Clean Monday in Greece – Kathara Deftera and Flying Kites

Clean Monday, or Kathara Deftera, is a special day here in Greece. Here’s what to expect on this day, including Greek Lent culinary traditions and kite-flying.

Clean Monday in Greece

Also known as Ash Monday or Shrove Monday, Kathara Deftera is a significant day for many Greek people. It is one of our official public holidays and is linked to some very unique traditions. The exact date changes every year, and Clean Monday always falls 48 days before Easter Sunday.

Flying a kite on Kathara Deftera

Kathara Deftera follows from the 3-week Carnival period which we call Apokries. This non-Christian tradition is celebrated all around Greece. People wear fancy – or plain quirky – costumes and go to parties and Carnival parades.

As its name suggests, Clean Monday symbolizes purity and cleanliness. It is the day when the Orthodox church remembers Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. It is also the first day of Sarakosti (Lent), the seven-week period before Greek Easter. Lent is symbolic of the 40 days that Jesus Christ spent in the desert with no food or water.

Greek Fasting for Lent

To respect this tradition, the church calls Orthodox Christians to observe a specific dietary regimen, what we call nisteia (νηστεία), or fasting. There are other fasting periods throughout the year, but the one before Easter is the longest.

All in all, fasting calls for purification of mind, body and soul. This means giving up all temptations, including the “pleasures of the flesh”. In terms of diet, this has been interpreted as giving up all animal products apart from seafood. So it’s similar to a vegan diet with the addition of shellfish. On certain days, wine and olive oil are excluded as well. There are exceptions where fish can be consumed, like the Annunciation Day.

I personally know very few people who fully observe the fasting tradition for the whole Lent period. However, most Greeks celebrate Clean Monday by preparing special Lent dishes, which we call nistisima (νηστίσιμα) or Sarakostiana.

Special Clean Monday dishes – Lent dishes

Greek Food is one of my favourite topics! Our cuisine is incredibly varied, and it can be a puzzle for a first-time visitor. While we have plenty of dishes based on meat and dairy, we also have a rich culinary tradition when it comes to Lent dishes.

Dolmadakia - Stuffed vine leaves

Some of the vegan dishes traditionally prepared for Clean Monday include the following:

  • fava, mashed yellow fava beans
  • dolmadakia, stuffed vine leaves
  • fasolia mavromatika, boiled black-eyed beans
  • gigantes, giant beans cooked in the oven with tomato sauce
  • elies and toursia, olives and pickles
  • finally, no Clean Monday table is complete without the lagana, a specially-made unleavened flat bread with lots of sesame seeds.

Lagana bread, special bread for Clean Monday

Here are some seafood dishes commonly prepared for the day:

  • taramosalata, a thick salty spread made from fish roe, bread or potato, olive oil and lemon, which is usually spread on the lagana bread. This might be an acquired taste for some visitors. I think I acquired this taste when I was 3 years old 🙂
  • mudopilafo, mussel stew with rice, or other dishes with mussels
  • soupies me spanaki, cuttlefish with spinach
  • kalamarakia tiganita, fried kalamari
  • htapodi sta karvouna, grilled octopus, or htapodi krasato, octopus cooked in wine sauce.

Steamed mussels for Kathara Deftera

Finally, Clean Monday calls for a a traditional dessert called halvas. Confusingly, there are many types of halva. The one commonly associated with Clean Monday is made from tahini (sesame paste), sugar and maybe almonds. These days you can find tons of variations with ingredients like cocoa, raisins, other nuts and fruits, and even brandy or coffee. We often refer to it as Makedonikos halvas or halvas tou bakali.

These are just a few of the dishes that people commonly associate with Clean Monday and the whole Lent period. There are many more – in fact, any vegan / seafood dish could be added to the list above.

For more Greek words, check out this quick Greek lesson!

Kite-flying on Clean Monday

Another tradition that has been connected with Clean Monday is flying a kite. For most children, this is the most important activity of the day. Kids always compete on whose kite will fly higher. Thinking about it, it could actually be their dads!

Flying kites on Kathara Deftera

Going back to when I was a child, I remember how disappointed we were when the weather forecast for Clean Monday was bad. As this day normally falls in March or even February, weather can be unpredictable, and quite often there is some rain and strong wind. On days like that, flying a kite can become a challenge, even for the grown-up (or not so grown-up) dads.

There are several theories on why we fly a kite on Kathara Deftera. According to one of them, flying signifies the ascension and purification of the soul, following the Dionysian spree of Apokries. From a Christian point of view, flying a kite is symbolic of the human spirit flying into the skies and getting closer to God.

The kite-flying tradition probably originated in China, where it is still popular today. People in Asian countries used kites in religious ceremonies and rituals, to keep demons away. They believed that the higher the kite flew, the luckier they would be.

As you would expect, kites seem to have also existed in Ancient Greece. It appears that a man called Archytas designed something that may have resembled a kite. Sadly, his original works have not survived.

