Carnival season is all about revelry and release: freedom to be whoever you wish to be, the way you wish to be, doing the things you want to do without judgement or constraints. Greek carnival season couldn’t be any different particularly in a country where both qualities of the human soul are embodied by gods: Apollo and Dionysus.
Visiting Greece during the carnival season is perhaps the most immersive travel experience one can get as it combines song, dance, religion, and revelry with food, drink, and human interaction.
Carnival customs have played central role in the life of the Greeks for hundreds of years, with many of the rituals practiced today dating back to ancient times.
The Greek carnival festivities are highly symbolic representing the transition from winter to spring, rebirth of Mother Nature and the death of evil, which is the central theme throughout all traditional masquerade festivities countrywide.
That said, that is why the Greeks take their carnival seriously. In the past it was believed that the more successful the carnival celebrations, the more fruitful the harvest.
Carnival: The Meaning
The word carnival comes from the Latin carn – which means “meat” or “flesh” and the word –levare which means to “put away”.
The two create the word “carne-vale” which literally means “removing meat” and is now used to for the period ahead of Lent in the run-up to Easter.
When is Greek Carnival Celebrated
As in Christian tradition, Greek carnival season begins near the end of winter before the 40-day Lenten period on Tsiknopempti (Smoky Thursday) when meat eating takes center stage and culminates on Kathara Deftera (Clean Monday) – the first day of Lent.
The three-week carnival season is known as the “Triodio” – which is the three-week pre-Lenten period in preparation for Easter.
The Triodion basically begins with a no-fasting week, followed by the “Apokries” week when meat is no longer eaten, and then by the Tyrine week when dairy products are allowed before Clean Monday when the 40-day Lent and fasting officially begin until Easter. For many and according to Greek dietary tradition and the Mediterranean Diet, Greeks would actually follow a vegan diet at least three times a year during the fasts for Easter, Christmas and the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary (August 15).
Greek Carnival or Apokries: The Symbolism
The Greek carnival festivities known as “Apokries” or “Apokria” date back to ancient times and to the worship of Kronos (known as Saturn in Roman mythology), who was a Titan and the divine descendant of Uranos (the sky) and Gaia (the earth).
Every year the Athenians would honor Kronos with celebrations for a good harvest. It is not by chance that the Greek carnival celebrations take place before spring as they are held as an appeal for fertility, a bountiful harvest, and well-being.
Similar festivals took place in honor of the god Dionysus (or Bacchus in Roman), who besides watching over wine, vegetation, and grape cultivation, was also the god of fertility, pleasure, and religious ecstasy.
Apokries: A Time of Revelry & Release
This said, Greece’s Apokries or carnival rituals managed not only to withstand the test of time but the condemnation of the Orthodox Church as well which wanted to do away with what it considered to be pagan practices.
Thus the Apokria was born remaining the only time of the year when there are no restrictions or inhibitions, when everyone – men, women, young, and old – are free to indulge, to shake off social constraints, to be liberated, to go wild, to be ecstatic, to rejoice and release.
This is an initiation of sorts ahead of the Lenten period which requires restraint. At the same time, it is a celebration of what is to come with spring: life, fertility, rebirth, and regeneration.
To ‘facilitate’ this transformation, masks, feasting, promiscuity, profanity, and satire are all used and allowed giving even the most prudish the chance to get in touch with their inner madness and release it in revelry.
In the days of old, and particularly among the farmers, the Apokria period was a welcome occasion to leave the monotony of the barren winter behind and prepare for the upcoming spring.
Three Places to Get a Genuine Greek Carnival Experience
In today’s post I will focus on three destinations that I believe will offer travelers a genuine Greek carnival experience. There are of course festivities taking place across the country and all have something unique to offer the visitor.
The island and Greek destination that comes to mind when talking about Apokries is Skyros. Located in the Sporades island complex with access by road to Evia and from there by ferry (1 hr40 minutes), Skyros has for decades been linked to traditional Apokries traditions which not only date back to antiquity, to the feasts in honor of the god Dionysus, but continue to this day to be preserved by the younger generations with love and dedication.
The Skyros Apokries experience is as immersive as it gets. A visitor to the island cannot “avoid” hearing or bumping into one of the carnival’s main types: the Geros (the old man/farmer), the Korela (his wife), or the Frangos (the European) – all males, which move around in groups of three-five known as “bouloukia”
These three carnival characters can be seen and heard running around the town (Hora), picking on passersby and dropping in on local households to be treated to some goodies or“kerasmata”.
The daunting Geros in particular dons an animal-skin mask and is flanked with very heavy bells – those worn on the herds – which he shakes and rattles as if to wake you out of your stupor, to touch that chord inside that will compel you to let down your guard and be free.
Tradition has it that the bells are worn and rung loudly to wake up the sleeping earth for spring and at the same time to ward off all evil.
