A sure sign that it’s carnival time in Athens is the sight of kids dressed up as superheroes, princesses or whiskered pussycats. All of a sudden, pop-up shops appear dedicated to fancy dress costumes for young and old, confetti, hooters and other party paraphernalia.
Athens carnival isn’t known for its parades and floats. It’s not a mecca for Mardi Gras celebrations like Rio, New Orleans, or Venice. But you will find unique carnival festivities in Athens that don’t take place elsewhere, with two special feasts—a meat extravaganza and a sublime introduction to fasting Greek style.
Let them eat meat
Tsiknopempti could be translated as ‘smoky’ or ‘aromatic Thursday’. It marks the last day when meat can be eaten before the beginning of Lent. As you may know, the word carnival is a corruption of the Latin carne levare, or abstention from meat. The Greek word apokries has the same meaning: apo (away from) and kreas (meat). For the Greek Orthodox, the 40 days of Lent is a time for fasting to purify body and soul. Eating meat during Lent was a crime punishable by ostracism in Byzantine Greece.
Though not everyone fasts for Lent in Greece these days, Tsiknopempti remains a carnivore’s ideal holiday. Throughout Athens, you will find impromptu barbecues set up outside shops from early afternoon. By evening, the appetising whiff (tsikna) of grilling chops, steaks and sausages fills the air and an orgy of meat eating begins. Naturally, a certain amount of alcohol fuels the fun and before long people are dancing in the streets.
Although a carnival atmosphere prevails for the three weeks before the start of Lent (with many bars and clubs around the capital throwing themed parties), it reaches its peak on the last weekend. The southwest suburb of Moschato is the place to go by day if you want to see a musical parade of costumes and dancing. Plaka is the place to be at night, when the streets choke up with locals throwing confetti and whacking each other with plastic clubs, which are probably an echo of the Dionysian phalluses that played a big role in the carnival rites of the past.
A feast to mark the start of Lent
The most delightful and unusual carnival celebration of all is Kathara Deftera or Clean Monday. Unlike Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent in Greece is not marked by sobriety and foreheads smudged with ash. It’s a day of picnics and kite flying.
Most of all, Clean Monday is dedicated to meat-free feasting. Taverna and picnic tables are laden with delectable salads, seafood, dips and sesame-crusted, unleavened bread called lagana. Not a single dish is made from a creature with blood. As well as red meat, no dairy products, eggs, or fish are allowed. But ‘bloodless’ delicacies like shrimp, octopus, calamari and shellfish are permitted and make fasting seem a luxury.
Let’s go fly a kite
Athenians without gardens flock to Philopappou Hill opposite the Acropolis with their picnic baskets and kites. Kites have been a symbol of purity and a way for the soul to approach the divine since ancient times. Keeping your eyes on the kite as it climbs heavenward becomes a kind of meditation.
By afternoon, kites of all colours brighten the sky over Athens. Meanwhile, Greeks everywhere will be wishing each other, Kali Sarakosti or “Happy Lent”. An expression that you surely won’t hear anywhere in the western world.
Carnival usually falls somewhere in late February or early March. Because the Orthodox Church still adheres to the Julian calendar, Greek dates for Carnival, Lent and Easter vary from year to year.