forbidden by the church from the Monday before Lent, and the locals resorted to cheese, eggs and dairy food instead. Nowadays, meat is allowed until two days before Lent starts.

Bizarre costumes for ApokriesCarnival!While these three weeks of Apokries are a good excuse to enjoy parties and pranks at all times and for all ages, it is normal during each weekend for children to have parties, with the girls dressed as princesses and the boys dressed as their own heroes, which nowadays usually means Zorro or Batman!  The teenagers and young adults try to out-do each other by wearing outrageous and sometimes bizarre costumes on each of the three weekends of Apokries, by parading in the streets and visiting bars wearing costumes of all sorts, from ghouls to angels, priests to transvestites, clowns to policemen. Sometimes this can be a good excuse to play pranks on someone you don’t like … if they can’t recognise you!

The third Sunday is usually reserved for the best costumes and parties, and in many of the larger towns there are organised carnival parades (the Rethimno carnival is the largest in Crete), with prizes for the best costumes. On the last night of Apokries, bonfires are lit in the streets, and costumed revellers sing and dance around them. When the flames die down, some of the braver people will jump over the fire to “burn off the fleas”.

Lagana breadImmediately after Apokries, Lent starts with Kathara Devtera = “Clean Monday”, which this year is 6 March and is a national holiday. From this date until Easter Sunday (this year 23 April), people are not supposed to eat any meat containing blood (e.g. beef, pork, fish), dairy foods or oil, and instead must sustain themselves with pulses, bread, seafood and vegetables.

Flying kites on Clean MondayOn Clean Monday, local families usually take to the countryside or beaches with picnics of Lenten food, together with unleavened bread called lagana. Recently, it has also become a tradition to fly kites as high as possible on Clean Monday, but asking our Cretan friends about the origin of this custom brings only a shrug!

In many Catholic Latino countries, the festival Mardi Gras = French “Fat Tuesday” is celebrated the day after Orthodox “Clean Monday”. This is a huge carnival along the lines of the final day of Apokries and also signifies the start of Lent, which strangely enough has identical rules about the food that can be eaten, despite the rivalries between the different branches of Christianity.

Kera-SarakostiLent is short for Lenten = Old English “spring”, and in Greek is Sarakosti = “fasting”.  It lasts for seven weeks, but for those people fasting it seems a lot longer, especially during the final days. In olden times before people possessed calendars, they would count the fasting days with Kera-Sarakosti. They would draw Kera-Sarakosti = “Lady Lent” as a woman without a mouth because of her fasting, and with her hands crossed in prayer. She had seven legs, one for each week of Lent. They would then hang Kera-Sarakosti on a wall, and every Saturday cut off a leg. The last leg was removed on Holy Saturday (Resurrection of Christ) and put inside a dried fig. This fig was mixed with others, and handed out to the family. The person who chose the special fig would receive good luck.