A very essential aspect of the cultural heritage of a place is the one concerning customs and traditions. Their origins can be traced back to the Greek Antiquity and the Byzantine Middle Ages and are mainly connected to religion. The various conquerors and the surrounding regions are also important influential agents. The customs of a place are related to what is called “the circle of life” (birth, wedding, death) and “the circle of year” (life routines, religious holidays in the four seasons).
The island of Lefkada preserves many elements of its tradition. The farming and the livestock breeding works at the inland provide younger people with the opportunity to get in touch with old-time everyday habits, customs and beliefs. At the same time, private initiatives, cultural and other clubs and also the Municipality of Lefkada have created many folklore collections all around the island to help preserve traditional customs and events related to everyday life and yearly celebrations as well, by creating a broader tourism and entertainment context, because the re-enactment of traditional local rituals is something that pleases not only the locals but also the visitors.
Christmas – New Year’s Day – Epiphany
Christ’s Breads: They were made with special care and of the best flour of the harvest. They included the sealed Holy Mass bread that was put together with the religious icons of the house, the “Cross” that was eaten on the Christmas’ Eve, New Year’s Eve and on Epiphany’s Eve, the “Christ’s Bread” that was eaten on Christmas and New Year’s Day and, finally, “vlahes” or “mpaloumpes” that were given to the children of the family, of friendly families and the orphans.
The Wedding of Fire: It is a custom that you could find all over Greece. On Christmas Eve, the head of the family put two logs in the fireplace, one male and one female, and poured wine and olive oil on them, while saying wishes for the house. The fire was believed to keep away the hobgoblins that swarmed the world during the Christmas vacations and, therefore, should keep burning for all twelve days until the Epiphany, when the goblins returned to the underworld. The custom is no longer preserved.
Christmas Carols: At dawn on Christmas, children went around the neighbourhoods singing the carols. Nowadays, the carols are sung on Christmas Eve, all over Greece. At the town of Lefkada, on the Eve of Christmas, the band of the Philharmonic Society and the band “Agiomavritiki Parea” sing the carols in the small streets and also along the central pedestrian street.
The orange: At the town people used to go around to sing the carols on Christmas’ Eve. One of the carollers used to hold a dish with an orange. He was the one leading and asking whether the choir could sing or not. This custom is now obsolete.
“Koutsounes”: They are large, wild onions that are considered to be signs of good luck. Usually children but also grown-ups pick them up from the outskirts of the town and take them home or sell them. In the villages, people used to put them in the ground floor on a “kapasa” (a large clay pot for olive oil or wine) or a “vaeni” (a barrel) with olive oil or hanged them from a “patomatero” (one of the beams that supported the upper floor. At the town of Lefkada they were put in the kitchen.
The Cake of New Year’s Day: The Lefkadian Pie (“ladopita”) is a traditional sweet also called “kousmeri”. The pies could be made with honey, sugar or grape molasses. It was eaten in the evening of New Year’s Eve. The first piece belonged to Christ, the second to Virgin Mary, the third to Santa Claus and the next ones to each family member. The one that would take the piece with the hidden coin would have the best luck of the year.
New Year’s Carols: In the morning of New Year’s Day children would go around the houses singing the carols. The housewives would treat them some money or delicacies. At the town, both children and adult sang the carols on the New Year’s Eve. The fishermen of the coastal neighbourhood would make a small boat, light it up, decorate it and hold it in their hands while carolling. The leader would go forth holding an orange in his hands, usually on a dish with a small towel. Sometimes they had a phonograph with them to enhance the melody. They would knock on the doors and ask whether they were allowed to sing the carols. The usual answer would of course be: “Sing them!”
“Diana”: This is a custom of the New Year’s Day, originating from the days of the Venetian Rule. At the dawn of New Year’s Day, around 4 a.m. the band of the Philharmonic Society would go around the town playing special musical pieces and the carols, until the sunrise. In the older times lots of people would follow the band performing all kind of pranks and causing a big fuss. Nowadays the band plays its music later on the day and the custom of “Diana” tends to disappear.
“The Silent Water”: During the “Diana” the housewives should wake up and get water from the spring of the town. It was called the “silent water” because the housewives should not speak a work until they returned home with the water. They used to sprinkle this water all over the house while saying wishes to bring good luck. The young pranksters used to try and make the women speak, sometimes by breaking the pots they used to carry the water. The ones that succeeded in keeping silent returned back home to get another clay pot. This custom is also obsolete nowadays.
“Strouna”: After the Holly Mass people used to visit the houses of the family and the landlords used to treat them money.
“Podariko”: In the older times people were very cautious about the custom of the first-foot, that is about who would be the first visitor of the year.
Playing cards has been and still is a very common habit for these days.
Holy Water: On the Eve of Epiphany, after the Holy Mass at the town’s cathedral, all the priests of the town bless the water and then go out to the city, each one in a different area, chanting and sprinkling the houses with Holy Water.
