MONDAY, MARCH 18: Kites fill the sky, seasonal dishes abound and a sense of spring fills the air in Greece today as Eastern Christians begin Lent with Clean Monday.
It may seem ironic that these Eastern Christians enter this period of very strict fasting with such a joyous feeling. From an Orthodox perspective, these millions of famlies are following the Gospel’s precise instructions on fasting: When ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance … But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face, that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret … (Matthew 6:16-18)
While trying to abandon sinful attitudes—along with meat, dairy products, wine and oil—Eastern Christians take to parks and open fields on Clean Monday, visit with family and friends and pack picnics with Lenten foods. As a public holiday in Greece and Cyprus, Lent begins with the masses outside and enjoying the day. (Wikipedia has details.)
Although meat products are forbidden during Lent, shellfish and fish roe are not and thus, elaborate shellfish and roe recipes are saved and prepared. Special breads such as axyme (no yeast) bread and lagana are also baked solely on Clean Monday. (Access recipes from the New York Times and this Greek blog.) The entire week following Clean Monday is known throughout the Church as Clean Week, and it’s customary for men and women to attend Confession and clean their homes during this week.
Merrymaking takes on a new meaning on Clean Monday for most Greeks, in part because of the mock traditions that accompany picnics and kite flying. (Learn more at Visit Greece.) On Karpathos Island, a Popular Court punishing Immoral Deeds elects a judge for the day, and obscene gestures are exchanged among villagers; mock police then break up the foolishness, and the accused are set before the “judge of the day” for a trial! Meanwhile, in Vonitsa, Aetoloakarnania, a fisherman is made of straw and tied to a donkey, later to be paraded through the streets and then placed in a boat and set afire. A man disguised as a Turkish chieftain meanders the streets of Alexandroupolis on Clean Monday, warding off evil spirits; in Nedousa, the acting continues with a group devoted to “popular theatre,” whose members dress up as goats and perform their own rituals to ward off evil.