Apokries – the Fun Bits and the Why Not Bits
I named one of my Facebook pages Learning to be Greek because a lot of Greek culture and traditions are still a mystery to me. A fine example is Apokries.
The first time my husband told me about Apokries was when we came across people dressing up in costumes on the street, when we first moved to Greece back in February 2016. ‘It’s the Greek version of Halloween’ was all he told me. He didn’t know much about it because Apokries is not really celebrated amongst the Greek community in Melbourne where he is from. How they manage to import even frozen bougatsa* straight from Greece and miss out the best festival ever!
I did some searches on the internet and I’m more puzzled than before. I think to understand Apokries properly, one needs to have much knowledge about the Orthodox faith as well as tradition of Greek people. Things like the book of Triodion and how they calculate the dates every year. Another thing that puzzles me is that many websites including newspapers came up with the exact same phrases and sometimes long sentences. They are not copying from each other without referencing the source, are they? And what use is it to say things like ‘the first day of Apokries starts with the opening of Triodion’? What is Triodion? Why do they open it? Who opens it? Are there copies of this book in every household and everyone opens it at the same time? Which page?
I don’t want to spend several years studying Orthodoxy, nor do I want to copy from anyone. So, I’ve decided to tell you what I know from observation and what my Greek friends told me. This is also a problem because they told me different things. The Greeks seem to be unable to agree with each other. It is common for people to debate little things like what ingredients should one use for a youvetsi (yummy meat stew with rice-shape pasta).
The good thing is that the little bits I know about Apokries are all the important bits, i.e. the fun bits.
Apokries is all about letting out your craziness and eating yourself silly before the fasting period for Easter starts. The fast lasts for 40* days and is supposed to be a solemn period and long ago, people figured that if they had to refrain from any festivities and meat from such a long period of time, they better did a lot of these before the fast. It’s all about balance!
If you know about Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), you could see easily that Apokries is based on the same principal. Apokries means ‘(away) from meat’. The obvious difference being that Mardi Gras is about Tuesday while Apokries is about Thursday and Monday.
Apokries lasts for 3 whole weeks. The dates change every year because it is calculated based on the date for Orthodox Easter which is calculated according to the Julian Calendar as well as something to do with the Passover and the moon. If you are visiting Greece for Apokries, plan ahead where and when to go. There are various events and parades across the countries. These happen usually on the weekends, Smoky Thursday and Clean Monday.
Tsiknopempti – Smoky Thursday
Tsiknopempti came from two words joint together. One means ‘smoke from grilling meat’ and the other ‘Thursday’. Oh yes, they have a word here that means ‘smoke from grilling meat’ because it is important to the Greeks.
It is like a National Meat Day. Most everyone eats meat on this day. Very often, people would make barbeque on the streets (e.g. outside their shops) during work hours and everyone is cheery and if you are lucky, you will be offered some as you walk by. Where there are Greek people around, you will smell smoke from grilling meat.
We knew it was Tsiknopempti for the first two years we were in Greece because of the smell everywhere and we promptly bought meat for dinner. This year, we didn’t know because we didn’t venture to town. For dinner, we had lentil soup which is proper fasting food. Our friends thought it was a great joke. We really should go out more!
If you walk around the cities or town centre on Tsiknopempti, you might bump into some free concerts or stage shows. One year we encountered a mini concert at the meat section of the Central Market in Athens to entertain the many meat buying customers.
Kathara Deftera (Clean Monday)
Fasting period for Easter starts on Clean Monday. ‘Clean’ because many people see fasting as a way to detox both for our bodies and our souls.
It is common for families and friends to have a fasting meal together, regardless if they are going to fast. Most Greek people I know don’t fast but it doesn’t stop them from joining in the festivities. The fasting meals are quite luxurious in my opinion because of the unique fasting rule in Greece: no meat, animal products or fish are allowed but any species that have no blood are fine. You can have lobsters, shellfish and snails and people sometimes overdose themselves with octopus and squid during fasting time. There are also plenty of choice for dessert, such as loukoumades and halva.
