The Greek city of Patras ranks among the top three Carnival-celebrating cities in the world, right after Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and New Orleans in the U.S. The street parties are epic, but the traditions in Greece during the Carnival season are a little bit different than what most people have come to expect from this holiday around the world.
What Is Greek Carnival?
First off, the word for Carnival in Greek is apokries, which literally translates to "no more meat," referencing the tradition of giving up meat during the religious period of Lent. It's almost an exact translation of the Latin-based "carnival," which literally means "goodbye to meat." Many of the celebrations also incorporate some of Greece's ancient traditions and in towns like Corfu, Rethymno, and Crete the celebrations have absorbed a slightly Venetian flavor from the periods that the islands were under the control of Venice.
Most Carnival-related events are connected with the ancient worship of the Greek god of wine and divine intoxication, Dionysus. The processions, costuming and feasting all derive from ancient ceremonies honoring him and other Greek gods and goddesses.
Some people claim parts of the festival, including the carrying of models of ships in processions, date all the way back to ancient rites in Egypt. The idea of feasting before fasting is probably as old as civilization, but Carnival as a specific event is very much tied to Western Christian and Eastern Orthodox churches.
Important Dates in the Greek Carnival Season
Carnival dates are tied to Greek Orthodox Easter, which is slightly different from Western Easter and celebrated on a different schedule. Every few years, both calendars will coincide, so do check if you want to attend both while visiting different countries in Europe. Here are the most notable days during the Carnival season in Greece, up until the first day of Lent which is on a Monday instead of a Wednesday.
- The Triodion: Carnival begins on a Saturday evening, 40 days before the beginning of Lent, with the opening of the Triodion, a book containing three sacred odes. This is a religious moment not generally observed outside of the church itself, so don't expect a sudden party to erupt.
- Burnt Thursday: Unlike other countries, Greeks celebrate the unofficial holiday of Tsiknopempti, or "Burnt Thursday," which is all about eating as much meat as you can before Lent starts.
- Saturday of Souls: On the Saturday before the first day of Lent, a special service for the dead is conducted in Orthodox churches. The ritual involves the making of grain dishes and might be a survival of the ancient rites of Demeter, goddess of the harvest, but also of the cycle of life and death.
- Cheesefare Sunday: The last Sunday of the Carnival period is known as "Cheesefare Sunday" or Tyrofagos. Since no meat products are allowed to be eaten, many Greeks fill up on cheese on this day.
- Clean Monday: This is actually the first day of Lent. While a holiday atmosphere still prevails, the foods consumed are all "pure," without the shedding of blood. However, this allows cuttlefish and squid, fish roe, and other animal products.
Planning Your Carnival Visit to Greece
If you are planning to go to Greece during the Carnival season, it's best to check with the specific community you are planning to visit. Although the dates of religious observances will be the same across the country, some cities may have earlier events and celebrations.
Triodion marks the religious start of the season, but is generally a quiet church ceremony, occurring over a month before the real Carnival celebrations start. Burnt Thursday, is usually the beginning of what visitors would consider being the real Carnival season and this year it falls on February 20, 2020, 11 days before Clean Monday.
The Friday, Saturday, and Sunday preceding Clean Monday usually offer wild celebrations, parades, and traditional events wherever Carnival is celebrated. In larger towns or cities known for Carnival, such as Rethymno or Patras, the previous weekend will also be filled with activities.