There is a lot going on in the world this week, and it’s all very “turn, turn, turn,” to quote the Book of Ecclesiastes (and, later, Pete Seeger, and even later, the Byrds). The verse reminds us that to everything there is a season. And because Orthodox Easter and Western Easter are the same this year (August 24th), this week is all about amping up and counting down to that big day. Yesterday was Clean Monday for Orthodox Christians, which marks the start of Lent, inviting us to start the Lenten season with a clean heart. As I’ve mentioned before, most Greeks celebrate by packing Lent-friendly picnics and flying kites in the countryside–maybe the soaring kite represents the lightheartedness that comes with a clean conscience, but that’s just my own theory.
And for Western Christians, today is Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, the last night of partying down and eating rich foods before Lenten fasting begins. (The word Carnival or Carnevale comes from the Latin for “farewell to meat”, a more literal reference to fasting.)
I’m a dedicated carnivore (I know it’s better not to be one, but still I love me some red meat every now and then). But I actually enjoy the ritual of fasting for Lent, which is not meant to replicate Jesus’s suffering (which would be impossible) but to remind us on a daily basis that this is a special, spiritual time. Partly I love fasting because in Greece all these delicious shellfish and vegetarian options start popping up on menus everywhere (including at McDonald’s, where placemats are printed with a word that translates to “McLent”). But I also like having my options limited for a while, and altering my focus from what it usually is–choosing either what’s the cheapest, or the least caloric thing on the menu. It’s nice to have something else to think about besides my wallet or weight. (For those Lent-ing at home, check out my fave Greek food blogger Peter Minakis’s round-up of Lent-friendly recipes at http://kalofagas.ca/2011/03/06/greek-lent-sarakosti-recipe-round-up/)
But I also like Lent because it signals the end of winter to me…it’s the last quiet, dormant season before the riot of wildflowers that signals the coming of Spring. I like a goal and I love a countdown to a good time. And that’s what Clean Monday and Mardi Gras herald–a nice, quiet time of reflection before the joys to come. A psychic reboot.
To aid in the counting down, traditional Greek bakeries make a bread shaped like a lady with seven legs named Kyra Sarakosti (Lady Lent); as each week until Easter passes, a leg is torn off. It’s like an advent calendar only with Easter and bread instead of Christmas and chocolate. Kids also make paper dolls of Kyra Sarakosti, which might make you feel less like a cannibal.
I love festival-specific foods like King Cake or Kyra Sarakosti (I’d feel bad tearing off one of her legs, but I bet I could get over that). But I think the fact that cultures develop these ritually significant foods to signify important times of year indicates that all humans have an innate need for times of quiet and times of celebration, along with the opportunity to have some sanctioned acting out now and then, like Carnevale (which is called Apokreas in Greek). I was just reading about one such moment of acting out in the Greek town of Galaxidi, where, on Clean Monday, they celebrate a custom called Aleuromountzouromata, which translates to something like “flour stains” and involves people throwing colored flour at each other.
And in the town of Tyrnavos, in Thessaly, Greece, they celebrate “Dirty Monday”, drinking moonshine out of phallus-shaped cups. Some people theorize that, since this is a wine-producing region, “Dirty Monday” is a vestige of Dionysian rebels. But considering the moonshine, phallus, and flour wars all together reminds me of Holi, the Hindu spring festival acting-out holiday when people throw colored powder and water at each other, women harass men, hash milkshakes are drunk and anarchy reigns. It’s a major goal of mine to make it to Holi one day. And when I do, I will get a little crazy. But right now, I’m settling in for a little Lenten quiet…we’ll see how long that lasts!