“Kathara Deftera,” Greek for “Clean Monday,” is considered one of the most important annual feasts in Greece, commencing the 40-day period of Great Lent, or “Sarakosti,” for the Greek Orthodox Church.
The feast begins on the first day of the 7th week before the Greek Orthodox Easter Sunday.
Liturgically, however, Clean Monday — and thus Lent itself — begins on the preceding Sunday night, at a special service in which all present bow down before one another and ask for forgiveness.
In this way, the faithful begin the Great Lent with a clean conscience, forgiveness and renewed Christian love. The day of Clean Monday is sometimes called “Ash Monday,” by analogy to Ash Wednesday, the day on which Lent begins in Western Christianity.
Clean Monday also puts an end to the riotous Carnival celebrations that preceded it, inviting all Orthodox Christians to leave behind the sinful attitudes associated with Carnival festivities — and non-fasting foods, which were largely consumed during the three weeks of the Carnival.
As a result, the feast, which is a public holiday in Greece and Cyprus, is celebrated with outdoor excursions, the consumption of shellfish and other fasting foods, as well as the widespread custom of building and flying kites.
Culinary Delights of Clean Monday
Eating meat, eggs and dairy products is traditionally forbidden to Orthodox Christians throughout Lent, with fish being eaten only on major feast days.
The consumption of shellfish and mollusks, however, is permitted in Greek Orthodox Churches, thus creating the tradition of eating elaborate dishes based on seafood, such as cuttlefish and octopus, or shellfish, such as shrimp and mussels.
A traditional dip made from the salted and cured roe of carp or cod, mixed with olive oil, lemon juice and bread crumbs, called “taramosalata,” is also part of the fare consumed on Clean Monday.
Taramosalata is ideal for spreading on “lagana,” a special kind of unleavened flatbread which is baked only on that day. The history behind this bread dates from the Old Testament and refers back to the help offered by God to the Israeli people while guiding them from Egypt to the promised land.
Since then, Israelis have baked unleavened bread, or lagana, throughout the Passover period, with the tradition passed on to early Christian believers.
In Greece, records of a thin bread called “laganos,” which is mentioned in the works of the great comic playwright Aristophanes, date back to ancient times, indicating that the tradition is also linked to the country’s ancient history.
Accompanying these delights are also black-eyed beans or just common baked beans, vine leaf wrapped rice balls called “dolma,” and of course some Greek wine or tsipouro.
As for dessert, a variation of the familiar Arabic sweet called “halva” is served, made of tahini, a sesame paste, and sugar, often combined with nuts or chocolate and baked in a square or round shape.
Traditions of Clean Monday
Clean Monday, however, is not only associated with eating fasting foods, but also features many other delightful traditions celebrated all over Greece. Traditionally, as Clean Monday is considered to mark the beginning of the spring season, kite flying is also part of the things all families do.
Young people and adults organize excursions to open areas so as to fill the skies with their kites. Many traditional workshops have been devoted to constructing such kites for over 70 years now.
Although traditional wooden kites have been replaced by plastic ones, the kite-making handcraft still has its own secrets. A light wooden frame on a paper body, cords on the balances and a single cord on the tail make up for the perfect kite, ready to carry children and grown-ups off their feet in the winds of March.
Apart from kite flying, many areas in Greece maintain their own regional customs on Clean Monday. In Thebes, an old custom dating from 1830, called the “Vlach Wedding” — in reference to the matchmaking of the time — is revived each year, with all participants joining in the festivities with satirical songs and lots of dancing.
Meanwhile, in the village of Mesta on the Greek island of Chios, according to another Clean Monday custom, which has its roots in the period of Ottoman Greece, the village is “invaded” by an Ottoman military officer along with his troops, who after gathering all residents to the central square, makes them pay a fine for the charges brought against them.
The collected money is then given as tribute to the cultural association of the village.
The feast of Clean Monday and all its associated traditions and celebrations are in the hearts of the Greek people, as they provide an opportunity for leisure, an escape from the daily routine, and a connection with nature and the country’s cultural heritage.