Holidays and festivals

Apokries

For those of you who are new to Greece, Apokries is the Carnival season leading up to Lent. It is thought to have its origins in the worship of Dionysus and pagan spring festivals concerning rebirth after winter. In the Orthodox Christian tradition it is the three week period before Lent, when we take our leave of meat. ‘Apo kreas’ literally means ‘from meat’ (the Western word ‘carnival’, – ‘carni vale’ – has the same etymology). Apokries, then, is the three-week blow-out before fasting begins in earnest.
On the Thursday in the second week of Apokries, the Greeks celebrate ‘Tsiknopempti’, a day when traditionally everybody grills meat and villages are full of smell of cooking, although today in Rhodes you are more likely to see people heading out to a taverna. One thing to watch out for around this time are egg or flour-throwing teenagers and students, a counterpart to British or American ‘trick or treaters’. Thankfully for the rest of us their targets are usually their own teachers…
In the third, ‘white’, week of Apokries, only cheese, eggs and dairy products should be eaten. On the final ‘Tyrofagis’ Sunday carnival parades take place throughout Greece. The most famous of these takes place in Patras but they also occur in Athens and elsewhere. Many villages on Rhodes will have parades – watch out for ‘blackening’, people coming up and smearing your face with charcoal or boot-polish. Rhodes Town itself does not have a formal parade, but there will be events taking place in the Old Town and the English-speaking theatre group are usually involved.
The following day, ‘Clean Monday’, or ‘Kathari Deftera’, marks the start of Lent and is a bank holiday in Greece. No meat, fish, eggs, dairy products or oil are eaten, although shellfish is allowed and often forms the basis for the day’s meal. It is traditionally a day for kite-flying (if you hear somebody up at the ancient stadium, muttering about ‘not being able to get it up’, it’s probably me!) and families will often drive out to the countryside with a picnic to enjoy the first flowers of spring.
Throughout Apokries, you will find adults, teenagers and children alike dressing up and ‘masquerading’, often accompanied with foam, streamers and confetti. There will be many fancy-dress balls and childrens’ parties. One of the most atmospheric places to spend the final Apokries weekend is in the myriad small bars of the Old Town, which are packed with masked revellers. And of course the wearing of masks, as any superhero will tell you, confers anonymity, lessens inhibitions and allows a release from everyday conventions… So dress up as your favourite fantasy figure, go out on the town and who knows what might happen…
Apokries in 2009 starts on 7th of February. Tsiknopempti is on the 19th. Tyrofagis Sunday is on the 1st of March and Clean Monday on the 2nd. Happy Carnival!

Easter

 Greek Easter is the most important date in the Orthodox Calendar. Greeks from around the world return ‘home’ to celebrate with family and friends. Traditionally no meat is eaten for the whole forty day period of Lent leading up to Easter.  Many tavernas also don’t offer any meat dishes at this time. Fish, dairy foods, sweet foods and alcohol may also be given up for Lent.

The week before Easter Sunday you wish people ‘Kalo Paska’ (‘Good Easter’).

On Holy Thursday ‘kokkina avga’ (‘red eggs’) are painted. The eggs are boiled with red dye and vinegar. Later they are polished with oil for the traditional Easter Sunday cracking, where people crack their eggs against those of friends and family. The Easter bread, ‘tsoureki’ (a sweet yeast bread twisted and baked round a red boiled egg) is made.

On Good Friday (‘Megali Paraskevi’) there will be church services during the day remembering Christ’s crucifixion. At dusk the ‘epitaphios’ procession takes place; a bier representing Christ’s funeral is solemnly paraded through the streets with streams of followers walking behind.

Late on Saturday evening is the ‘Anastasi’ (‘Resurrection’) mass, to celebrate the risen Christ. At the stroke of midnight the church lights go out and the congregation are plunged in to darkness – this represents Christ passing through the underworld. Then there is a flicker of light from the altar as the Priest appears carrying a flame.  He holds it aloft whilst chanting ‘Afto to fos…’ (‘This is the light of the world…’). He goes to the congregation and lights the nearest candle saying ‘thentie lenethe fos’ (‘come take the light’). The flame is then passed from one to another until the whole church is ablaze with light. The Priest goes outside the church and proclaims ‘Christos anesti’ (‘Christ is risen’).  Fireworks or firecrackers are then set off and the church bells ring out. The crowd greet each other repeating ‘Christos anesti’ and respond by saying ‘Alithos anesti’ (‘Truly he is risen’).  They may also wish each other ‘hronia polla’ (‘many years’) as they do for birthdays, name days and at new year.  The crowd carry the burning candles home with great care – it is thought to bring good luck if they make it home with the flame still alight. At the doorway they may make the sign of the cross with the flame (the black mark remains visible for the rest of the year).  After returning from the midnight service the Lent Fast is finished with ‘magiritsa’ (‘Faster’s soup’), made from lamb giblets, rice, vegetables, lemon and parsley. Now the first ‘kokkina avga’ (red eggs) are cracked and eaten.

Easter Sunday is very much a family day, with the Greek men outside their houses tending make-shift barbecues, roasting the lamb on a spit. It has to be turned slowly and continuously to ensure a well basted, tender result. Easter Sunday’s feast is the first day of ‘bright week’ and the return to normal eating.

This year Greek Easter falls on the third weekend of April; Good Friday is on the 17th and Easter Sunday on the 19th.

Why does Easter fall on a different date in Greece than in the West?

The calculation of the date of Easter is complex – it must fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, after the Jewish festival of Passover.  There are differences between the two churches on these issues, but the main reason for the discrepancy is that the Orthodox church bases its calculation on the old Julian calendar. In the West this was superseded by the Gregorian calendar which was introduced to realign the calendar with astronomical reality. The result is that although the two Easters may coincide, they may also differ by up to five weeks.

Easter on Rhodes

If you have never walked through the Old Town in Rhodes during the Easter period you should make a day to do so this year. Enter through the gate by San Francisco church. Follow the road round in through the gate and keep walking straight ahead. The cobble stones begin… the street narrows, but look up at the archways… in the days before Easter the archways are covered with palm leaves and paintings of Jesus with his disciples… keep walking as they lead you to the Greek Orthodox Church.