The Holly Cross Diving: On Epiphany, after the Holly Mass, the bishop, the priests and the people of the town gather at the port of Lefkada. The bishop reads the Gospel and throws the Holy Cross in the sea thrice. After the third time, some brave swimmers dive to recapture the cross. The one who manages it is considered to be blessed and fortunate.
The oranges: After the Holly Cross is thrown in the sea for the third time, the town’s people submerge a couple of oranges tied with a string. Then they place them on the house’s iconostasis where they shrink but never mould. Every year, before the ritual of the Holly Cross diving, people throw away in the sea the old oranges of the previous year.
The custom has its origins in the Venetian Rule era when the water was blessed at the water reservoir of “Megali Vrysi” near the area of the large orange groves. The rich landlords used to bless the oranges to have a good yield.
The Greek Carnival originates from Ancient Greek and the worship of Dionysus, the god of wine and feast. Partying is dominant along with jokes, pranks and funny costumes that make people have fun and forget about the everyday life, even just for a while.
At the villages there were many customs than are now obsolete. The most usual disguises were the ones of “Old Man”, “Old Woman” or “Woman”. The villagers also used to play many funny games like chasing a boiled egg with their mouth, form spontaneous parades through the villages or smear themselves with ashes and smuts.
At the town the cultural clubs, like the Music and Literature Club of “Orfeas”, the Philharmonic Society of Lefkada and “Nea Horodia” have been, and still are, organising great masquerade balls that bear something from grandeur of the past. There is also the Children’s Carnival and the Grand Carnival Parade on the last Sunday of the Greek Carnival. The events of the Carnival fall under the label of “Faromanita” but there are many more minor events organised by various clubs and societies for the fun of the locals and the guests of the islands.
There are events taking place in every village of Lefkada, like the Carnival at Nydri, events on “Tsiknopempti” (Fat Thursday) at Karya, the traditional feast around the kiln at Marantohori of southern Lefkada etc.
Lazarus Saturday: Parties of children used to go out in the town or the villages and sing the carols of Lazarus, which include the story of Lazarus and wishes for the people. They used to hold a basket ornamented with spring flowers that would be filled with money or eggs, the gifts of the landlords. At the villages the carols of Lazarus were sung in the evening of Friday and at the town in the morning of Lazarus Saturday.
In general, the first days of the Holy Week were dedicated to house cleaning. The exterior parts and the yards of the old small houses of the town and the villages were whitewashed so that everything would be cleansed for the celebrations to come.
Holy Tuesday: It was the day of kneading the dough for the Eater cookies. The first cookie was put on the iconostasis of the house.
Holy Wednesday: People used to offer bread to the churches to relieve the souls of their dead beloved persons. Housewives also used to set a dish with a candle and a censer behind the door for souls of the dead that were believed to visit the houses during this night between Holy Wednesday and Holy Thursday.
Maundy Thursday: Housewives used to dye red the Easter eggs on Maundy Thursday. Since the years of the Venetian Rule and until the beginning of the 20th century, the bishop and the clergy of the town used to perform the rite of “Foot Washing”, when they re-enacted the washing of the Apostles’ feet by Jesus Christ.
Good Friday: It is the day of the Litany of the Epitaphs. The first Epitaph to come out is the one of the church of Agios Nikolaos. It passes through the main pedestrian street and the central square. The Epitaph of Agia Paraskevi comes next, then the one of Agii Anargyri and the one of Agios Minas. The last to come out is the one of the town’s cathedral, accompanied by the bishop, the authorities, an honorary unit of soldiers and the band of the Philharmonic Society of Lefkada.
Holy Saturday: In the morning of the Holy Saturday the housewives break a piece of clay pottery to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the custom of “kommati” (the piece). During this event, the band of the Philharmonic Society goes up and down the main pedestrian street playing the “Morning March”.
Since 1997 the municipality hands out clay to locals and guests to revive the custom of “kommati”.
Re-enactments of Agricultural Works
In recent years there is a tendency to re-enact traditional events and customs, especially in the tourist areas. The same applies for Lefkada where these events are about everyday life, agricultural works, fishing and are dedicated to the products of the Lefkadian land and sea and also to religious celebrations.
Thus, in many villages of the island the guests can watch closely events, like threshing, harvesting, traditional fishing techniques, feasts dedicated to the art of the loom, feast of wine, feast of sardines, feast of lentils, feast of “Riganada” etc. You can be informed about these events here.
Furthermore, there is a re-enactment of the Lefkadian Wedding taking place every year, with the revival of all the customs involved. At the villages, feasts with traditional music are revived for the name day of each Protector Saint, but also other customs related to religion, such as horse riding games (Mid-August at the church of Agia Eleousa at the village of Agios Petros) or the horse litany on the celebration day of Agios Georgios at the homonymous monastery at Marantohori etc.