Make your own kite – DIY kite for Clean Monday

Traditionally, children in Greece made their own kites, usually with the help of their older relatives. Simple materials were used, such as paper, newspapers, framework and kite string. In addition, leftovers from the carnival ribbons were used to make the kite’s “tail”.

DIY kite for Kathara Deftera

Like many children of my generation, we made our own kites. As my father was an engineer, he was very methodic, and our kites were of exceptional quality. {Note: I hope dad reads this article}.

But in all honesty, making a kite needs quite a lot of patience and skill. It needs to be as symmetrical as possible, light but also sturdy enough. And clearly, it needs to be pretty and colourful, so that you can spot it from a distance.

If you’ve never flown a kite before, let me tell you – it’s not as easy as it looks! You need to pay attention to the winds, but also to the other kite-fliers around you. It was quite common for two or more kites to be entangled with each other, even in areas with plenty of open space. And at the end of the day, our hands had deep marks, caused by pulling the string for so long.

Flying kites for Kathara Deftera

Ready-made kites, often of poor quality, are easily available these days. They are normally made of plastic, and decorated with football team logos, or popular cartoons. You can buy them at specialized stores, or at street vendors.

Regional celebrations on Kathara Deftera

Apart from the above, Clean Monday is the last day when people will dress up in their Carnival costumes. And while it’s a special day all around Greece, certain regions celebrate with some unique local customs.

Flying a kite by the beach

Photo by Thanasis Oikonomou / [Instagram / Facebook]

When it comes to Athens, Filopappou Hill is the place to be. You will meet many families who are there to fly their kites, and perhaps have a picnic afterwards. As it’s a day off for most people, it’s normally a great opportunity to welcome spring.

A unique celebration takes place in Galaxidi, a coastal town three hours west of Athens. The local custom is called “alevromoutzouromata“, and people throw brightly-coloured flour and ashes to each other. As you would expect, there is plenty of music, dancing and wine.

Greece Kathara Deftera customs - Galaxidi celebrations

A similar custom takes place in a small village close to Xanthi in Northern Greece, called Polisytos. It involves people throwing ashes to each other. Later on, they put on animal skins and bells, and wander around the village making lots of noise, in the hope to prevent bad luck.

Another interesting tradition takes place in Mesta in Chios. This is a representation of the collection of taxes during the Ottoman era, and it resembles a theatrical performance. The tax collector and his custody form a self-appointed “court of justice”, who collect fines for non-committed crimes from all the villagers. In the end, the money goes to the village’s cultural association.

In the village of Pentalofos in Kozani, you will see no kites! Instead, the people make their own small lanterns, which they release in the air.

Carnival in Nafplio Greece

Wherever you are in Greece though, chances are that you will come across some local celebrations. Ask around, and go check it out.

Regional “wedding celebrations” on Kathara Deftera

Weddings are a very special affair in Greece. Since Lent is a time for cleansing and self-purification, religious weddings cannot take place during the whole Lent period. {Yes, abstaining from “the pleasures of the flesh” doesn’t only refer to food}. However, certain regions in Greece celebrate Kathara Deftera with wedding-parody customs.

Methoni, a small town in the Peloponnese, celebrates with a representation of “the wedding of Koutroulis”. Koutroulis was a 13th-century knight who succeeded in getting a divorce from his wife after 17 years of trying. He then proceeded to marry another lady, Arsana, and the celebrations lasted for several days.

Carnival customs in Greece

If you find yourself in the town of Thiva (Thebes), you can attend the so-called Vlach Wedding. This is a satirical representation of a wedding, where both the “bride” and the “groom” are men. Friends and relatives help dress the “bride”, and they give the “groom” a deep shave. Obviously, there is lots of wine and food, as well as traditional singing and dancing. This tradition goes back to the ancient times, resembling the cult of Dionysus.

Kathara Deftera wedding customs in Greece

A similar wedding parody is set up in the town of Trikala. This wedding is called Karagounikos, and everyone attends in traditional costumes. Again, both the “groom” and the “bride” are young men. Apparently, the priest often arrives on a big motorcycle.

Clean Monday 2021

As 2021 is a really weird year, don’t expect to see many of the celebrations mentioned above. Still, if you live in Greece, go to the nearest open space around your area, and hopefully you’ll see some people flying a kite. And don’t forget to taste lagana, taramosalata and halva!

Vanessa from Real Greek Experiences - CarnivalHello! I am Vanessa from Athens. I absolutely love helping people discover more about my country. In fact, I really enjoy researching our unique traditions and regional customs.  

As a child, I always loved Kathara Deftera, not only because it was a day away from school, but also because I could help my mom make her delicious taramosalata, which is the best I’ve ever tried.

I hope that this article has inspired you to taste some of our Lent foods – or to try flying a kite 🙂 

 

5 thoughts on “Clean Monday in Greece – Kathara Deftera and Flying Kites”

  1. What a great article, thank you very much for your insight. Having lived here for 5 years a long time ago (2000-2005) and just returned now it made me remember some of my best days then.

    Let’s hope that in 2022 we will have again a proper Kathara Deftera!

    Reply

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