Apokries: the Bacchic celebration in Greece

Apokries is a chance to let your hair down and indulge in everything you were told not to

From the mainland to the islands, even as far as Greeks of the diaspora, everyone has an experience of Apokries they will never forget. Babies, children and even the elderly get involved in Apokries, a three-week long celebration of all the naughty things in life. Often touted as the Greek Halloween, Apokries takes over Greece for the month leading up to lent.

During that time, families around Greece indulge in wine, meat and fantasy-like hijinks in a celebration of life, lust and kefi (high spirits). The celebrations traditionally begin on the first Sunday of February and go until Kathari Theftera (Clean Monday) which also marks the first week of Lent.

The word Apokries literally translates to the abstention of meat, the reason why the celebrations take place before the fasting and cleansing period of Lent, and, like Carnivale derives from the words ‘carne’ (meat) and ‘vale’ (farewell) in Latin, it’s a time for followers of the Greek Orthodox faith to prepare for religious moderation.

But Apokries has another side that people in Greece more readily celebrate. And that side is the Paganistic rituals that stem from the foundations of this celebration. Apokries has its history and roots planted in ancient worship of Dionysus – the God of wine and Feast. By worshipping Dionysus, it’s a time to let your hair down and lose all inhibitions through the overconsumption of things in life we are traditionally made to feel guilty about. It was said in the ancient times of worship, followers would take to the street dressed in phallic symbols singing rude songs.

Nowadays, people still bask in the Bacchic way of life. Parties are held all over, in town squares and people’s houses to literally live it up and indulge in hedonistic behaviour. Men dress as ladies, ladies dress as priests and children prance the streets pretending to be drunk. It is three weeks of pure indulgence, at times adults-only fun – it’s a time in Greece where Iggy Pop’s classic Lust for Life really rings true. The combination of wine and sexuality gives a free-for-all aspect to the way you choose to celebrate Apokries.

The costumes can be dark and sinister but with all have a humorous twist: they can be downright ugly, very scary, absurdly outrageous and, in some instance are used to shock us back into the world of the living. During Apokries, Greeks all over and of all ages, enjoy anonymity through costume and masquerades. It gives people a chance to rid themselves of inhibitions and the seriousness of life and have fun in the revelry that is Apokries.

The mask is said to be a descendant of the ancient identical clay masks worn by actors in ancient Greek comedy and satirical drama. Later, the Romans created masks to represent different types of comedy and, centuries later, in Northern Italy, the commedia dell’arte was developed, introducing the characters of Harlequin and Columbine with their respective masks and guises, and also golden bird-masks which are all used in Apokries. Apokries traditionally begins three weeks before Lent. So once that date for Lent is locked in, people count backwards to the third Sunday.

This year, Apokries begins Sunday 5 February. But Apokries really starts to kick off in the second week known as Kreatini (Meat Week), where meat may be eaten every day, even the traditional fast days of Wednesday and Friday. The Thursday of that week is traditionally referred to as Tsiknopempti which translates to tsikna (the smell of burning meat) and Pempti (Thursday). On this day, it’s customary for everyone to eat charcoal grilled meat so the smell of the melting fat permeates through the whole village. These days in Greece, people tend to visit a local tavern for their meat feast which are normally packed to the brim of people feasting and dancing to live music.

This is also the day the first masqueraders make themselves known, and a day where men like to dress up as women and take to the streets in their mothers’ or wives’ skirts, wearing overdone make-up and looking completely unsightly. Children, teenagers and adults all dress up in disguises and masks – known as the masqueraders – and visit the houses of friends and neighbours who have to then try to guess the identity of the masquerader. Village cafes, tavernas and bars are visited by the masqueraders who decorate the establishments with foam, streamers or confetti.

Apokries is a colourful fun time which involves all ages enjoying the joy of life. The third week of Apokries is known as Tyrini (Cheese Week) or white week as it’s a time when people from all over indulge in dairy products and the eating of meat has ceased, until after Lent is over. Women refuse to wash their hair during this week as there is an old folk tale that says if they do, their hair will turn white. Tyrofagis Sunday is the final day of Aporkies and is traditionally celebrated with a massive party.

In more recent times, the day turns into a weekend long celebration. This is the most popular time for people of all ages to dress up and wear masks. Children’s parties, dances and masked balls are held at venues over Greece during this weekend. Carnival parades are held on this weekend all over Greece, with the biggest and most famous of the parades held in Patras. Groups of people decide on a theme and create a float on the day, which can take months and months to prepare – the themes are different each year. Thousands of people take to the street dancing and celebrating the end of Apokries. Whereas in Ioannina, Northern Greece, people celebrate the end of Apokries by creating bonfires and spend the night drinking bottles of wine and dancing around the fires. In Athens, Plaka is the place to be with everyone taking to the main square dressed in colourful costumes and throwing confetti in a display of heightened ecstatic excitement. And the noise, through whistles, trumpets and cheers is deafening.

The end of Apokries is marked by Kathari Deftera (Clean Monday) and is also the day that Lent begins. This day is a public holiday in Greece and families take off to the countryside, beach or mountains and eat Lenten foods and spend the day flying kites. In previous years, people would – and some still do – make kites from scratch. In Australia, Apokries is beginning to come into it’s own, with the Antipodes Festival in Melbourne purposely held on the last weekend of Apokries in order for Greeks of the diaspora to incite some fun and frivolous behaviour in their somewhat mundane life. A celebration of life? I’ll drink to that.