Every February, in places around the world, people celebrate Carnival. Internationally Venice and Rio are renowned for their festivities, but did you know that the Greek celebrations of Carnival are equivalently famous, lively, and entertaining?
The traditional story
The Greek Carnival is celebrated three weeks before Clean Monday, also known as Ash Monday, when the long fast of Lent begins. In Greek, the Carnival is called Apokries, meaning to abstain from meat.
While after the Carnival period, Christian believers do not eat meat, the celebrations of the Carnival include great amounts of grilled meat. Interestingly, most masquerade parties take place on Tsiknopempti, the last Thursday before Lent, which in the Greek language means the Thursday of “smoke and smell from roasting meat”!
Despite being linked to the religious holiday of Easter, the Apokries include several pagan customs. In fact, the Greek carnival traditions resemble the feasts thrown for Dionysus, the ancient Greek god of wine and theatre.
As in other cultures, in the Apokries, the most popular tradition is dressing up and going to parties and parades. The Carnival in Greece, in a nutshell, is masquerades, dancing, and satire. Certainly, there is a great geographical variation of customs, dresses, and special events across Greece and the Greek islands. In many areas, such as in Kastoria and Xanthi, festivities include fires which relate to the burning of evil.
In Naousa, the customary dress is the Genitsari, for unmarried young men, and the Boules, who represent female brides.
All in all, the Greek Carnival is and has always been a chance for everyone to have fun, drink wine and enjoy public gatherings.
One of the most well-known nationwide customs is the dance of the gaitanaki, which means donkey. As a tradition, the gaitanaki has been kept unchanged. Thirteen people gather around a tall central pole from the top which hangs 12 long colourful ribbons. The participants dance in circles, weaving the ribbons into beautiful colour combinations and coming steadily close to the pole. The dance is over when the decoration of the pole is completed, evoking the festive spirit.
Where to celebrate the Greek Carnival
Nowadays, there are certain cities in Greece whose celebrations attract both domestic and international tourism.
Carnival in Greece is most celebrated in Patras. The Patrino Carnival has a history of over 150 years, and its parades are truly astounding. The floats for the various parades are prepared publicly in workshops and events organized by the Municipality of Patra.
Explore the 2023 festivities of Patras here!
Carnival in Rethymno
The city of Rethymno in Crete is acclaimed for its treasure hunt. Past visitors have described the transformation of the Cretan city into a medieval fair. Another custom of the Cretan Carnival is the serenade: mandolin, lyre, and lute players spread around the streets of the centre and flood the city with traditional festive sounds.
If you wish to learn hands-on about Greek culture, the Carnival season in Greece is worth exploring! Make sure you pack some sunscreen and an extra pair of carnival sunglasses because you are in for a day and night-long outdoor celebration!
Interested in getting a second house close to Patra or Rethymno so that you can celebrate Carnival in Greece every year?