Festivals, Celebrations & Holidays on Crete

From Carnival to Christmas

Cretans never seem to miss an opportunity to celebrate. The year is a long succession of feasts and celebrations usually involving lots of delicious food, drink, live music and dancing. Here we have described some of the many festivals and holidays celebrated on Crete throughout the year. Some are national holidays, some are local festivals - mainly from the Rethymnon prefecture where our holiday house is situated. In addition to the events mentioned here there are many more. Each town celebrates the day allocated to their patron saint and on the occasion of their different agricultural specialities different villages have festivals for cherries, chestnuts, water melons, wine, raisins, olives and oranges... you name it, they've got it.

January 1

Πρωτοχρονιά (Protochroniá) New Year's Day

'Protohronia' literally means 'the first day of the year'. This is the day when Agios Vasilis (Saint Basil), who is the Greek Santa Claus, brings gifts to all the children. (Not so at Christmas). The municipalities sponsor public fireworks on CreteIn the evening people go out to celebrate. The streets are crowded and so are all of the bars and night clubs. A relatively recent addition to the festivities are fireworks and publicly sponsored music and entertainment.

Participating in gambling and lotteries, or playing games or cards in the kafeneions is another tradition of New Years Day since the Greeks consider this day a particularly lucky day. It is also a tradition to take auguries from whoever will be the first to enter ones' house in the new year. As it is often the case in many societies, ancient beliefs survives in rituals involving food. In Greece there is 'Η Βασιλόπιτα' (Ι Vasilópita) the New Years Cake.

A coin is hidden in the dough before it's baked. When it is time to cut the cake the family and everybody else present is given a piece. But a piece is also cut for the blessing of the house and depending on family traditions pieces may be cut for Christ, for various saints or even the 'Καλλικάντζαρος' (Kallikánitsas) the goblins. The one who gets the piece with the coin will be lucky for the rest of the year. This tradition has its' roots in an ancient festival called 'Kronia' which was held in honour of the god 'Κρόνος' (Cronos), father of Zeus and the god of grain and harvest.


January 6

Θεοφάνεια (Theofania) Epiphany

On this day the Baptism of Christ is celebrated. It also marks the end of the Christmas season. The day is also called 'Ta Fota', meaning 'The Lights'. In every village the priest will go round in the evening and sprinkle holy water on each house to bless the house and the people who live there. This ceremony is called 'ayiasmos' or the blessing of the waters.

Another 'blessing of the waters' in commemoration of Christ's baptism in the river Jordan is the spectacular ceremonies held at harbours or rivers which usually attract huge crowds. During the ceremony the priest will throw a cross in the water. Swimmers will then dive in the icy cold water and try to retrieve it. He who does is said to have good luck throughout the coming year.


January 30

Τριών Ιεραρχών (Trion Ierarchon) The Three Holy Hierarchs

This is a school holiday in remembrance of the patron saints of education; the Three Holy Hierarchs (Οι Τρείς Ιεράρχες), Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom who were bishops in the early Christian church.

In the eleventh century there was a dispute about whom of the three were the greatest. But then the hierarchs appeared in a vision to the bishop of Euchaita in 1084 saying that they were equal before God. Since then the feast day commemorating the three in common was instituted.

In some parishes the day is also a celebration of the Greek letters. The Three Hierarchs were supporters of Greek learning and the day is therefore not only dedicated to the promulgation of Orthodox Christian ideals but also to education.


February 2

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Also known as Candle mass because of a tradition of holding lighted candles during the liturgy of this feast day. The holiday celebrates the day when Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the temple for presentation forty days after his birth.


Late Mid February

Απόκριας (Apokriás) Carnival

Spectacular carnivals are held in many of the Greek cities and towns. One of the major carnivals is the carnival of Rethymnon. The carnival which in Greek is called 'Apokrias' marks the coming of Lent. The word 'Carnival' is probably derived from 'carne levare', which is Italian for 'remove meat' or 'carne vale' meaning 'farewell to meat'.

'Apokrias' comes from 'αποχή από το κρέας' (apochi apo to kreas) which can be translated as 'away from meat'. The carnival tradition probably reach back to pre-Christian times. In Greece it is believed that the carnival is related to the worship of Dionysus the ancient Greek god of wine and 'inspired madness'.

The carnival normally runs for three weeks. During the carnival period various events take place such as treasure hunts, exhibitions and fancy dress balls. The carnival ends on 'Tyrofagis' Sunday (Shrovetide Sunday - the last day before 'Clean Monday' which marks the beginning of Lent) with parades through the town and dancing and singing in the streets until dawn.


