Greek Lenten Traditions: From Foods to Kite Flying
By Grace Wagner
Set to appear in March 2022 Issue
As Spring is around the corner and Lent is just beginning, it might be hard to think about all the days until Pascha, but there are numerous Lenten traditions especially from Greece that might be fun to try out this Lenten season.
One wonderful Lenten tradition is celebrated in Greece on the first Monday of the fast which is called “Clean Monday,” or “Kathara Deftera,” in Greek. Clean Monday is a public holiday in Greece and Cyprus and numerous families both young and old spend the day enjoying outdoor picnics at beaches or parks. Many families enjoy eating fasting-friendly foods including a variety of seafood such as cuttlefish, octopus, shrimp, and mussels. Not only do families have delicious outdoor picnics with lots of seafood, but it is also traditional to make a dish called “taramosalata,” which is a dip made from fish roe (usually from a carp or cod), olive oil, bread crumbs, onions, and lemon juice. Taramosalata is usually served with some kind of bread like pita or another type of bread called “lagana” which is also made on Clean Monday. Lagana is a delicious flatbread only baked and served on the first day of Lent. While the bread was originally made unleavened, most modern recipes include a leavening agent. Wait a minute, does “Lagana” have anything to do with the word “lasagna”? The reader might wonder. Well, indeed it does. The word “lagana” actually comes from the word “laganon” which refers to a flatbread made of water and meal, which the Romans called “lasanum.” As you might have already guessed, the word “lasagna” did in fact originate from that word. Along with taramasalata and lagana, Greek families also enjoy eating dolmades and semolina halva, which is a lenten sweet made from semolina, sugar, oil, and water.
Not only is Clean Monday in Greece celebrated with a variety of delicious traditional foods, but since Clean Monday is also the first day of spring, many families enjoy celebrating the day with outdoor activities, including kite flying. The act of kite flying “…is said to symbolize the freeing of the body from sin, or the passing of the human soul to Heaven and God” (“All You Need to Know About Doing Lent Like a Greek.” ). While kite flying itself originated in China, it holds a special place in the hearts of Greek families. In fact, many of the older generations believed that the higher that their kites soared upward into the sky, the more likely God would hear and answer their prayers. The tradition of kite flying enables families to reconnect with nature and take a break from their usual daily routines of working or attending school and the tradition also enables them to celebrate the beginning of lent and to start preparing for the joy of Pascha.
While Great Lent starts in March, it may seem like the celebration of Pascha is ages away. Fasting and attending more services in Lent can be difficult, especially for families, and sometimes it is easy to become discouraged by the thought of fasting for forty days. One fun way to count down the weeks until Pascha is to bake a Lady Lent, or a “Kyra Sarakosti” as the tradition is called in Greece. The word Sarakosti is the Greek word for lent, and, as you might have guessed, the word kyra means lady. In the olden days before calendars existed, many people in Greece wanted a way to keep track of time during Lent, so they drew Sarakosti as a nun, and cut her out of paper. Since Lent is a time of fasting, Sarakosti was drawn as a woman without a mouth, and she was also drawn either without ears or she was drawn with a headscarf on covering her ears so that she would be unable to hear slanderous and evil talk. She was also drawn with seven feet to symbolize the seven weeks of Great Lent. On the Saturday of each week, a foot was cut off to symbolize the passage of another week. Nowadays, many families create a Kira Sarakosti out of a salt dough or cookie dough and each week, they cut off one of her feet. On Great and Holy Saturday, the last foot is cut off and “…is folded and placed in a dried fig or nut and whoever finds it is considered to be lucky” (“Great Lady Lent.”).