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Greece Celebrates Tsiknopempti Under Lockdown

The Greek holiday of Tsiknopempti, or “Smelly Thursday,” comes Thursday, March 4. Credit: EntaXoyas/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Tsiknopempti, a vital part of Greece’s Carnival season, or Apokries, is going to look quite bit different this year due to the country’s strict anti-virus measures and national lockdown.

Known as the meat eater’s favorite holiday, the celebration of Tskinopempti, which roughly translates to “Smelly Thursday”, or even “Charred,” “Smoky,” or “Barbeque” Thursday, involves eating as much delicious barbecue as humanly possible — and later, partying all night.

The feast, analogous to “Fat Tuesday” in the Western Church, marks the final day of indulgence before Greek Orthodox Lent, when the faithful are meant to fast and can no longer consume meat, or even dairy products.

Knowing that they will soon undertake a restrictive diet, in which meat, eggs, and most dairy products are not allowed, for the next 40 days, many believers use this opportunity to enjoy the tasty grilled meat and build up their strength for the coming period of fasting.

Tsiknopempti in the time of Covid-19

Although “Tsiknopempti” has now largely lost its religious dimension for most Greeks, the ritual remains popular and is widely celebrated by families, couples, and friends — as well as hordes of meat enthusiasts.

While the tantalizing smell of grilled viands usually pervades the air in Greece, as people take to the streets, public squares, and church courtyards to set up barbecues and prepare delicious meat-laced skewers, this year’s feast will be very different due to the country’s national lockdown.

In the time of Covid-19, the traditional Greek tavernas and large outdoor barbecue parties, popular spots on the holiday, will now be replaced with delivery services and celebrations at home with close family only.

When asked about the measures that will be in place during the beloved holiday, Deputy Minister for Civil Protection Nikos Chardalias stressed in late February that restrictions would not be eased and no exceptions would be made for Tsiknopempti.

“There will not be any variation to the existing measures, because crowding and mass movement could have extremely unfortunate consequences,” Chardalias warned.

He also encouraged Greeks to rethink the holiday, which usually includes eating large quantities of meat during the day and partying all night, as strictly a family affair.

“Let’s celebrate with our close family circle, with those who we have everyday contact with already, so that we don’t have a new breakout of the virus,” Chardalias urged.

Credit: Richard Arthur Norton (1958- )/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

The origins of the feast

The name “Tsiknopempti” originated from the fact that on that particular day, in many places around Greece, people would melt the fat from pigs, while groups gathered in homes to barbecue meat.

The widespread smell of grilled meat, called “tsikna,” from any household that could afford meat, led to the naming of the day “Tsiknopempti.”

The custom has ancient roots, as it is said to originate as far back as the Bacchanalian feasts of the ancient Greeks, which survived with only a few changes until Christian times, when Christians fit the ancient holiday in with Christian theology.

The eating and drinking on this Thursday undoubtedly celebrates earthly pleasures, but it also has a spiritual value, as it now involves fortifying oneself before the rigorous Lenten fast.

In the older days, aside from barbecuing meat, the tradition also dictated dressing up and having some fun with your neighbors. In Greek villages, people walked around in groups from house to house, knocking on doors and asking for a treat and some wine, which were both consumed on the road.

The people who offered the wine and the treats also had to leave their homes, and join the group as it partied along. The custom also usually included some “minor damage” to the outside of houses in the village, as the celebrants would knock down flower pots and spill the dirt.

They would then smear their faces with the dirt and party on until the next morning.

How much meat do Greeks eat?

Annual meat consumption per person in Europe. Credit: UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Historically, the consumption of meat, or simply having the ability to afford meat itself, was a sign of wealth. Throughout Greece’s history, very few people were able to eat meat regularly.

Meat consumption in Greece only began to soar in the 1970s after the rise of the middle class in the country. It was only at that time that people began to eat much more meat than they ever had before in their history.

Even today, Greeks don’t eat as much meat as an outside observer might think. It appears that the traditional Mediterranean diet, rich in vegetables, fruits, and seafood, still predominates in the country, and Greeks eat a great deal less meat than people in most other European countries.

Central and northern Europeans, and even Spaniards and Italians, seem to enjoy meat much more than the average Greek. The British in particular have a particular weakness when it comes to the pleasures of being a carnivore.

A total of seven European countries figure on the list of the top twenty countries in the world for meat consumption. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. tops the list, with an average of a whopping 120 kg/year (265 pounds) of meat eaten per citizen; Kuwait comes close to that staggering number, with their citizens eating an average of 119.2 kg (262 pounds) of meat each year.

Citizens of Luxembourg and Austria consume 107.9 kg (235 pounds) and 102 kg (224 pounds) respectively, followed by Spain, with 97 kg (213 pounds) and Denmark, with 95 kg (209 pounds) of meat consumed per capita.

Despite the fact that there is a souvlaki shop on almost every corner, Greek citizens eat only 74.8 kg (165 pounds) of meat per capita per year, much less than in Western Europe overall.

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