Carnival Greece
Carnival celebrations in Athens, Greece (Credit: greekherald.com.au)

The best Greek Carnival festivities not to be missed

Patras, Rethymno, Xanthi, Galaxidi, Naousa and many more mainland and island destinations await

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The Greek Carnival season, better known as “Apokries,” (meaning abstention from meat) is a festive period traditionally takes place in February and/or early March, and lasts for three weeks prior to the Easter Lent. The main characteristics of Carnival is wearing costumes and masks that offer anonymity and freedom of expression, dancing and satire.

The celebrations of the Carnival in Greece, have an ancient Greek origin and come from the worshipping of Dionysus, god of wine, fun and fertility. The ancient Greeks held a wine and dance festival in February/March to celebrate the spring’s return and the earth’s regeneration. Followers of Dionysus would dress up as satyrs( the goat-like companions of Dionysus) or hide their faces behind masks and run wildly through the streets of the city. Nowadays, carnival season is held in the same period but not on a fixed date, as it depends on the moveable Easter date.

Celebrations build up to “Tsiknopempti”- Tsikno means the smell of grilled meat and Pempti means Thursday- when people go out to taverns and consume large amounts of meat prior to the arrival of Lent. Tsiknopempti (this year on March 7) is also the day when the first masquerades for the Greek Carnival make their appearance.

If you love Carnival, then Greece is an ideal destination, as different customs and traditions come to life in every region of the country. During the celebration of twenty-two days (including 3 weekends) there are many public events organized by municipalities, as well as street parties, masquerades, extravagant parades of giant floats, treasure hunts, the list is endless.

The most famous carnivals in Greece are in the cities of Patras (Peloponnese), Xanti (Eastern Macedonia and Thrace), Rethymnon (Crete) Galaxidi (Central Greece) and Naousa (Central Macedonia) but in every village, town or city some kind of celebration is going on.

Patras

Grand Parade, Patras (Credit:Gontzi at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The port-town of Patras in Peloponnese boasts the largest carnival celebration in Greece and one of the biggest in Europe. The “Patrino Carnavali” has a history of over 180 years and is a variety of events that includes dance shows, balls, truly astounding parades, hidden treasure hunt games, the children’s carnival, theatre performances, art exhibitions and concerts amongst others. 

It climaxes in the last weekend of Carnival with the Night Parade of carnival groups on Saturday, the extravagant Grand Parade of floats and groups on Sunday, and finally the spectacular burning of the King Carnival in the Closing Ceremony at the port of St. Nicholas. Each year, Patrino Karnavali features a specific theme that is satirised and explored throughout the festivities, often reflecting current events, political or social issues, or historical references. This year’s Grand Parade culminates on February 26th (at 14:00). At 21:00, the carnival burning is scheduled to follow, followed by the Closing Ceremony.

Xanthi

Xanthiotiko Carnival (Credit: Municipality of Xanthi)

Another celebrated carnival in Greece is Xanthiotiko-Thracian Folk Festival, hosted in Xanthi town in the Greek north, in the Thrace region. Founded in 1966, it is the second biggest in Greece, following the Patras Carnival, and attracts thousands of visitors from all over the country and the neighboring Balkan countries. The events include folk art performances, visual art exhibitions, concerts, dancing, Children’s Parade and are at their peak with the Grand Parade of floats and people participating. The highlight in Xanthi’s carnival is the custom of burning the “Tzaros”. According to the inhabitants of Eastern Thrace, “Tzaros” was a man-made model, mounted on a pile of holly trees. This custom marks the end of the carnival season and is followed by a spectacular fireworks show and a traditional feast.

Rethymno

Rethymno Carnival, Crete (Credit: Municipality of Rethymno)

Another impressive place to visit is Rethymno, a charming coastal town organizing since 1914 the best known and the biggest carnival in Crete with an obvious Venetian influence. Today’s typical celebrations include cultural events overflowing with creativity and inspiration. Among these, the treasure hunt, the dance of the teams,  numerous parties, workshops for children, and the final Grand Parade or Sunday Parade on which the carnival teams show off their floats and elaborate costumes and parade on the main avenue of Rethymno all while dancing and celebrating.  Each year the carnival celebration has a different theme, the element on which the main theatrical act of the dance groups will be based.

Galaxidi

Galaxidi flour war (Credit: RoubinakiM, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

If you’re looking for another festive and unforgettable experience then you won’t want to miss the end of Carnival in Galaxidi. Every year on Clean Monday, the first day of the Lent Period before Easter, the coastal town holds the annual flour smudging (Alevromoutzouromata), a very old tradition, with roots probably in the Byzantine era during which the clowns of the Hippodromes painted their faces. Locals and visitors get in groups out in the streets, armed with bags of flour, streamers and confetti. They dance on the streets as they head for the port area. Once they get there, they engage in an all out flour-flinging war attacking each other by throwing flour at each other’s faces, heads, clothes while dancing to folk tunes. In recent years, many have taken to adding coloring to the flour. Many jump into the sea to wash off.

Naousa

Carnival in Naousa, Greece (Credit: Νίκος Κεραμίδης, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The carnival in the Heroic City of Naousa in northern Greece, is among the oldest Greek traditions which have managed to survive to this very day. It has elements from ancient Greece and is also deeply linked with the city’s struggle against Ottoman rule. One well-known custom is that of the “Genitsaroi kai Boules”, who wander around the streets dancing and wearing masks known as “Prosopo.” Genitsaroi are young, unmarried men. The ”Boula” is the only female figure, but is impersonated by a young man wearing a modified local bridal dress. The procession is preceded by little children wearing “foustanella” (traditional, pleated skirt-like men’s garments).

Other popular Carnival customary practices and traditions take place in other cities, towns and villages like Moschato in Athens, Sochos northeast of Thessaloniki, Kastoria in Western Macedonia, Tyrnavos in Thessaly, Amfissa in Phocis, Drama in Eastern Macedonia. The islands of Skyros, Chios, Aegina, Naxos, Corfu and Zakynthos are also famous for their customs and traditions of Apokries.