Apokries – The Greek Halloween
My most favorite time of the year is Apokries Greek Halloween, which is a time for fun and masquerade for both children and adults. The custom has its roots at the ancient worship of God Dionysus, the god of wine and fests, and has survived through ages, although it was later related to Easter, during Christian times.
This cultural mix created Apokries. The festive period starts 40 days before Easter and last for three whole weeks. It signifies the start of fasting until Easter, during which most traditional Greeks abstain from eating meat and animal products. This is also a time for a cheerful mood and parties.
40 days before Easter it’s the peak of the celebrations of Apokries. It’s the start of Apokries and when the carnivals are held. During that time various carnivals are organized around Greece and people celebrate by getting dressed, and going out. Carnival parades are very common in every city, but some are very large and well organized. My personal favorite is the Carnival of Patras. The carnival is held in the fourth largest city in Greece and is by far the oldest, the largest and most prestigious in the country.
Well, do not expect the glamour or the size of the Carnival of Rio in Brazil, but it’s a great event for local standards, one that people of Patras start to organize just a few days after the end of the previous carnival. A whole city lives and works for this carnival all year round for decades. Patras is considered the city of carnival in Greece just like Rio in Brazil.
Dancing around the gaitanaki
Another custom of Apokrie is “gaitanaki”. Gaitanaki is actually the Greek word for maypole, which is an old custom that still prevails to this day, not only in Greece but in many countries around the world. Gaitanaki is quite common in many places around the country and is combined with dress-ups and entertainment. Gatanaki is usually placed in public places like city squares and people of all ages may participate, but most let children have most of the fun. Adult only versions can still be seen quite often.
This is how it works: 12 colorful ribbons are necessary, which are all fixed on top of the pole. One person holds each ribbon and starts to dance around the pole, while another person holds the pole. Dancers holding the ribbons move in opposite directions and try not to fold themselves. This custom symbolizes the circle of life, the alternation between sadness and happiness, the circle of seasons and many similar situations and emotions.
To tell you the truth I’ve never tried it so far in my life, because it is more appropriate for kids, although it requires more skill than one would expect. I always envy all those taking part though, since it’s really such a fun activity.
Local variations and customs
Besides the two common customs of Apokries that I explained above and the fact that people dress-up, every place in Greece has its own variations and unique customs that are related to Apokries. Mostly their origin dates back in ancient Greece and God Dionysus fests. In some areas of Greece in the North only men are allowed to dress with traditional costumes and masks on their faces and go out and dance around villages and towns.
In other situations a large human replica is built and set on fire, in order to scare bad spirits and make them go away. In many cases people just start big fires and dance around them etc.
Clean Monday is a national holiday. It’s a special day, actually the start of the 40 days of fasting. Most people do not abstain from meat and animal products for 40 days as they used to in the past, but they certainly do during this special day. The main aspects of Clean Monday are kite flying and food. Kites can be seen all over the sky during this day only. They are rather uncommon nowadays, but not on this day. People go out in the country and have picnics or eat in restaurants.
The menu is a bit different though, as meat and olive oil are out of the question. Most eat pickles, olives and other vegetables, together with a special bread called ‘lagana’ that is baked by bakery shop only during Clean Monday. This thing is delicious, I really love it. Too bad you can eat it only once a year…