Today is the last day of Carnival season in Greece. What does this mean to Greeks? Fun is over, celebrations are over and no matter how sad we are, all we can do is wait till next year. For the Christian Orthodox community, the end of Carnival season also means the coming of 40 days of Lent until Easter. But there was also a time when Carnival used to mean the advent of spring.
Roots of the Greek Carnival
The Greek Carnival has its roots in ancient Greece and is connected with the worship of the god Bacchus, or Dionysus, god of wine and celebration. The word carnival comes from the Latin words “carrus navalis” which means wheel boat. During the Eleusinian Mysteries (which are similar to the bacchanalia, the wild and mystic festivals of the god Bacchus/Dionysos), there used to be a procession where Athena’s (goddess of wisdom and courage) believers carried her veil to the Parthenon. In the procession there was always a little boat with wheels.
Later, during the eastern Empire, the Carnival was all about dressing up and having fun. The poor used to masquerade as rich, men used to masquerade as women – animal costumes were also very popular. However, most of the times, people used to masquerade either to help bring about good will or to trick evil spirits. Despite Christianity and the oppositions of the Orthodox Church, the Carnival survived and evolved to become as we know it today.
Greek carnival in modern times
Today, there are many different carnival parades going on all over Greece. Hundreds of groups take part in those parades, and anyone who wishes to participate can just join a group.
Carnival of Patras
The biggest festival takes place in the city of Patras, and the regular attendance of young people in the great parade is approximately 40.000. That’s why this festival is considered to be one of the greatest in Europe.
In Patras, the locals live for the Carnival period. Once one Carnival is over, they begin to prepare the next one. There are many Carnival workshops all over the city, where small but unique armies use all their talents and imagination to draw sketches and designs that introduce a special toast to the current events going on at the time. When the designs are ready, the same people hew the carnival floats with equal patience.
The Carnival of Patras began 180 years ago. Deeply influenced by Italian traditions, it is a bit different from other Greek Carnivals. Some common Carnival traditions are: Chocolate fights, wax egg fights and domino dances. During dominoed dances, men and women – single and married – used to masquerade as dominoes (wearing black robes and masks) and kissed without removing the masks. So, they never knew who their flirtatious partner was. This custom has been redefined and today, although domino dances do exist, masks are removed after the first few dances.
Today’s most important traditional events of Patras’ carnival are:
The “Treasure Hunt Game” which is a series of questions, riddles and activities such as pantomime, theater, and quizzes. Any member of a group can participate.
Kid’s Carnival: This is a whole separate part with its own parade, dances and activities. It takes place a week before the Grand Parade and only kids can participate.
The Grand Parade: This is the big moment of Carnival time. It is also the final event of the Carnival period. All the floats go into the city, led by the Carnival King, and all the groups and visitors burst into dance in the city streets. After the Grand Parade, and when the sun sets, the King of the Carnival is cast into flames at the Port of Patras. This is called the Closing Ceremony.
Carnival of Xanthi
Xanthi’s Carnival is the biggest festival of Northern Greece. Approximately 200,000 visitors are there every year to get a taste of fun, imagination, creativity and music.
This carnival started in 1926 when its founders in Thrace and Macedonia wanted more of folk, local and European music than the classic Carnivals that took place in other Greek towns.
However, it has undergone some changes, and many novelties were added. So, Xanthi’s Carnival evolved to its nowadays form that is in fact an expression of many cultural and social issues.
There are some similar traditions with the Carnival at Patras, such as The “Treasure Hunt Game” and of course The Grand Parade and the Closing Ceremony. Like Patras, Xanthi’s carnival participants burn the King of the Carnival on the Kosinthos river waters.
However, there are some unique local carnival traditions that can be found nowhere else. These are:
Kris pudding pie: Just before families go out to participate in the celebrations, the children sit around the table, while the oldest member of the family ties a piece of kris pudding pie in a rope and spins it above the table. Kids have to grab the pie using only their mouth because their hands are tied behind their backs!
Grand Parade’s drunkards: During the Grand Parade, people masquerade as drunkards get into the parade and scare the kids.
“Baldafun”: Baldafun is actually a disco club just for kids. During the carnival period parents dress up their kids and take them to these special clubs. The party starts at afternoon and keeps on until late at night. This is one of the greatest carnival experiences for kids, and they wait for it anxiously every year.
Carnival parades and carnival costumes and tradition can also be found in smaller Greek towns and villages. In fact, the Carnival is celebrated in all of Greece, in an original and totally unique way. It really worth visiting these places, and living in the rhythm of a festival that survived all these years and social-cultural changes.
Here are some other famous Greek carnivals: Carnival in Rethymno, Carnival of Kozani, Carnival of Naoussa, Choristi’s Carnival (which is the oldest in Northern Greece), Corfiot Carnival (that exists more than 450 years now), Renti and Moshato Carnivals in Athens.