Customs and Traditions
This is a feast for Orthodox Christians and it is celebrated 50 days before Easter at the beginning of Lent – a 50-day fasting period . During this period people must abstain from meat, butter and fats, eggs and dairy products.
On Clean Monday local people usually go on trips to the countryside with their families where they fly kites, have fun and eat food allowed while fasting such as octopus, olives, greens, “taramosalata” and a special bread called “lagana”. They drink wine and often dance to the accompaniment of Cretan folk music exchanging wishes for the Easter which is on its way.
Orthodox Easter is celebrated a week later than the Catholic one due to dogmatic reasons. It is considered one of the most significant feasts of the Orthodox Church. The Easter period is the ideal time to visit Crete : the weather is great, the countryside is full of trees and flowers in full bloom and everything is extremely beautiful. The beauty of the island on the one hand and the impressive religious events of the days create a unique experience for the visitor.
Every day of the Holy Week there are evening masses attended by many people. On Holy Saturday, near midnight, the Mass of the Resurrection is held. A minute or two before midnight the lights are turned off and the people with the priest go outside the church. At midnight exactly the candle held by the priest lights up (symbolising the Resurrection of Christ). One by one those present light their candles either from the priest’s candle or from some other person standing nearby. Young children usually carry big fancy, coloured candles traditionally brought to them by their godfather or godmother.
All day on Holy Saturday children and teenagers carry wood and other flammable material , pile them up forming a little “hill”. On the top of this hill they hang a “scarecrow” representing Judas, the Apostle who betrayed Christ. When the priest says “Christ has risen” they set fire to the wood . A huge fire starts burning, firecrackers light up the sky, the church bells ring and the people rejoice embracing and kissing each other, exchanging warm wishes .
They take the candles they have lit home and, before entering the house, they sketch the symbol of the cross with the soot from their candle flame.
The festive meal awaits them with traditional food : “magiritsa” and red dyed eggs. “Magiritsa” is a kind of soup containing intestines .
Easter Sunday is celebrated by roasting lambs on the spit , making “kokoretsi” also on the spit and many –many sweets – after all they had been fasting for 50 days!
Christmas- New Year’s Day
The Christmas period is especially bright and colourful , obviously influenced by western European culture. There are bright colourful lights everywhere which, along with all the other impressive decoration, create an incredible sight. Days before Christmas housewives are busy preparing traditional sweets for these special days- tradition ordered “melomakarona” for Christmas and “kourambiedes” for New Year’s Day.
There is also another interesting tradition of these days : on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve young children form groups of 3 or 4 and go to every house and shop in the village singing Christmas carols and getting money or various gifts as a reward. The carols are sung to the accompaniment of a small metallic triangle, jingling away the music, but it is not rare to see and hear guitars, accordions, lyras or even harmonicas.
Christmas trees are decorated everywhere , due to western European influence.
On New Year’s Day the tradition of the “vassilopita” comes to us from very ancient years. This is a special, very tasty cake containing a lucky “golden” coin , and especially prepared for the occasion of the advent of the new year.
As soon as the new year starts, the cake is cut . Whoever gets the coin is considered very lucky and gets presents from the hosts of the house they’ve gathered to celebrate.
Finally, there is the “podariko”, a century-old tradition, according to which the first person(not necessarily a member of the family) to enter the house on New Year’s Day can bring good or bad luck to the household.
On New Year’s Eve many people play cards with little money because the aim is to have a good time – not to make money.
EPIPHANY (or “FOTA” as it is also called)
The first blessing of the waters takes place in the church on the previous day . After this , the priest takes the cross, the holy water and a twig of basil and visits each and every house . He dips the basil in the holy water and sprinkles it all over each room separately, at the same time chanting prayers and hymns for the “well- being” of all those living there.
The big ceremony for the blessing of the waters is held on the day of the Epiphany. A great procession is formed, headed by the priest carrying the cross, local officials and people carrying various sacred objects and holy icons. They all walk towards the sea or a river or even an aqueduct- whichever is closer. Very often the procession is accompanied by a band –usually the military or municipal one.
After the special hymns are sung for the blessing of the waters, the priest tosses the cross into the water and-despite the freezing cold – some people dare to dive and try to retrieve the cross. The person who finds it and brings it to the surface is considered lucky and blessed with health and good luck for the whole year which follows.
Both the wedding and christening are considered very important ceremonies .
They were and still are-more and more rarely, it’s true- held separately, with the celebration often lasting for days so that the families and friends can really enjoy themselves and the occasion .
Since the Cretans pay great attention to tradition and family bonds, young couples consider it significant to have the approval of their family in order to get married. It is most important to have the approval of the father, to follow his advice and –in case of rejection- to obey . What usually follows is the engagement (where the couple is blessed by a priest) as well as all the necessary details and the setting of a date for the wedding.
When the time of the wedding ceremony is near , usually one to two months before, invitations are sent out to all friends and relatives to invite them to the wedding. These people usually escort the bride to the church singing traditional wedding songs , often drinking and feasting along the way.
After the ceremony all the guests go to the place designed for the wedding reception. It is traditional for the groom’s mother to “feed” the bride with honey and walnuts – a symbol that she wishes to have a “sweet” relationship with her and not fight.
There were many more interesting traditions regarding a Cretan wedding but most of them have- partly or totally- been abandoned . For example, financial arrangements were a very important matter to be arranged between the two families . There was also the matter of “doweries” , the whole set of household equipment, utensils, embroideries etc. which the bride and her relatives had prepared over the years for the equipping of her new household. Friends and relatives set off from the groom’s house and headed to the house of the bride with the accompaniment of folk music, singing, feasting, and even gunshots . They collected the “dowery” from the bride’s house and carried it to the groom’s house where the newly-weds traditionally lived. All these people were given special gifts for their help such as the elaborate round bread rolls made only for this occasion.
Both then and now, there is feasting, singing and dancing lasting well into the night, often till daybreak , or even all through the following day.
This is a very special event in the lives of Cretan sheep breeders. It is , you could say, the “feast of the sheep”.
It is one of the most impressive events taking place yearly in June. The sheep breeder invites all his friends and relatives to help him carry out this difficult task. When the shearing is over they all enjoy the meal which has been prepared and which includes a very rich meal as well as feasting, drinking, singing and even dancing .
Sheep shearing is a long and tiresome process. The first part –called “kolokourisma”- is usually carried out in the beginning of spring. It means shearing the hind legs and the tail area in order to protect the sheep’s wool from getting dirty since their excrement is “watery” due to the fresh grass they’re grazing. In June there follows the completion of the task – the shearing of the whole body. This aims at helping the animals not to suffer from the summer heat . The wool used to be processed and used by the family in order to make clothes. Nowadays it is sold to merchants at very low prices receiving –not money- some item in return.