The pall of smoke hanging over Greek towns due to the Tsiknopempti meat orgy has hardly dispersed and people are already thinking about the next feast, on Clean Monday (Καθαρά Δευτέρα – Kathara Deftera). It is a moveable feast, which this year falls on March 14. Ironically, it marks the beginning of the 40-day fast for Lent, Σαρακοστή (Sarakosti). However, the need to avoid a wide range of foods (meat, fish, all dairy products and eggs) has spurred gourmets and cooks over the centuries into developing delicious recipes called nistisima (fasting foods) of which more details in another post.
For the devout, Clean Monday—and thus Lent itself—begins on Sunday night, at a special service called Forgiveness Vespers, which culminates with the Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness. Everyone present will bow down before one another and ask forgiveness, so they can begin Lent with a clean conscience and renewed Christian love. The entire first week of Great Lent is often referred to as “Clean Week”, and it is customary to go to confession during this week, and also to springclean the house – after all, Clean Monday also marks the beginning of spring.
Clean Monday is a public holiday in Greece and Cyprus, where it it is celebrated with outdoor excursions, and family gatherings whose main purpose is the consumption of elaborate dishes mainly based on seafood and vegetables.
However, the day is not only associated with eating, but also features many traditional celebrations held all over Greece. Municipalities organize concerts and other festivities with free food on offer. In the Borough of Athens, Clean Monday is traditionally celebrated on Philopappos, a hill situated southwest of the Acropolis. A beautiful 173-acre park, it is home to many indigenous birds and small animals, and open to all at all times of day or night.
Different municipalities have their own local customs, but there is one tradition that is followed all over the country: kite flying. Young people and adults flock to open areas, so as to fill the skies with their kites. Many traditional workshops have been involved in making kites for over 70 years, although in many instances the wooden kites have sadly been replaced by plastic ones. Every kiosk, supermarket and toy shop stocks kites for Clean Monday – there are even roadside stalls selling them.
In my childhood, making your own kite was considered a very manly pursuit in some households. Fathers and uncles would carefully choose and cut their own bamboo sticks, split them lengthwise with their penknives and fashion them into a hexagonal frame with string. Over this would go glacé paper in bright colours (often in the colours of the maker’s favourite team), and then ‘ears’ and a tail made out of strips of paper. The trick was for the kite to have good equilibrium so that it would fly straight and true. A few balls of sturdy string would be carefully wound in a figure eight over a stout stick and the kite would be ready to go.
Since Clean Monday is a communal affair, fierce competition ensues over the flying of the kites. Depending on the assembled company, I remember times when us kids would not be allowed near the kites. No, this was a man’s job, involving much drinking and banter, as well as practical jokes. There were – and still are – air battles where people try to get other kites entangled in their string in order to bring them down – some even resort to sending razor blades up the string to try and cut the competitors’ kites loose!
Despite yearly warnings by the Electricity Company, a number of kites always end up on the cables, where they remain for weeks, looking increasingly forlorn.