ZAKYNTHOS: A Flashback to the
Carnival of the Past
The carnival in Zakynthos is traced back to the times of the Venetian
Occupation (12th- 18th Century). Those days, the festivities started on
January 7th and lasted till the last day of the Apokries.
In 1840, however, the government of the Ionian State reduced the
Carnival period for two weeks. In fact, people used to dress up on Burnt
Thursday (Shrove Thursday or “Tsiknopempti”) night and as a result, the
festivities lasted only for eleven days. Female masqueraders were called
“maskares’’ and the male ones were called ‘’dottoroi’’. There were two
casinos (clubs for the noble men) on the island at that time which held
fancy dress parties every day, from 3 pm till 5 pm and from 8 pm till
midnight. Evening parties were very successful. In addition to the casinos,
which were popular with noblemen, there were “Cavalkines”, as well. These
were places which common people (the ‘’Popolaroi’’) rented only for the
Carnival period and converted them into music halls.
Folk theatre, ‘’Omilies’’ or ‘’Parlates’’ is a Carnival tradition, which has been
passed to the current generation, as one of the most amicable
celebrations of the common people (the “Popolaroi”). It is a kind of street
theatre and it has its origins in the period of the Venetian domination.
Common people felt the need to satirize the nobles of the island and their
way of life with performances of wandering actors. At first, “Omilies”
were well-known tragedies or novels adapted. The Cretan influence was
evident because “Erotokritos”, “Erofili” and the “Sacrifice of Abraham”
were their favourites.
The “Omilies” took place both in the villages and in the city of Zakinthos
usually in squares. The performances used to be announced by a town-
crier and this tradition is still maintained today, so don’t wonder what is
this man doing in the middle of Dionysius Solomos Square on the last day
of the Carnival. The actors were male and they played even the female
roles. This is what happens today, as well.
Another Greek Carnival custom, which is maintained in Zakinthos, is the
“Gaitanaki” (Maypole). Since old times, in the middle of the squares,
people used to put up a high wooden pole. Colorful ribbons (called
“gaitainia”) were hanging from the pole. Each of the ‘’Maskares’’ (dressed-
up women) would hold the end of each ribbon and start dancing round the
pole in such a way that the ‘’gaitania’’ would be wrapped around it. When
all ribbons were wrapped, they started dancing the other way round to
“unwrap” them. This dance is called ‘’ gaitanaki’’ and is still performed
today all over Greek provinces only during the Carnival period.
Looking back in the past, it is worth mentioning that middle-class women
would not be allowed to get around on their own apart from going to the
church. However, during the Carnival period, they could go out on their
own being dressed up, of course, and have fun till dawn. They were free
to dance and flirt with anyone they liked because their masks would cover
their faces and no-one would recognize them. As you imagine, this custom
is not maintained in our days because women have the same rights as men
do and they are free to enjoy themselves.
Another tradition that is maintained till today is the children’s carnival.
Wealthy children were dressed up in expensive costumes such as navy
officers, Scottish, Catholic priests etc. Those days, however, children
could not choose their costume. Their parents decided for them. Their
aim was to offer an enjoyable sight to the public and not enjoy
themselves. On the last night of the carnival (Cheese-eating Sunday), the
bells would toll at midnight and the festivities would come to an end.
People would take out their masks to reveal their faces and go home.
Nowadays, the Carnival period is a celebration for all the people of
Zakinthos and every foreigner or tourist who happens to come to the
island. It involves dressing up, eating the traditional dishes, drinking the
sweet Zakinthian wine and dancing. It ends with the “Tyrinee” (Cheese-
eating) Sunday, after the parade of the masqueraders and the floats and
the “Funeral of the Mask”. It is a special ceremony which ends with the
burning of the Carnival King (a float) and which will be described later.
TSIKNOPEMPTI (Burnt Thursday or Shrove Thursday)
It is always on the second week of the Triodio (during the Meat-eating
week). The main feature of this day is the grilling of the meat
“tsiknisma”. “Tsikna” in Greek refers to the smell that is given off when
fatty meat is roasted in the open air. “Pempti” is the Greek word for
“Thursday”. This is why it is called Tsiknopempti. The “Sunday” which
follows “Tsiknopempti” is the last day that eating meat is allowed and this
is why it is called “Meat-eating Sunday». There are various traditions
connected with Tsiknopempti all over Greece: for example:
Serres (Eastern Macedonia): People light big fires in the open ground.
They grill meat and then they jump over them.
Comotini (Thrace): On “Tsiknopempti”, people usually grill chickens
which they eat on Cheese-eating Sunday. Engaged couples send to each
other grilled chickens and a traditional sweet, called “baklavas”.
Corfu (Ionian island): In the old city of Corfu, women re-enact the old
tradition of gossiping (called “Koutsobolia”, or “Petegoletsia”) in the local
dialect. They talk to each other standing at the windows of their houses
about their fellow-citizens’ secret love affairs and they satirize them. In
the end, men sing “kantades” under their windows and everything comes
to an end.
SKOPELOS (Sporades island)
All the inhabitants of the village Klima take part in a festivity including
eating roast meat, drinking wine and dancing the whole night till next
Throughout the regions of Peloponnese people slay pigs and prepare
delicious “mezedes” (appetizers) such as sausages, “pihti” “tsigarides” and
various dishes containing pork for this special day. Then, they organize
parties and enjoy themselves eating, drinking and dancing.