Saturday, February 22, 2014

It's Carnival Time in Greece.

I think it’s time to write about what I see as the essence of what it means to be a modern-day Greek living in Greece.  I’m talking about what makes the Greek soul tick. 

To me, whether you’re Greek or not, tiny momentary pleasures are what buoy up sagging spirits, bond us to our roots, remind us of our heritage, and reinforce our choice of worship.

Finding satisfaction in the simple acts of living is an essential ingredient of the Greek way of life.  Perhaps that’s what draws me to them so strongly. Even in winter there is joy to be found in everyday Greek life: coffee with friends in a cafenion, a stroll by the sea, a gaze up toward the mountains.  And every so often the entire country joins together in celebration of the glory of life that is Greek. Today’s blog falls in the middle of just such a time.

Burnt Thursday on Mykonos Streets

This past Thursday was Tsiknopempti, eleven days before the beginning of Greek Orthodox Lent. “Pempti” means Thursday, and though tsikno is somewhat hard to translate, most settle on “burnt” and translate Tskinopempti as “Burnt Thursday.”  It signals the beginning of a carnival atmosphere in many parts of Greece.

Actually, carnival season in Greece commences weeks before the start of Lent with the opening of a sacred text (Triodion), but that occurs in a sedate church service.  True Greek-style partying doesn’t actually kickoff in most places until Burnt Thursday, a day of engulfing smoke and scents from endless grills sizzling with meats, for it kicks off the last “legal” weekend for red meat eaters to indulge in their carnivore passions.

Which brings to mind something many of you may not know.  Carnival comes from the Latin carne (meat) and vale (goodbye), and the name for carnival time in Greece is Apokreas, derived from how an ancient (partying?) Greek would literally say goodbye to meat (kreas). And let’s not forget that those ancient Greeks knew how to party. The dancing, drinking, and feasting associated with Greece’s carnival today—not to mention all that masquerade dress-up—is a direct descendant of those reveling worshipers of Dionysis, the Greek God of Wine and Feast. 

Bet you never thought to add Greece’s Patras to the list of Mardi Gras hotspot cities like Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans?  Unless, of course, you’re Greek and know the partying runs right up until Lent. 

Back to Tsiknopempti.  Though it may be the time for saying goodbye to meat, dairy lovers get a break for another week—called white or cheese week.  But come that second Monday after Tsiknopempti (called Clean Monday (aka Kathara Deftera)), the consumption of all red-blooded animals and of anything derived from those critters is forbidden.  No meat, fish, milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, etcetera.  

Contrary to what you might think, Greeks see Clean Monday as a day for rejoicing—and I’m not talking about just the vegetarians among them. It’s a national holiday widely held to signal the start of Spring, a day for kite flying, trips to the seaside or mountains, and a picnic feast on foods still allowed.

And there are many: Lagana, an unleavened flat bread traditionally served and eaten only on Clean Monday; taramosalata, a tasty dip made of cod or carp roe; fava (split pea) puree; yigandes, giant kastoria beans in a casserole with tomatoes, onions, herbs, and spices; salads of marouli (romaine lettuce), three beans (fassolia), and perhaps revitho (chickpea) salad with artichokes and sun-dried tomato; dolmades, the traditional grape leaves stuffed with rice and fresh herbs; peppers stuffed with bulgar and herbs; calamari—no, not the award Cara, Lisa, and I are nominated for at Left Coast Crime—squid prepared fried or in any number of other ways; octopus grilled as is, or dressed up with tomatoes, capers, and other special touches; cuttlefish in wine sauce with pearl onions; garides, giant shrimp grilled with lemon; stews of wild mushrooms, onions, and herbs; halvas (semolina pudding); loukoumathes (puffs of fried dough in sweet syrup sprinkled with cinnamon and walnuts); pasteli (sesame-honey candies) … and on and on.

And let’s not forget the ouzo, tsipouro, wine, and beer.

I hope I’ve given you a glimpse into the Greek soul, but if not, perhaps at least some sense of where all those endless Greek diner menus come from.



  1. I'm salivating, Jeff (no, not slobbering). I find it somewhat humorous, though, the difference made between "meat" and "seafood," as if animals from the sea are somehow "less" than animals from the land.

  2. Good point, Everett, but the distinction is based on abstaining from "land" animals with red blood and "seafood" with backbones.

    1. Is that because Christ had red blood and a backbone? Or does it go further back into the earlier roots of Judaism? I'm frequently confused by religions... Not trying to start a religious war here (we have enough of those already), so no need to reply. Just wondering out-fingertips.

    2. Thanks, Everett, and all good questions. I've looked into them somewhat, but not deeply enough to offer a definitive opinion, though clearly the concept of "fasting" predated Christianity.

    3. Yes, fasting is part of many religions, of course. "Show strength of character and belief by punishing yourself..." But that begs the question: why is it just FOOD? Why don't religions require 'fasting' from sex, too. I mean, if you REALLY want to show your devotion... no, I suppose that would be going too far? :-)

  3. Well, we may have missed "Burnt Thursday" but we have every intention of being in Greece to celebrate Easter! Great post, Jeff!

  4. Terrific! I'll be there with blood red eggs and all!