Clean Monday: Orthodox Christians kick off Lent with kites, seafood and lagana

Round flatbread with seeds on top, torn in half with brown sauce on side in cup

Greek lagana bread, baked only for Clean Monday. Photo by Sofia Gk, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, MARCH 11: The flavors of shellfish and soft lagana bread are associated with the start of the Lenten season in Greece. Outside, colorful kites fly above the fields as Orthodox Christians mark Clean Monday.

Western Christian Lent began last week with Ash Wednesday.

The centuries-old tradition of observing Lent as a season of reflection and self-denial is intended to prepare Christians for the greatest festival in their religious calendar: Easter. However, the ever-changing date of Easter—and the method of counting 40 days in Lent—is one of the centuries-old differences among Christians East and West.

“Western Christians count Lent’s 40 days as starting with Ash Wednesday but excluding Sundays. Eastern Christians, those generally called Orthodox, start their 40 days on a Monday, counting Sundays, but excluding the week leading up to Easter.” That’s one of the intriguing details in the book, Our Lent: Things We Carry, by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm. “Some Christians fast; some don’t. Millions of Western Christians retain a custom of limited fasting; millions of Eastern Christians prayerfully make significant sacrifices during this season.”

Eight days ago, Eastern Christians observed Meatfare Sunday, the last time observant Christians will eat meat until Pascha (Easter). One day ago was Cheesefare Sunday, when Eastern Christians consume dairy products for the last time. Today, Orthodox families begin the fast of Great Lent with “clean” foods and a cleansed state of mind.


Rather than begin Lent in a solemn manner, Clean Monday is celebrated as a public holiday in Greece and Cyprus: outdoor activities, zany local traditions, kite flying and plenty of Lenten-friendly food is par for the course. As shellfish is permitted in these cultures throughout Lent, a spread of extravagant dishes—based on the bounty of the sea—is common on Clean Monday in Greece.

Customs and traditions vary by locality in Greece on the first day the Lenten season, with colored flour being thrown into crowds in Glaxidi, on the northern coast of the Corinth Gulf; on the Greek island of Chios, a man dresses up as “Aga,” or “Ayas” (the tax collector), then he and his followers grab local villagers to put them into a mock trial. The “criminals” found guilty must suffer punishment or pay a fine that funds the village’s cultural association.


The flying of kites across Greece welcomes spring in a colorful and festive manner, and many traditional kite makers pride themselves on decades of experience. When out and about, picnic baskets are often filled with lagana, an unleavened bread baked only for Clean Monday, and taramosalata, a dip made of salted and cured roe mixed with olive oil, lemon juice and bread crumbs. (Wikipedia has details.) Feasts of bean soup, shellfish dishes, octopus platters, shrimp dishes and more are carefully prepared for a Clean Monday extravaganza.

Interested in baking lagana? Find a recipe at the blog Lemon & Olives, or at The Greek Vegan.

Clean Monday: Eastern Orthodox Christians kick off Lent with a joyous holiday

MONDAY, MARCH 14: The Lenten season officially begins for Eastern Orthodox Christians with Clean Monday, a bright, joyous holiday celebrated with a special fervor in Greece and Cyprus. Eastern Orthodox Christians embrace the fasting season in merriment, as the Gospel instructs: 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). Across Greece today, soft lagana bread—a Clean Monday treat, baked especially for this day—is par for the course, as are numerous shellfish dishes and a variety of other permissible foods. Many families gather to head outdoors, enjoying picnics and flying kites.

Did you know? While the 2016 Western Christian Lent began with Ash Wednesday on February 10, the movable date of Easter—and the method of counting 40 days in Lent—makes up the difference of date calculation between the Eastern Christian Pascha and Western Christian Easter.

Yesterday, Eastern Christians observed Cheesefare Sunday, when the faithful consumed dairy for the final time until Pascha. Eight days ago, adherents observed Meatfare Sunday—and until Pascha, meat will not be consumed. Today, Orthodox families begin the fast of Great Lent and avoid meat, dairy, wine and oil (with a few days of exception during Lent).

The entire week following Clean Monday is known throughout the Eastern Church as Clean Week, when it’s customary for men and women to attend Confession and clean their homes.

Interested in baking lagana? Find a recipe at the blog Lemon & Olives, or at The Greek Vegan.

Pascha: Eastern Orthodox Christians rejoice in the Resurrection of Jesus

SUNDAY, APRIL 20: The glorious day has arrived and 2 billion Christians the world over come to rejoice in the Resurrection of Jesus. For Eastern Orthodox Christians, today is the Great and Holy Pascha. So named because of its reference to Jesus, the paschal lamb (St. John indicates that Jesus was crucified at the time the paschal lambs were being killed), in addition to the historical occurrence of Jesus’ crucifixion during the Passover feast, Orthodox Christians hold dear the name of Pascha. The Orthodox Research Institute does indicate, however, that the word Easter may be used interchangeably with Pascha in mixed company, for both titles hail the same event that defines the very essence of Christianity: the Resurrection (and eventual Ascension) of Jesus.

Pascha services begin in the darkness of Saturday evening, running late into the night. Just before midnight, a celebrant walks to the church’s temporary “tomb,” and removes the cover sheet: and behold, Jesus is not there! The sheet is carried to the altar table, and at midnight, the magnificent Pascha procession begins.  (Learn more from Orthodox Church in America.)

The Paschal Troparion is sung, together with the verses of Psalm 68, which from now will signal the start of every service during the Easter season. In a church adorned in flowers, attendants face the Easter icon: an image of Christ destroying the gates of hell and freeing Adam and Eve from death. The atmosphere is overwhelmingly joyous; hymns announce victory over death, and all are invited to partake in the Holy Communion, of Christ, the Passover lamb.


Unlike the Western Christian Lenten fast, which prohibits meat just on Fridays and on Ash Wednesday, the Eastern Orthodox Lenten fast prohibits dairy and meat during the entire season—and so on Pascha, the feast is magnificent! A primary component of the Russian table today is pascha—a dense, cold cheesecake often made with curd cheese and dried fruits—alongside kulichi, soft fruit cakes. (Find an authentic recipe for pascha here. A recipe for kulich, or kulichi, is here.)

In Greece, grilled vegetables, bean salads, seafood and breads complement the centerpiece: the Pascha lamb. Spiced to perfection, the lamb (or, occasionally, goat) satisfies palates alongside the traditional tsoureki, a Greek bread that is decorated with red eggs. (Recipes for Greek lamb, soup, asparagus and tsoureki are in this article from National Public Radio.)

Why red eggs? Red eggs have long been an integral part of Eastern Orthodox Pascha, and with good reason: several legends tell of miracles that began with red eggs. In one, Mary Magdalene was bringing cooked eggs to share with the other women at the tomb of Jesus, and when she saw the risen Jesus Christ, the eggs suddenly turned a vibrant red. In a different story, Mary Magdalene was spreading word of Jesus’ resurrection when she approached the doubtful Emperor of Rome. Upon her greeting, the emperor remarked that, “Christ has no more risen than that egg is red.” With that, the egg turned a dark red. Yet another legend tells of Mary Magdalene’s egg turning red in the presence of Julius Caesar—and because of these miraculous stories, Orthodox Christians exchange red eggs at Pascha.

The next seven days—beginning today, on Pascha—are known as Bright Week, or Renewal Week.