Colouring the fading customs of a Greek Lent


Kyra SarakostiLife is a learning curve, if you ask me, and even if you don't, I'm here to tell you that the ageing process is a great teacher of lessons related to time, change, and the transmission of culture. Migration accelerates the process — three decades after an unexpected emigration from Australia to Greece, I'm still learning.

I recently visited my grandsons, and was consequently taught various lessons. Carnival had been enjoyed, and Lent had started. Orthodox and Western Easter coincide this year, as happens every four years.

Their mother, my daughter-in-law Katerina, led the way, with the result that I am now wearing the red and white cotton plaited bracelet that most Greeks don on 1 March. Katerina became a virtual plaiting factory, and supplied bracelets for all of us, and added to my small knowledge of folklore as well.

Long ago my late mother-in-law told me the bracelet was meant to protect wearers from the sun. But Katerina, who is from Thessaly, tells a more charming tale, as told by her Yiayia/Granny. You wear the bracelet from the first day of spring, but the minute you see your first swallow, you cut the bracelet off and hang it on a branch of the nearest tree, so that the swallow will have something with which to start building its nest.

While his mother was weaving, five-year-old Maximus, temporarily suspending gladiatorial combat with his big brother, was concentrating hard on colouring in a picture. It was of a rather strange woman. Katerina came to the rescue again: the picture was of Kyra Sarakosti. Which might be translated, loosely, as Lenten Lady.

In the days before calendars and diaries, Katerina explained, Greek housewives would draw themselves a picture of Kyra Sarakosti as a way of keeping track of the weeks of Lent. Kyra was pictured without a mouth, because Lent is not a time for eating, certainly not a time for eating things one likes. Her hands are demurely crossed on her breast, for Lent is a time for prayer and self-examination. And she has seven feet.

Every Saturday, with one week elapsed, housewives would cut one foot off the picture. The last foot was cut off on Holy Saturday, Easter Eve. Then it would be tucked into a dried fig, which would be placed among many others. Whoever selected the special fig with its odd addition, was assured of good luck.

This custom is reportedly very old, and supposedly Greece-wide, but my Peloponnesian children did not know of it, and neither did my Cretan daughter-in-law. Folklore is often specific to regions, but everywhere it is under threat. The haste and high technology of modern life render customs such as Kyra Sarakosti quaint at best and out of mind at worst. I often wonder how long it will be before many customs and practices disappear entirely.

As is the case with many traditional occupations: in my time in Greece I have noted the disappearance of the saddlers, the blacksmiths, the coopers, the cobblers and the cabinet-makers from the village scene. The knife-grinders and the tinkers have also gone.

In my long time here, I've also seen Greece's painful divorce from its Levantine and Eastern heritage, and its reluctant espousal of Western Europe. There was a brief honeymoon, followed by a long period of adjustment. With the advent of the economic krisi, the rot of disillusionment set in. As might be imagined and understood, for reasons past and present, Germany has been a particular target of resentment for at least five years.

But life, politics, and economics are unpredictable. The picture Maximus was colouring in came from a German-controlled supermarket, part of a chain that operates throughout Greece. Ironically, it was the supermarket magazine that introduced my grandson and me to a fading Greek tradition, and linked us to the life of previous generations, to the fabric of a culture. And thus to more understanding of the way we were and are.

Gillian Bouras headshotGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Greece, Lent



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Existing comments

An interesting article about the vanishing of part of Greek life and folklore, Gillian. Intriguing how figures such as Kyra Sarakosti arise. Perhaps our modern culture will eventually develop folk characters like this. Without a shared folk culture I think we moderns are poorer.
Edward Fido | 26 March 2014

A charming tale about the cotton bracelets being given to the first starlings for nesting material. It seems a wonderful way to mark the changing of seasons and demonstrate the interconnectedness of the natural world. I'm afraid that many readers' interest might be limited to which wrist was involved - the left or the right.
J Vernau | 26 March 2014

How everything is connected with the circularity of things finally bringing the links of understanding. Of course it's to do with increasing age, too! That is a wonder-full story of the Lenten Lady, of Aldi (?) of Thessaly - of the hidden depths of "traditional" symbols.
Jim KABLE | 26 March 2014

It seems to me that any tradition linking us to the life of previous generations, to the fabric of a culture, is of intrinsic interest, and, in the present instance, delightful as well, in the simple, concrete, graphic way it encapsulates the essential purpose and substance of Lent. Thank you for sharing!
Jena Woodhouse | 26 March 2014

I have followed you for 30+ years in the "Age" and would love to hear more about your insights into Greek life, Yours sincerely Eilish Cooke
Eilish Cooke | 30 March 2014

Dear Gillian, When your book "A Foreign Wife" appeared in Greek translation in Greece, a reviewer remarked that you held a mirror of Greek society for Greeks to see themselves. You continue to do that in your articles, such as this one. Thank you and please keep showing us (Greeks in the diaspora) the face of Greece today.
Helen Nickas | 31 March 2014


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