Greek people like festivities and even shopping for seafood that has no blood can become a proper outing. One year we went to the Central Market in Athens the night before Clean Monday and saw people gathering outside the fish section for the gate to open. If you want to see the largest amount of octopus and squid in one single building, that’s the place to be.
Let’s be crazy!
Oh no no no not speeding and running red light kind of crazy. They do plenty of those every day. It’s the ‘a bit of fun’ kind of crazy. Mostly around dressing up as characters and sometimes acting like the characters. It’s all good nature fun kind of crazy. Some dedicated people dress up for a full 2 or 3 weeks. Most agree that the official craziness starts on Smoky Thursday.
It’s also very responsible kind of crazy. On Clean Monday, I asked my Cretan friend if they were going to shoot their guns to the sky. Many Cretan men and women have guns and they use them for either hunting or celebration. My friend immediately looked very serious and said ‘No. No gun. Not today.’ He named different occasions like wedding (I didn’t understand those other words) when they would fire the guns but said there must be absolutely no shooting on this day.
Clean Monday Celebration 2018 at Gergeri Village – AKA Why Not Day
This year on Clean Monday, my husband and I went to the celebration at Gergeri Village which is about 30 minutes’ drive from Heraklion, the capital city of Crete. Despite being a small village, Gergeri’s Clean Monday Celebration is well known and there were participants from as far as Drama which is in Northern Greece.
The village road was packed with tables and chairs on both side, leaving the centre for the parade to come through. Many people dressed up as bears and monsters. There were also fake priests and a fake wedding couple engaging in a fake wedding. There was also a fake funeral.
‘Why fake wedding?’
‘Why paint the face black?’
‘Why not’ seemed to be my friend’s catchphrase. I wondered if she knew the meaning or not, or if there was any sort of meaning at all. The Why Not Day made me realize that why look for the meaning of life when we can just have fun?
Gergeri Village Costumes
A friend did tell us about the choice of costumes at Gergeri Village. He said in the old days, fancy costumes were not available and people used what they had, which were animal furs, leaves and twigs. They also didn’t have face paint and they used charcoal to paint their faces. Many people in the village kept the tradition and if you show up at their village without costumes, someone might come and paint your face black.
If you want to join the Clean Monday Celebration at Gergeri, be there around 12noon which is when the fun starts.
What about Kites?
Leading up to Clean Monday, kites were being sold everywhere from supermarket to street vendors. Before we arrived Gergeri, I thought we were going to fly a kite. No one sold kites or flew kites in Gergeri though.
My friends in Gergeri didn’t know about the kites. One said she thought it was a tradition from China. Mm… I don’t think so… She said she didn’t know because all they did in Gergeri for Clean Monday was what we saw.
This just shows how fruitless it is to look for meaning and to try to understand Apokries. Even the Greeks don’t know all their traditions because there are so many. Trying too hard to learn will only drive ourselves crazy.
How to say it
Apokries / Απόκριες: a-PO-kri-es with ‘a’ as in ‘raft’, the stress in ‘po’ as in ‘Pokemon’, ‘i’ as in ‘it’, ‘es’ as in ‘bess’
Tsiknopempti / Τσικνοπέμπτη: tsik-no-PEMP-ti with ‘ts’ as in ‘sets’, ‘no’ as in ‘no’, stress in ‘em’ as in ‘Emily’ and all the ‘i’ as in ‘it’
Kathara Deftera / Καθαρά Δευτέρα: ka-tha-RA def-TE-ra, all the ‘a’ as in ‘raft’, ‘e’ as in ‘set’
Gergeri / Γέργερη: GER-ge-ri, ‘ge’ like ‘ye’ in ‘yellow’, ‘i’ as in ‘it’
*A bougatsa is often a custard filled pastry which is served with icing sugar and cinnamon powder. Bougatsa refers to the pastry and it can be filled with meat or cheese as well.
*40 days – the fast is never 40 days but more like 48 days. Some sites said we are not meant to fast on Sundays but our Greek friends who fast told us only about one day off which is a salty-fish eating day. Another mystery.