Traditions of Apokries
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Across the Christian world, carnival time begins before the longest fasting period of the year—Great Lent. The word "carnival" actually comes from the Latin "carnem levare", or "carnis levamen", which means, "the discontinuation of eating meat". The Greek word for this is "apokria". And hence, the three-week period of merrymaking and feasting on meat and dairy products is called "Apokries"(even though the last week only fish and dairy products are consumed.) Even though we celebrate with the wearing of costumes and merriment, the meanings are deeper than that, in our Orthodox Church.
The initiation of Apokries begins with the "opening" of the Triodion. This is actually a church book that contains hymns of three odes ("triodion") referring to the preparation and anticipation of Easter. The chanters "open" this book during the vespers service on Saturday evening before the Sunday of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. In this manner the Church announces the beginning of Apokries, a process of change from merry-making and the consumption of all food to a gradual spiritual state of penitence and contrition, and a gradual decline in consumption of certain foods.
During the first week of the Triodion, meat is allowed to be consumed all week, even on Wednesday and Friday. The varieties of preparing meat dishes are as wide as the regional traditions. Along with this is the tradition of dressing up in various costumes. This stems from the pagan tradition of wearing masks to ward off the evil spirits of the deep winter and to procure a successful spring crop from their autumn-sown seeds. In folk tradition the costumes and satirical plays have themes of weddings, animals, and magicians—all symbolic of new growth, fruitfulness and chasing away evil spirits.
One of the most celebrated days of the period is what is called "Tsiknopempti" (literally, "smokey Thursday") which is the last weekday of eating meat during Meat Fare week. By tradition, everyone, even the poorer members of the community, is supposed to grill pieces of meat with a little fat on it so that the smoke can fill the air and let others know that this day is being celebrated. This is how "Tsiknopempti" was named. Each family cooked its meat and took it to another home, or everyone gathered in one home to cook together, sending the smell of grilled meat throughout the neighborhood. Today most people celebrate this Thursday in local taverns with friends and family. This leads to the weekend of Meat Fare Sunday that marks the last day of meat consumption.
Following this Sunday is Cheese Fare week, where fish and dairy products are eaten all week. During this last week of Apokries, there are lots of traditional dishes made with cheese, milk and eggs. For instance, the Vlach communities make traditional "galatopites" (milk pies), cheese pies, or pies with "trahana", a homemade meal of wheat flour or cracked wheat—all of course, made with homemade phyllo.
In some parts of Greece there are traditional dishes with macaroni. As a matter of fact, it’s from this tradition that macaroni gets its name. In the liturgical practice of the Orthodox Church there are special Saturdays during this period set aside for dedication to the dead. They are called the Saturdays of Souls where memorial services take place in the liturgy. In addition to passing out to those attending the service the boiled wheat, which symbolizes the soul of the deceased loved one, in some areas of Greece a traditional meal is served called the "macaria", meaning the "blessed," in honor of the deceased. The meal originally consisted of homemade pasta. There is also a wish for the deceased that their memory be eternal, or "aeonia", in Greek. Then the two words were combined to form "macar-onia". This then became the traditional meal served on Cheese Fare Sunday.
Another tradition of Cheese Fare Sunday worth mentioning is the practice of ending the evening meal with eggs. The eggs can either be boiled or even baked in the hearth. In some areas of Greece, members of the family put their eggs close to the embers in the hearth to bake and wait to see whose egg will "sweat" first. This is a sign that he or she will have a good year. But the symbolism behind this tradition is that one "seals" his mouth with an egg just as he will open his mouth with an egg on Easter. This refers to the tradition of cracking red dyed eggs with one another after the Service of Resurrection and repeating the phrase "Christ is risen" until everyone’s egg gets cracked. The egg is then consumed and is usually the first thing eaten after the Easter midnight liturgy. So this last Sunday of Apokries marks the end of the merry-making and calls the Orthodox faithful to take up the forty-day fast, popularly called "Sarakosti", which begins the following day, called Pure, or Clean Monday.