February or March

Καθαρή Δευτέρα (Kathari Deftéra) Clean Monday

'Clean Monday' or 'Pure Monday' is the first day of the Lent. It falls at the beginning of the 7th week before Easter Sunday. Fasting starts this day and traditionally no meat, fish, eggs, dairy products or oil are allowed to be eaten for the next 40 days leading up to Easter.

Clean Monday is a Bank Holiday in Greece. Many people celebrate it by going to the mountains or to the beach. It's also a widespread custom to fly kites on this day. Since it is forbidden to eat meat and fish a tradition of eating dishes based on shellfish, molluscs, fish roe etc. has developed.

In Melidoni (the neighbouring village of Exantis and only 4-5 km from our holiday house) old folk customs take place such as the 'moutzouromata' where 'gangs' roam around smudging people with soot.


March 25

Εικοσιπεντε Μαρτιου (Eikosipente Martiou) 25th of March

This is a dual holiday. As a religious holiday it celebrates the Annunciation - the day when the birth of Christ was announced to the Virgin Mary.

As a secular holiday it marks the start of the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire, in 1821. There are military parades and other celebrations all over the country. Consequently, archaeological sites and museums are closed.


April 23

Άγιος Γεώργιος (Agios Georghios) Festival

This feast takes place in several towns and villages on Crete and elsewhere in the sphere of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is the name day of Agios Georgios or Saint George. In the Orthodox Church Agios Georgios is a saint of major importance. He is widely known from the tale of 'George and the Dragon'.

In Greek the name Georgios is derived from the word 'georgos' which means husbandman or farmer. He is perceived as a kind of spiritual farmer sowing the seeds of the gospel. In Arahova a three-day-long feast takes place and in Assi Gonia near Chania the religious celebration is followed by a sheep-shearing contest among the local shepherds as Agios Georgios is the patron saint of the shepherds. In the village of Karoti which is not so far from our holiday home, the shepherds bring their sheep to the church for blessing on this day.


April or May

Πάσχα (Pascha) Easter

Easter is the most important holiday in Greece and the biggest religious event of the year. On Good Friday people go to church for the ceremony of the Descent of Christ. Later people carrying candles and singing go round in the streets forming a procession behind a flower decorated epitaph. Saturday evening at around 11 pm church services are held to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. Just before midnight all lights are extinguished and people move outside to the courtyard in front of the church. At the moment of the Resurrection, the Easter Candle is lit. The bells starts ringing and the flame is passed from one to another so that people can light their own candles with the holy light of the Resurrection which they then carefully bring home.

Around 2 am after the mass it is a tradition to have 'Magiritsa' soup (made from lambs innards). This soup is eaten to break the 40 days fast during Lent. Easter eggs dyed red as a symbol of the risen Christ's blood are cracked together to celebrate the opening of the tomb of Christ. This is also a traditional game and the person who has the last egg not cracked will have good luck.

Easter Sunday people join to eat spit roasted lambs. And in some villages on Crete a special Easter Sunday tradition is a bonfire where an effigy of Judas Iscariot is burned.


May 1

Εργατική Πρωτομαγιά (Ergatiki Protomagia) Labour day

This is a public holiday in Greece. The shops are closed and it is a popular day to go for a picnic in the countryside. It is also the day of the Flower Festivals. Although a fading custom it is tradition to celebrate the coming of spring by gathering wild flowers (usually crown daisies) and wove them into 'May Day wreaths'. These are then hung to dry until June 23. known as 'St. Johns Eve' when the dried flower wreaths are burned in bonfires as part of an ancient tradition called 'Ο Κλήδονας' (O Klidonas).


May

O Αναληψις (O Analipsis) Ascension Day

On a Thursday 40 Days after Easter the 'Analipsis' (the taking up) or the Ascension of Christ is celebrated. Certain rituals used to be connected with this religious feast such as the blessing of grapes and fruit and processions with torches and banners outside the churches to commemorate the entry of Christ into heaven.


May 20-27

Battle of Crete commemoration

On May 20th, 1941 thousands of Nazi paratroopers landed in a massive invasion of Crete, later known as 'The Battle of Crete'. The Germans encountered hard resistance from the Cretans and Allied forces based on the island, and lost about 4.500 men. Eventually after 10 days the Nazi troops were successful in occupying the island.

But the strong Cretan resistance made Hitler abandon any plans for similar military operations elsewhere. The Battle of Crete was the first-ever invasion which was mainly airborne. It was also the first time invading German troops encountered mass resistance from a civilian population. The Battle of Crete is commemorated with celebrations, memorial services and parades in the major cities as well as many of the small towns and villages on Crete.


