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.

Feast of St. Basil: Orthodox celebrate an ancient Christian hero

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 1: The Feast of the Circumcision is celebrated with hymns from St. Basil in Eastern Orthodox churches today, as devotees observe both the Circumcision of Christ and the Feast of St. Basil the Great. Across Greece, kitchens and bakeries are filled with the fragrance of baking Vasilopita, or St. Basil’s Cake. Recognized this year among USA Today’s “14 Holiday Desserts Worth a Trip,” vasilopita is characterized by its sweet ingredients, which are placed in the bread to symbolize the sweetness of life. Beyond a basic recipe, however, vasilopita varies greatly by region: It can be everything from a kneaded, bread-like version to a richer, denser cake. Whatever the recipe, Greeks believe that the “bread of Basil” brings good luck to a household in the year to come. Each household’s senior member slices the cake, and one lucky participant receives in his piece the coin that was hidden in the bread, which traditionally brings him luck for the coming year.

Are you fascinated by food-and-faith customs around the world? Then, you’re sure to enjoy our Feed The Spirit department with Bobbie Lewis. And, you’ll enjoy our book by Lynne Meredith Golodner, The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads.


In contrast to the many saints who left their wealthy families to pursue an ascetic life, St. Basil the Great came from a family of steadfast, righteous Christians and maintained those family ties. Born to Basil the Elder and Emmelia in Caesarea of Cappadocia in 329 or 330 CE (dates vary), St. Basil the Great claimed a martyred grandfather and a mother and father renowned for their piety. Eventually, four of Basil’s siblings would become regarded as saints.

As a youth, St. Basil studied in Constantinople and Athens, eventually following his sister’s advice to turn from academics and law to a simpler, more virtuous life. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) In approximately 370 CE, Basil was elected as a bishop. This was the ancient era when what we would now consider orthodox Christian leaders, including Basil, were locked in a dispute that became known as the Arian controversy. Basil was highly respected, even by his opponents—so much so that the Arian Emperor Valens even asked for prayers over his gravely ill son, which Basil did, and the boy healed.

Basil died on Jan. 1, 379 CE, at age 49. He left behind hundreds of theological letters that discuss the mysteries of creation and the Holy Trinity, in addition to thoughts on monastic communal life—which are held in such high regard that they earned him the title, “the Great.” Numerous religious orders in Eastern Christianity bear his name, as do the Roman Catholic Basilian Fathers. Basil is recognized as a saint in both Eastern and Western Christianity.


In Greece, children await January 1 with great anticipation, as both feasts and gifts await them on this special day. On the eve of Jan. 1, adults and children carol New Year’s songs from house to house, and children believe that St. Basil delivers them gifts at night. On Jan. 1, feasts are prepared as abundantly as possible, in the belief that the more lavish the table, the more plentiful blessings will be in the New Year. Pork and the vasilopita are mainstays of every Greek table, and the senior member of the household makes a sign of the cross over the vasilopita before cutting into it.

In the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, St. Basil’s feast is observed on Jan. 2.

Looking for a fun way to observe St. Basil’s Day? Try baking a vasilopita, singing carols and reciting a table blessing, courtesy of Catholic Culture.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)