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FEBRUARY

ST.TRYFONAS

Saint Tryfonas is portrayed as a young man: an embodiment of the promise of spring, so eagerly awaited by all those that work the land and vines. (He is also a Saint that can heal the ill.) He is often painted with geese, as he was goose herder. Monasteries and churches dedicated to him are found in southern Crete – and also near the archaeological site of Knossos. He ensures the growth of the crops, but most importantly the gathering of a good harvest of wine and table grapes, as well as sultanina raisins. He will protect the crops from insects and locusts, so locals take to the church today baskets full of vegetables, which are arranged beside his icon. After the service, food from the offerings is distributed to all – even those who just happen to be passing by.

VIRGIN  MARY ARKOUDIOTISA  (MARY, OUR LADY OF THE BEAR)

A unique celebration dedicated to the mother of Christ here in Crete, the celebration initially was conducted in a cave in Western Crete close by the Monastery Gouverneto in Chania. Now they occur in other areas of the island as well. What we recognize in this event is the continuation of a tradition that is very ancient: this cave was once dedicated to the ancient goddess Artemis (Diana), whom you might associate with wild animals, the moon and hunting. But this virgin goddess also had a role as the goddess of childbirth. The cave has stalactites and stalagmites that ‘form’ a huge bear: one of the sacred animals of this ancient goddess. The ancient celebrations are part of the Candlemas of the Greek Christian Orthodoxy today: Christ was taken to the temple this day. Bears are renown for being good mothers (kourotrophes). They can ‘overlap’ with the great mother holding her divine child in antiquity; and do so still later – first as  the virgin Mary in Biblical times and finally the more modern Virgin Mary of the Bear, who is the protector of pregnant women, mothers and young children. In many caves all around Crete, the Bear-version of the Virgin Mary is celebrated with bonfires, at night services held in the light of torches.   In Greek mythology, the Bears, Arctos both little and large, became stars (Ursa Minor and Major), in reward for their protection of Zeus in his infancy. Bears often protect children in these stories.

ST.SYMEON – 03 FEBRUARY

Celebrated at the beginning of February, this bearded saint is associated with the scars that children might bear if their mother dared to sew, while pregnant. So pregnant women in Crete would never risk any sewing or knitting on this saint’s name day.

SAINT ISIDORE OF THE CRETANS – 04 FEBRUARY

A saint actually of Alexandria in Egypt, he appears at the very eastern tip of Crete (Cavo Sidero, where a monastery is dedicated to him. As a hermit, he spent time in the desert: which habit explains why we have monasteries dedicated to this saint in far off and remote areas. Like in many cases when celebrating Saint Isidore, his pilgrims come on foot, bringing those wild greens that they have collected along the way. Large fires are set going, so that the food is cooked through the night, before the early morning service.

SAINT HARALAMBOS – 10 FEBRUARY

Saint Haralambos is the patron saint of vegetation animals. as well as a protector against the Black Death. The Plague was often painted as an old woman, blind and  naked, that contaminated all and took the lives of almost everyone, unless Saint Haralambos stood in her way. His churches are often sited at the entrance of a settlement or village, for he would protect the inhabitants from anything bad that tried to enter. As his name means ‘he who shines with joy’, one who drove away darkness and death, he is the saint you pray to when planting a tree, especially during winter. Then too when large animals fell ill in Crete, they were brought to the entrance of the church: the saint was asked to cure them. Bread was made and blessed in the name of the saint, and then given to the sick animal in the hope of restoring its health. There is a very unusual chapel dedicated to this saint at Sfakia in south-west Crete, a sea-side cave! Here icons of him are arranged, alongside candles set in a pot of sand and oil lamps hanging from the ceiling of the cave. The briny sea air almost masks the powerful scent of the incense. Why here and by the sea? Well, the plague came to Sphakia across the sea…

SAINT VLASIOS – 11 FEBRUARY

Saint Vlasios, the Hermit, spent most of his life in caves, dwelling among wild animals that he had tamed. This saint also helped pregnant women, so in Crete sweets are made by pregnant women and given to friends in his name.

SAINT POLIKARPOS – 23 FEBRUARY

Saint Polikarpos was the bishop of Ishmir – in Asia Minor. Polikarpos, meaning many fruits, is naturally the saint responsible for the well-being of the fruits and fruiting plants. The celebrations of this saint are intertwined with celebrations to ensure prosperity in antiquity.

APOKRIES (ABSTINENCE OF MEAT) – CARNIVAL

The date will vary, being linked to that of Easter .. some years as early as February, others a good month later. The Greek Carnival is celebrated before Easter, but its roots go far back, to when the ancient people of Greece celebrated the life, death and resurrection of the ancient God Dionysus. This celebration was an opportunity for the rural population from antiquity onwards to enjoy themselves, as well as strengthening the ties among the people. The modern Carnival coincides with the ancient festival of Anthestiria (one of Flowers): these celebrations were to mark the moment the Gates of Hades opened – and souls were set free for a while. So even today, makaria (in memory of, in Greek) makaroni is served. No trees (a flower of sorts) are cut during these days. All in memory of the souls that have passed. One of cities in Greece where Carnival is enjoyed the most is the city of Rethymno: every year 15,000 people attend and 25 floats parade in the streets! But in villages too, such as Meronas to the south of Rethymno, the celebrations are renown through all the island. Games, theater, teasing, the wedding, the funeral, the confession and the camel take place in the village square.  Carnival is first celebrated within the family unit and close friends, and then spills out onto the streets, with different costumes (designed and made, or bought) and themes each year.

TSIKNOPEMPTI (MEAT THURSDAY)

On this day food is given to the poor, in the name of the souls who have passed away. People dress up on this day as well. In villages, animal hides are worn, large bells raise a clamour and lots of teasing takes place. It is the moment when farmers and shepherds evoke the past, and ask of nature and the past to permit the present to flourish, and so provide a future. It is an explosion of life, unleashing new life. Normality departs. People wear their clothes inside out, sprout animal horns or don masks etc. Wearing a large phallus represents virility; men dress as women, theatrically-dressed ‘brides’ – all male – provoke and tease other males; shocking and naughty jokes are shared and savoured. In antiquity, Dionysus had transformed himself to escape death, but was nonetheless killed and eaten: before rising from the dead. Echoes of these ancient traditions can be clearly detected during the Cretan carnival .. as people evoke all souls and harness the power of nature, to first unleash its wild powers and then to restore normality and ensure prosperity. Night parades accompanied by musicians announce the opening of the celebrations and the carnival. After the night parade in the city of Rethymno, the mayor hands the keys of the city over: symbolizing his relinquishing of control to the unruly forces about to erupt. While all the celebrations described above take place, the older women make preparations to honour the departed souls. Finally on Carnival Sunday, the main parade takes place. It is deemed that spring must have decided to return, and that the souls are pleased. As Sunday passes into Monday (Clean Monday – Katheri Deftera), Lent begins. Normality reasserts itself: the kes of the city of Rethymno return to the mayor; the effigy of the Carnival King is burned on the beach of Rethymno, among fireworks. After Clean Monday, we leave behind the recent abundance of food and alcohol. We begin the slow and accumulating fast, until Easter. Special food is consumed on this Monday, preparing us for Lent. People eat taramas (fish eggs/roes dip), squid, shrimp, octopus – denizens of the deep, for no red meat, no blood, must be drawn this day. The flying of kites in the open fields is enthusiastically pursued on this Monday: the fragile constructions of paper and string ascending ever aloft, to become mere dots in the skies – wafting away on the clean winds of heaven and cleansing the sins of the world below.

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