Besides the mayhem created by the Gerous, Koreles and Frangous, other carnival activities on Skyros include satirical narrations and theater performances leading up to Clean Monday, when all the merriment stops and spring preparations begin.
Another immersive carnival experience takes place in the Macedonian town of Kozani (5-hour bus ride from Athens) in northern Greece, where each neighborhood lights its own “fanos” or fire.
As in many other parts of Greece, Kozani too hosts carnivals, concerts, street performances, masquerade processions, and much more throughout the 12-day carnival season but the Apokria festivities culminate with the town’s famous “fani” tradition.
Think of the “fani” as neighborhood heart(h)s where locals gather in a circle, meet, drink, share homemade foods and sing the “Apokriatika” or “Xinentropa” songs. As the fires get stronger so does the “kefi” and the dances begin to pick up pace as more and more revelers join in.
An important part of the celebration focuses on the songs, which are performed by one singer and accompanied by the crowd as traditional percussion and brass instrumentalists accompany.
The idea here too – as in all carnival celebrations across Greece – is to appeal to Mother Nature to come back to life, to bring spring into the lives of the villagers and to offer fertile space for growth. At the same time the fires symbolize the purification of the soul and rebirth – inner and outer.
The “fani” are lit in several Kozani quarters at around 8 in the evening on Apokria Sunday with the central square featuring the largest.
Be prepared to be “inundated” by all sorts of phalluses – large or small, minimal or ornate, proud or modest, made of wood or clay. Welcome to Tyrnavos’ “Bourani”. The Apokria festivities in Tyrnavos, which is near Larissa (some four hours from Athens) in Central Greece, also date back to antiquity to Dionysian rituals and bring to the fore the erect phallus – not as a sign of sexuality as we might think but as a symbol of fertility, reproduction and prosperity.
It’s not by chance that the Greek god Priapus with his oversized and constantly erect phallus – likely the son of Aphrodite and Dionysus – is protector of livestock, fruit trees, plants and gardens.
So your visit to Tyrnavos – which by the way produces some of the country’s finest “tsipouro” (a potent distilled spirit) – is bound to bring you closer to your wilder side inspiring you perhaps to reach out to your “basic instincts”.
I should note that during the military dictatorship in Greece in the 1967-1974 period and on several occassions, the Bourani festivities, firstly recorded in 1898, were banned as being corruptive and immoral. They were however held secretly managing to be “tolerated” by the church to this day.
Bourani is actually a spinach-based stew. In the past, every district would light its own fire to prepare the food. While the bourani was being prepared, everyone (in the past only males) would stir and taste the bourani, drink a shot of tsipouro and sing the “Skoptika” – songs with obscene lyrics – as they teased each other with lewd or profane remarks.
Before the phallic procession, which starts early on Kathara Deftera morning at the church, concerts, theater happenings, and of course the customary parade complete with carnival king are held from Tsiknopempti to Apokria Sunday.
Additional Greek Carnival Destinations
These five Greek cities (to be covered in future posts) also offer a unique carnival experience and are very popular destinations during this time of year:
In five words or less:
- Patra – for the party lover
- Xanthi – traditional meets modern
- Corfu or Kerkyra – Venice ball in Greece
- Galaxidi – crazy flour fights for fun
- Naoussa – authentic history-inspired carnival spectacle.
Tips for Your Greek ‘Apokria’ Adventure
✓ Expect it to be crowded. Literally everyone is outdoors having fun.
✓ Select one destination and stay there. There is plenty to do, see and experience in and around town/island.
✓ Make sure to go to the parade on Sunday (Kyriaki Apokrias – the last Sunday before fasting begins) – every city has its own carnival king… in port cities like Patra the Carnival King is burned by the seaside.
✓ Join the dancing. Greek traditional dances – as elsewhere in the world – are in circles to get the energy flowing. You’ll be a new person after.
✓ Ask around and learn about times and locations. The locals – usually café, supermarket or taverna owners – know the exact times of all the happenings.
✓ Don’t forget to taste all the traditional Clean Monday (sea)foods – which are meat-free as it is officially the first day of Lent – and of course, the customary lagana flatbread.
✓ It is a tradition in Greece to fly a kite on Kathara Deftera – the tradition marks the reawakening of nature and the cleansing of the soul after all the carnival merriment and according to the Orthodox church symbolizes the human spirit in its endevour to reach it divine nature.
♫ I close today’s post with a “dirty” traditional demotiko song from Thessaly, central Greece performed by Donna Samiou. I will refrain from translating the lyrics but suffice to say that it refers blatantly to the male and female reproductive organs… These playful and indecent songs can be heard only during the Apokria season and are thus named “Apokriatika” or “Skoptika”.
Enjoy and be merry! Kali Apokria – Happy Carnival to all!