May or June

Αγιου Πνευματος (Aghiou Pnevmatos) Holy Spirit Monday

This is another holiday which is movable because it is determined by the date of Easter. (50 Days after Easter). It's the day known outside the Eastern Orthodox tradition as Whit Monday or Pentecost Monday. It is dedicated specifically to the honour of God the Holy Spirit.


June 23 or 24

Ο Κλήδονας (O Klidonas) The feast of 'Klidonas'

In Rethymnon among other places an historic celebration takes place every June which maintains an old custom called 'O Klidonas'. The word refers to the gift of tongues or incoherent utterances heard at divine ceremonies which were then ascribed prophetic meaning. Previously, the church tried to forbid the ceremony as it had to do with ancient pagan worship of the sun and fire. (Summer solstice). Nowadays, it's more of an opportunity for people to join and have a pleasant time. It coincides with the celebration of St. John's day.

In the original tradition on the eve of the 23rd a bonfire was made from the dry flower wreaths made on May 1st. Young people or children then leaped over the fire three times. According to Greek folk tradition, fire has the power to ward off of evil spirits, misfortune and sickness.

Afterwards, unmarried women brought water from a spring and emptied it in different pots. Everybody would tease them and try to make them protest but they would remain silent because the water had to be ‘silent’. In each pot they then put a personal valuable of some kind called 'rizikari' (destiny). The pots were left during the night and whoever such a woman would see in her dreams that night, would become her future husband. Different versions of the rite existed and it was quite an elaborate ceremony in the old days. Today it's mainly the bonfires and the jumping one sees. As the American writer Robert Fulghum notes:

“Though I looked, I did not see any young women hauling water around as in the past. In fact, there was a notable shortage of maidens. I was told that most of them had been hauled off by the young men to drink beer on the beach. No doubt still within the klidona tradition - “irrational actions and incoherent utterances experienced during oracular ceremonies of prophetic importance. ”In The Old Way".


July

Rethymnon Wine Festival

For more than 35 years Rethymnon has held a wine festival in July. The festival takes place in the Municipal Garden of Rethymnon Town and lasts three weeks. There are performances of traditional Cretan and Greek folklore music and dances. Wine is free for everyone, so it's an excellent opportunity to taste all the varieties of the Cretan wines.


July 24

Αποκατάσταση της Δημοκρατίας (Apokatastasi tis Dimokratias) The Restoration of Democracy

Also known as Μεταπολίτευση, (Metapolitefsi; 'Change of regime'). A military junta was imposed in 1967 when army officers seized power in a coup d’état. The dictatorship lasted seven years, during which period a total of about 87.000 people were arrested of whom 2.800 were tortured, and 88 persons were assassinated.

After a number of revolts and demonstrations former Prime Minister Karamanlis was invited to form a government of national unity, and the seven years of the Junta came to an end on July 24, 1974. The occasion is celebrated with speeches and ceremonies but apart from this the day is usually a normal working day.


July-September

Rethymnon Renaissance Festival

As is evident in the architecture, arts and literature, Rethymnon became what it is today mainly during the Renaissance period. For this reason the town has organised a Renaissance Festival since 1987. During the three week of the festival Rethymnon hosts a number of theatrical and musical events, exhibitions, street performances, dance and multi-media spectacles.


August 15

Kοίμησις της Θεοτόκου (Koimisis tis Theotókou) The Dormition of the Mother of God

This is the most important celebration of the Virgin Mary and second only to Easter as a religious holiday. The Feast commemorates the passing away or dormition of the Mother of Jesus. In the orthodox tradition the feast is preceded by a period of fast (from August 1). The day itself is usually marked by Church processions followed by open-air eating and drinking in the main square of the villages.


August 20

Fishermen's Festival

The Festival of the Fishermen is celebrated in Rethymnon in the old Venetian Port every year with traditional Cretan dances and a free supper of bread, wine and grilled fish.


September 8

Γέννηση της Θεοτόκου (Gennisi tis Theotókou) Nativity of the Theotokos

This day the Virgin Mary is honoured on her birthday. (Theotokos is a title for the Virgin Mary, often translated as 'God bearer' or 'birth-giver of God'). Unlike the Roman Catholic Church the Orthodox Church does not hold to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Instead it is believed that Mary was born to elderly and previously barren parents, in answer to their prayers.

It is the first great feast to fall in the church year and one of the twelve 'great feasts' of the Eastern Orthodox Liturgical year.


