My hometown Patra is best known for its Carnival. On the last weekend before Lent (Feb 21-22 this year), Patra hosts the biggest party in Greece. I loved the Carnival parade when I was a boy growing up in Patra. I especially loved all the chocolate they used to throw from the floats. Perhaps that’s where my love for chocolate started.
Other cities around the world are known for their carnivals. Think Rio de Janeiro – probably the biggest carnival in the world. And in this country New Orleans has its Mardi Gras. Throughout the Catholic world, Carnival is the last big opportunity for excess partying before the sobriety of Lent sets in. And even though Lent has ceased to be much of anything for most people, the idea of carnival persists. People love to party, whatever the excuse.
Perhaps the reason why Patra has had its Carnival for such a long time (around 180 years!) is precisely because it had a large Italian population. One of my great-grandmothers was Italian. The word carnival itself (karnavali in Greek) comes from the Latin. The Greek equivalent is apokre-es, and people speak of apokreatiko glendi. But an apokreatiko glendi is not a Carnival. Patra proudly prefers the word Karnavali for its big splash before Lent. It is closer in spirit to the carnivals in Catholic countries than to anything in the Orthodox world. It is, as I said, what Patra is most famous for.
Lent in the Greek-speaking world begins with “Clean Monday” – kathara deutera. That’s today, February 23rd. The label is suggestive of what Lent offers: an opportunity to make a new start, a renewed journey to our authentic self, a new opportunity to see our neighbor and to care for those who are desperate for compassion and understanding. Fasting is the least important aspect of Lent; and quite frankly it’s rather self-serving and self-focused. Fasting that does not open our eyes to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters is useless.
And maybe this is the reason why I think Carnival is such a wonderful part of the whole Lenten idea. Carnival is a party, the last party before Lent. But it’s a party that is shared by multitudes. There are no restrictions, no invitations. Indeed, it is analogous to that parable in Luke where the banquet is opened to anyone and everyone who cares to come in. Carnival allows the open interaction of strangers in an atmosphere of joy – young and old, rich and poor, Christian and atheist….
Then it becomes possible that the stranger with whom I shared laughter and dancing on Carnival Sunday might turn out to be one of the least of Christ’s brothers or sisters who needs my compassion a week later. Carnival is a break from my lonely, secure existence. It allows for the risky opening of my soul and heart. And Lent transforms what Carnival starts, so that the opening to the other, the stranger, the one different from me, becomes an experience of Christ’s presence! (Read again Matthew 25:31-46 if you need reminding.)
Here are some photos of the Carnival in Patra, 22 Feb 2015, which I gathered from the Internet. From the looks of it, the floats have become much more extravagant than anything I remember from my childhood years in Patra. I wish I were there.