The Greek Carnival begins today; it is a festive period of three weeks, celebrated on the cusp of winter, usually in late February or March. It is a period of fancy costumes, parties and country-wide celebrations, culminating on Clean Monday.
Although celebrated according to the religious calendar and corresponding to religious holidays, the Carnival has roots whose traces are lost in the past, perhaps as far back as prehistoric times.
The carnival traces its history to age-old peasant (perhaps even tribal) festivals meant to drive away winter and ensure fertility of crops, animals, and people in the coming spring. In ancient Greece there were festivals which bear several similarities to modern carnival customs.
Christianity vs. Carnival
The coming of Christianity marked a profound change: whereas before these practices were sanctioned by religion, now they were seen as pagan and sinful. Yet the magical component of the rites was so strong that people were loath to give them up, fearing that their omission would impact badly on their crops and threaten their survival. Besides, it is hard to abandon a custom that is such great fun that people look forward to it all year long. So, although the Church tried to eradicate the Carnival in the end it had to compromise, resorting to shrouding the whole affair with a Christian mantle and trying to curb excesses. In turn, the rites themselves were gradually “tamed,” shedding most of their pagan and magical features.
The Carnival today
Modern Carnival celebrations contain both a Christian and a pagan element, but the two are kept separate. As an echo of the old fertility rites, the Carnival retains strong sexual overtones and a general air of shocking impropriety. It is a period when the “inappropriate” is celebrated: social rules are put aside for a while and people can have fun, let steam off and express themselves in ways that wouldn’t be “appropriate” the rest of the year.
With the exception of teenagers, who like dressing as zombies or skeletons, the scary element is not normally part of the carnival – the Carnival is a celebration of life and sexuality, and has little in common with Halloween, except for the fancy costumes.
The religious aspect
The Church dictates when the Carnival begins and when it ends, marking each of its three weeks with special rituals and proscriptions. As a pre-cursor to Lent (also known as Shrovetide or Pre-Lent) it marks the gradual passage from an all-inclusive diet to the strict fasting of Lent which will last until Easter.
Name and etymology
The name Carnival is probably derived from the Italian “carne levare” meaning to abandon meat. In Greek it is Apokreo, and has the same meaning (apo-kreas = abstain from meat).
In the first week of the Carnival all foods are permitted; the second one marks the end of meat consumption and is marked by excessive feasting, as if people are trying to store up for the weeks of fasting that will follow. Meat-eating culminates on Tsiknopempti (which could be freely translated as Roast Thursday, when the smell of roast meat (tsikna) should come from every home). Then follows the last week of dairy consumption, marked by the preparation of special puddings or pies made with milk or cheese. The last feast is that of Clean Monday, which marks the end of the Carnival and the beginning of Lent.
Dressing up in costumes is an essential part of the Carnival and the one all children (and many adults) look forward to.
The custom probably has its roots in rituals where people impersonated forces of nature. In the not-so-distant past, costumes were improvised and had the purpose of granting the person behind the mask (or charcoal-blackened face) freedom to tease or indulge in “improper” behavior with impunity.
Such behavior almost always meant lewd jokes and sexual innuendos addressed towards any passer-by. Remember that the Carnival began as a fertility ritual; it makes sense that the sexual aspect was overtly stressed. In the past, people would cross-dress or adorn themselves with phallic symbols; in several cases they would form groups and exchange jokes with other groups. Singing involved hilariously improper songs in language no sane person would dare use the rest of the year, while dancing involved gestures that are best left undescribed. The traditional rituals survive in provincial towns and the islands; in the cities, the only traces left are a proclivity for cross-dressing and sexually exaggerated costumes.
People soon discovered that hiding behind a mask one could do so much more than just tease the maidens on their way to the village well; they could also air their grievances in the form of jokes or satirical verses. Soon social and political satire became an integral part of many Carnival celebrations and remains so to this day.
By the late 1800s, western influences were beginning to affect the way the carnival was celebrated in Greece. Improvised costumes of old rags and sheepskins were out, while carefully tailored expensive costumes were in; the grotesque figures of the old man or old hag were deemed provincial and passé, whereas modern outfits of countesses, pirates, and the like became all the rage.
Soon after Greece gained its independence, the city of Patras produced the first carnival parade with floats, heavily influenced by nearby Italy. Soon the Patras carnival mutated, incorporating folk Greek elements as well as modern ones, borrowed from the media. Today it is the largest such event in Greece, with the Cretan Carnival, in the city of Rethymnon, a close second. Several other cities have produced parades of their own, although in most the custom is in decline, due to the “Crisis.”
Visiting Greece during the carnival
The three weeks of the Carnival is a great time to visit Greece and observe many colorful and sometimes arcane customs, which differ from place to place. Cities usually host float parades, while the provinces have their own traditional events, which may range from the colorful to the hilariously obscene.
The Carnival is a time of partying and celebrating – in bars and taverns, schools and homes, in the streets, everywhere. Venues are decorated and usually hire the best talent for the season, whether live music or DJs. The Greeks are also more likely to be out in droves, partying and celebrating until quite late, especially during weekends. The general air is one of a great party where everyone’s invited. Groups of dressed-up party-goers may go down the streets at the early hours of the morning singing at the top of their voice; no one will bat an eye or call the police. Teasing, dirty jokes and political incorrectness are the norm.
Carnival parades and performances take place out in the open and can be watched freely by all. Taking part in a float or parade is trickier: usually it is restricted to members only, although in some cases last-minute participants may fill in for absentees by buying (and parading in) the unused costume.
Although watching carnival events requires no tickets, parties in taverns, dance halls and other venues will require paying for your meal or drinks. Also bear in mind that the most popular Carnival events tend to get overcrowded; if you plan to attend one it is wise to book seats (or rooms) well in advance. And don’t forget to dress up for the occasion!
 The Carnival is synchronized with Easter, making it a moveable feast that falls on a different date each year. For how these dates are calculated and why the Orthodox Easter falls on a different date than the Catholic and Protestant one, see an older post of mine.
It is important to note that in traditional societies the various groups of revelers were not of mixed gender – joking and gesturing was one thing, but the proprieties of society and the chastity of women had to be maintained. In some parts of Greece only men were permitted to participate, until quite recently. Today both sexes participate, although some roles are still reserved for men only.
Image sources (all rights belong to their authors):
Festival of Dionysus: https://antonispetrides.wordpress.com/2015/09/21/tragedy_intro_4/
Parties: http://www.tinosvoice.gr/2014/03/blog-post_3744.html, http://www.ageorgatos.gr/dt_gallery/carnival-2015/, http://www.videotex.gr/%CE%B5%CF%80%CE%B9%CF%84%CF%85%CF%87%CE%AF%CE%B1-%CF%83%CE%B7%CE%BC%CE%B5%CE%AF%CF%89%CF%83%CE%B5-%CF%84%CE%BF-%CE%B1%CF%80%CE%BF%CE%BA%CF%81%CE%B9%CE%AC%CF%84%CE%B9%CE%BA%CE%BF-%CF%80%CE%AC%CF%81/, http://foliatoukokkou.blogspot.gr/2011/04/blog-post.html, http://pigipeklari.blogspot.gr/2012/02/2012.html,