Clean Monday: Orthodox Christians kick off Lent with kites, seafood and lagana

Round flatbread with seeds on top, torn in half with brown sauce on side in cup

Greek lagana bread, baked only for Clean Monday. Photo by Sofia Gk, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, MARCH 11: The flavors of shellfish and soft lagana bread are associated with the start of the Lenten season in Greece. Outside, colorful kites fly above the fields as Orthodox Christians mark Clean Monday.

Western Christian Lent began last week with Ash Wednesday.

The centuries-old tradition of observing Lent as a season of reflection and self-denial is intended to prepare Christians for the greatest festival in their religious calendar: Easter. However, the ever-changing date of Easter—and the method of counting 40 days in Lent—is one of the centuries-old differences among Christians East and West.

“Western Christians count Lent’s 40 days as starting with Ash Wednesday but excluding Sundays. Eastern Christians, those generally called Orthodox, start their 40 days on a Monday, counting Sundays, but excluding the week leading up to Easter.” That’s one of the intriguing details in the book, Our Lent: Things We Carry, by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm. “Some Christians fast; some don’t. Millions of Western Christians retain a custom of limited fasting; millions of Eastern Christians prayerfully make significant sacrifices during this season.”

Eight days ago, Eastern Christians observed Meatfare Sunday, the last time observant Christians will eat meat until Pascha (Easter). One day ago was Cheesefare Sunday, when Eastern Christians consume dairy products for the last time. Today, Orthodox families begin the fast of Great Lent with “clean” foods and a cleansed state of mind.

CLEAN MONDAY IN GREECE

Rather than begin Lent in a solemn manner, Clean Monday is celebrated as a public holiday in Greece and Cyprus: outdoor activities, zany local traditions, kite flying and plenty of Lenten-friendly food is par for the course. As shellfish is permitted in these cultures throughout Lent, a spread of extravagant dishes—based on the bounty of the sea—is common on Clean Monday in Greece.

Customs and traditions vary by locality in Greece on the first day the Lenten season, with colored flour being thrown into crowds in Glaxidi, on the northern coast of the Corinth Gulf; on the Greek island of Chios, a man dresses up as “Aga,” or “Ayas” (the tax collector), then he and his followers grab local villagers to put them into a mock trial. The “criminals” found guilty must suffer punishment or pay a fine that funds the village’s cultural association.

KITES AND CULINARY DELIGHTS

The flying of kites across Greece welcomes spring in a colorful and festive manner, and many traditional kite makers pride themselves on decades of experience. When out and about, picnic baskets are often filled with lagana, an unleavened bread baked only for Clean Monday, and taramosalata, a dip made of salted and cured roe mixed with olive oil, lemon juice and bread crumbs. (Wikipedia has details.) Feasts of bean soup, shellfish dishes, octopus platters, shrimp dishes and more are carefully prepared for a Clean Monday extravaganza.

Interested in baking lagana? Find a recipe at the blog Lemon & Olives, or at The Greek Vegan.

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