September 14

Exaltation of the Holy Cross

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross originated in Jerusalem in 355 to commemorate the dedication of the Basilica of the Resurrection. When the cross of Jesus was found shortly afterwards by the Empress Helena, (mother of the Byzantine emperor Constantine), this occasion was commemorated on the same day. Icons of the feast often portray St. Macarius elevating the Cross and showing it to the people as a sign of victory. Hence the name Exaltation' or 'Elevation of the Holy Cross'.


October 28

Επέτειος του 'Οχι (Epétios tou Ochi) The "Ochi day"

The 'Epétios tou Ochi' or the 'Anniversary of 'No' celebrates the refusal to yield to the Axis powers in 1940. The day is celebrated all over Greece and Cyprus and Greek communities around the world. It's a public holiday in Greece with military and student parades.

It commemorates the rejection of the ultimatum made by the Italian dictator Mussolini on October 28, 1940. The ultimatum demanded that Greece allowed Axis forces to enter Greek territory and occupy certain so called 'strategic locations'. If not, Greece would have to face war. Allegedly, it was rejected with a single word: no. In response to the refusal, Italian troops attacked the Greek border. Thus the reply marked the beginning of Greece's participation in World War II.


November 8

Arkadi Holocaust Anniversary

The first week of the month is the anniversary of the holocaust at the Arkadi Monastery in Rethymnon Crete. On the 8th of November the commemoration of the Arkadi Holocaust is taking place in the entire prefecture and a religious ceremony is held in the monastery of Arkadi where locals bring flowers to the hundreds of Cretan who died there in the 19th century in order to avoid surrender to the Turks.


November 17

Πολυτεχνείο (Polytechneio) Polytechneio

This picture of the Polytechnic uprising of 17 November 1973 has become the quintessential icon of these events and has appeared in the front cover of all major Greek and international newspapers. This day celebrates the anniversary of the 1973 students protests against the junta of the colonels (1967-1974). It is only a school holiday. During the dictatorship of the junta the student movement in Greece had been severely repressed.

In November 1973 an uprising at the Athens Polytechnic broke out starting with students building occupations and radio broadcasts. It escalated to a revolt and ended in bloodshed in the early morning of November 17. 24 civilians were killed outside Athens Polytechnic campus. The picture above of a tank crashing through the gates of the Polytechnic became an icon of the revolt. These student protests were the first sign that the Regime of the colonels under the leadership of Georgios Papadopoulos was beginning to crumple.


November 21

Τα Εισόδια - Presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple

This church holiday is a celebration of the time when the Virgin Mary was presented by her parents Joachim and Anna into the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem when she was a young girl. According to tradition she served as a Temple virgin there until her betrothal to Joseph.


December 6

Άγιος Νικόλαος - Agios Nikolaos

Άγιος Νικόλαος or Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, children, and students in Greece. On December 6 every year his name day is celebrated throughout Greece. For the Greek, this day is the primary gift-giving holiday in December and start of the Christmas holiday season.

Because he is the protector of sailors and seamen small fishing boats pay tribute to him with decorations of blue and white lights at Christmas and Greek ships usually carry an icon of the saint onboard. Seamen will light a candle and pray to him for safe passage and if a ship is in danger the captain will pray and make a promise to bring a so called 'tama' or votive offering in the form of a small ship if the crew and ship are saved.


December 25

Χριστούγεννα (Christouyenna) Christmas

Καλά Χριστούγεννα και χρόνια πολλά (Kala Christouyenna ke chrónia pollá) Merry Christmas and 'many years' (may you live long) are the traditional Christmas greetings in Greek. Christmas is the second most important holiday in Greece, the most important being Easter. The holiday includes not only Christmas day, but also New Year and Epiphany. And the Advent period is also important. Faithful Christians are expected to fast during this period. When Christmas day draw nearer people start to get ready for the feast. Honey cookies (melomakarona) and sugar cookies, (kourabiedes) are made and eaten during the holiday period. In the old times the Cretan family also used to slaughter a pig for Christmas and make various specialties from the meat.

This may be a survival from the Roman period when a pig was offered to the gods Dimitra and Kronos to make them bless the crops of the coming year. Nowadays very often turkey has taken the place of the pig. The turkey was introduced to Crete and Greece in 1824. Likewise other traditions such as the Christmas Tree have been introduced to the Cretan Christmas relatively recent.

A very old tradition that is still being observed is the singing of 'kalanda' or Christmas carols. To the accompaniment of a flute or perhaps a triangle children go from door to door singing and wishing people happiness and a long life. The lady of the house will offer small amounts of money or sweets in return.