Apokries (Carnival) in Crete and Greece
At Great Carnival time
Even grannies go crazy
So do the old men too,
Remembering the days they
Were free as birds and flew.
So what if they’re old women?
So what if they’re old men?
Age never touches people’s hearts
For they are always young.
Poem by Kostas Frangoulis
Apokries, Carnival, the festival of fun and masquerade for young
and old. What else could you expect of a festival that comes down
to us from the ancient worship of Dionysus in Greece?
no coincidence that Dionysus is the god of wine. Wine loosens inhibitions
and brings a mellow, cheerful mood that reaches its peak in the Christian
world a few days before people begin the long fast of Lent.
During the 40-day Lenten fast in Greece, people eat no meat or animal products.
This is why the three weeks before Easter are called Apokries, i.e. “abstention
from meat”. The same applies to the word “carnival”,
from the Latin carne (flesh) and vale (farewell) [or otherwise carn-
(flesh) and levare (put away)].
Apokries - Carnival History
According to current thinking, carnival has its roots in ancient
ceremonies meant to help the earth put forth shoots. The magical
aid took the form of leaping dances and various kinds of folk mummery
and disguise, in order to propitiate harmful spirits. Down the centuries
some of the ancient ceremonies and traditions have been lost, but
most have been incorporated into the Christian religion and taken
on a different meaning.
In ancient Greece, the festival in honour
of Dionysus took place in early Spring, as Dionysus symbolised life’s
rebirth after Winter. Today, carnival is held in the same period
but not on a fixed date, as it depends on the moveable feast of Easter.
Apokries Celebrations in Greece
During carnival people dress up and enjoy the freedom of anonymity.
Carnival celebrations today are much more decorous than the ancient
Dionysiac revelry, when the followers of the god ran through the
streets brandishing giant phalluses and singing rude songs. However,
masks let their wearers lose their serious and respectable selves
and have fun, forgetting their worries and problems.
The mask is thought to be a descendant of the ancient identical
clay masks worn by actors in ancient Greek comedy and satyrical drama.
Then the Romans made many different masks representing the various
types of comedy. Many centuries later, in Northern Italy, the commedia
dell’arte was developed, introducing the characters of Harlequin
and Columbine with their respective masks and guises, and also golden
Carnival in Greece
The word “carnival” may bring to mind the Rio Carnival
of Brazil or the Carnival of Venice in Italy, but important carnivals
are also held in Greece. The best-known is the Patras Carnival in
the Peloponnese, while the Rethymnon Carnival is also becoming more
popular and better organised every year. Another well-known Cretan
carnival is the Malia one, which is also improving year by year.
The case of Heraklion may be unique in Greece; its carnival was famous
at the turn of the 20th century but gradually decayed.
Apokries - Carnival Traditions
- During the second week of Apokries, known as “Kreatini” (Meat
Week), meat may be eaten every day, even the traditional fast days
of Wednesday and Friday.
- The Thursday of the second week of carnival
is known as “Tsiknopempti” (Tsikna
Thursday). This is when the festivities begin. Traditionally, everyone
must cook meat so that the smoke or “tsikna” fills
the air and everybody knows it’s a feast-day. That’s
how Tsiknopempti got its name.
- On Tsiknopempti the first masqueraders
make their appearance and the first carnival parties are held.
The bars and clubs are packed, especially in the towns. There are
all kinds of costume and you can hire the one you prefer. Today
you will see incredibly ugly women on the streets. Have Greek women
suddenly become unsightly? No, it’s
just that lots of men dress up as women, with hilarious results.
third week is called “Tyrini” (Cheese Week) -
people can eat dairy products and fish but not meat.
ends on “Kathari Deftera” (Clean Monday), the
first day of Lent, the 40-day fast until Easter Sunday. On Clean
Monday, the “koulouma” are held. Everybody goes off
to the countryside, eats Lenten food and flies kites. People used
to make their own kites and it took a lot of skill to make your
kite fly higher than the rest.
Halvas, the Apokries sweet
For Greeks, halvas is a Lenten sweet, especially the type made with
tahini and sold in cylindrical or rectangular form. This type is
called Macedonian Halva. It is sold by weight and is also available
with chocolate or walnuts.