January 6, 2013

Epiphany Customs and Traditions Abound In Greece

Stella Tsolakidou
January 5, 2013

Customs and traditions dating back to ancient times will come once again to life on Jan. 6 during the Theofania (also Epiphany or Fota) celebration taking place across Greece. Religious sentiment meets exhilaration and joy for the day commemorating the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist, according to the Orthodox Church, and the banishing of the mischievous Kalikantzaroi (goblins) back to the hollow earth for another year round, according to popular belief.

In all Greek cities and villages the priests bless the waters with the Holy Cross on that day, while many brave swimmers jump into the icy sea or river waters despite the cold weather to catch the Cross and get the priest’s blessing for the year. However, the benediction of the waters is not the only tradition coming alive in modern day Greece.

╬čne of the main traditions of the Epiphany holiday is the Kalanda (carols) sung by children on Epiphany’s Eve over sweets or a small amount of money. From the numerous versions of the Kalanda only those sung on Patmos island retain their original and fully oriented religious character. These Kalanda begin with the creation of the world, the creation of waters by God, and finally end with the day of Jesus Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan river by John the Baptist.

Across Thessalia, on Epiphany’s Eve the Rougkatsia (also Rougkatsaria) are the main attraction of the holiday with groups of 10 to 15 persons dressed up in costumes, wandering from house to house singing the celebrating carols and hoping for a small amount of money in return. Every group must definitely feature a groom and bride (a young man dressed as a woman), priest, grandfather, doctor and the “arkoudiarides” (owners of bears that made the animals dance for the public’s entertainment in Greek rural areas since 1970).

People in Kastoria and Kozani have a similar tradition called the Ragkoutsaria. People put on their symbolic and scary painted masks in order to exorcise the evil spirits from the city. The masked men beg from passersby for their rewards for casting the evil spirits away. The same custom is also found in villages near the city of Drama, northeastern Greece. (see video)

There it is called the rokatzaria and people wear scary masks and make deafening noises with the bells they are carrying while walking around. In other villages near Drama and Kavala, the traditions of “arapides” (black men) revives with men wearing sheepskin and dozens of bells. It is said that the arapides were warriors that took part in Alexander the Great’s wars and helped him scare away the Indian elephants in battle with the thundering sounds they made.

Another version of the ragkoutsaria are the Pontian Momogeroi, a traditional celebration taking place the week before the new year. Each participant is dressed up with a certain costume typical of the Pontian culture and way of life.

In the peninsula of Halkidiki, northern Greece, the Fotarades custom is praised each year. The “king” is dressed in the talagani (the traditional cape worn by shepherds) and many bells and leads the dance, while the fotarades are bearing their swords made of wood to deter anyone from attempting to steal the sausage placed in the middle of the circle. On Epihany’s Eve, young men sing the Kalanda and get meat, sausages and money in return, while on Jan. 7 (celebration of John the Baptist) they dance traditional dances in the village’s square.

On the eve of Epiphany Day in New Karvali, east of Kavala, the "Sagias" custom is revived every year which has its roots in Cappadocia. Participants gather around a bonfire and celebrate the day by dancing and singing.

On the eve of the Epiphany Day in Ermioni, Argolida, residents decorate boats with palm trees, oranges and myrtle. In the morning and after the blessing of the waters, young lads who are ready to be drafted into the army wander about the town wearing traditional costumes and singing the naval song "gialo - gialo."

On the island of Lefkada, a strange custom involving oranges is revived. Oranges are tied to believers who then have to dip into the waters. When they do a couple of laps, they apparently take the oranges home and leave the fruit near an icon. This is considered a blessing on the island.