Halloween in Greece: Anthesteria, Psychosabbaton…

This article is about Halloween in Greece.

On October 31st, people around the world wear their spookiest outfits and “haunt” the streets to celebrate a holiday known as Halloween. Young children leave their houses after sunset to “trick and treat”, just like trickster spirits. Countless parties and events that are inspired by anything related to the afterlife and the paranormal are organized in every city. But, in reality, the holiday commemorates all the departed and it is known also as “All Saints Eve”. Do Greeks celebrate Halloween and do they have other celebrations that commemorate the departed? Let’s find out!

Do Greeks celebrate Halloween?

The short answer is: no.

The long answer is: some people have started celebrating aspects of Halloween. There are also Greek traditions that resemble Halloween in various ways.

Halloween in Greece

Greek holidays similar to Halloween:

  1. Psychosabbaton (Ψυχοσάββατο)
  2. Anthesteria (Ανθεστήρια)
  3. Apokries (Απόκριες)

Although Halloween decorations and parties are slowly becoming popularized in Greece, this holiday has its origins in the Celtic traditions. Therefore, Halloween is often seen as peculiar and foreign by Greeks who usually gravitate towards the light, vivid, and happy parts of life. Halloween is not a Greek tradition; but it would be more than wrong to suggest that there is no Greek holiday or celebration that commemorates the souls of the dead. And that is not necessarily the Eastern Church’s All Saints Day, which commemorates all the Christian Saints. Our Christian Psychosabbaton, the Dionysian Anthesteria, and the Apokries are three occasions that bear some similarities to Halloween.

Greek Halloween and Psychosabbaton

Saturdays are generally dedicated to the souls of the dead in Greece. But there are two Saturdays known as “Psychosabbaton” (the Saturday of the Souls) that commemorate the dead. These are the Eve of Carnival Sunday and the Eve of Whit Sunday (Pentecost).

People often visit the church on these days to light a candle in the memory of their lost loved ones. Some might prepare the traditional memorial dish known as “kollyva”. The boiled wheat dish is blessed by the priest and shared among family members and friends, who pray for their loved ones to rest in peace with every bite.

Pomegranate seeds are often added to kollyva; as you may remember from Helinika’s videos on Persephone and Hades, pomegranate seeds are associated with the other side. Pluto was able to bound Persephone in Hades by offering her pomegranates. In the Greek Orthodox religion, the seeds of this fruit symbolize the “brightness of paradise”.

Although Psychosabbaton is a religious tradition, there are some folk beliefs that are not accepted by the Church. For example, in some Greek villages, locals would prepare kollyva based on a story that Saint Theodore revealed the recipe of kollyva to a Byzantine priest in a dream. He presented kollyva as a fasting meal that Christians could consume without raising eyebrows among the pagans. But there is one belief associated with Psychosabbaton that may surprise you.

As time passed by, some people started believing that kollyva could be placed under one’s pillow to help them increase their chances of having a prophetic dream. Since Saturday is the day dedicated to the dead and Greeks have always believed that the dead can reveal the future – a belief we have witnessed in the Odyssey, when the king of Ithaca communicates with orator Tiresias – people would sometimes place the kollyva under their pillow during the Psychosabbaton. Young women in particular would do so to dream of their future husband.

As you can imagine, this divination practice is not accepted by the Church. But it does remind us of countless other similar Greek traditions that we have seen in the past. If you have watched Helinika’s video dedicated on some unique Greek winter traditions, then you may have heard of “klethonas”, the collection of the so called “unspoken water” that is used to help unmarried women dream of their future husbands.

This custom is associated with the “feeding of the water spring”, which could be described as an offering to an elemental deity. The unmarried women of a village walk towards the local water fountain late at night and pour honey and butter to “please” it. Depending on the location, various other items, such as olive tree branches, are “offered” to the spring. The latter then starts gushing water with magic abilities. The maidens then fill in their clay pitchers and return home, bringing many blessings to their household. While carrying it home, they are not allowed to talk to each other or to anyone else – if you are interested in learning more about this, you are more than welcome to watch the respective video, which is dedicated on Greek winter traditions.

Anthesteria | Halloween in Greece

Going back to Greek customs and traditions that bear similarities to Halloween, another day comes to mind, this time from antiquity. As we have already seen in Helinika’s videos and articles, modern, Byzantine, and ancient Greek traditions are somehow connected to each other. There is a continuation in our customs that transform throughout the years. The ancient Greek “Halloween” in this case is no other than the third and final day of the Anthesteria. The latter refer to one of the most important Athenian festivals.

Anthesteria  were organized in ancient Athens in honor of god of wine, Dionysus. They occurred on the full moon of the month Anthesterion that was set somewhere between what we now call February and March. In other words, the period of time when nature blossoms, as the name “Anthesterion” suggests. “Anthos” is the blossom, the flower.

During this festival, the souls of the dead and all the chthonic spirits were allowed to roam the world of the living, before being expelled once the Anthesteria were over. During these three days, people would try the last season’s aged wine and offer libations to Dionysus. They would also chew leaves and smear buckthorn on their doors to keep the evil spirits away.

Their fear of the chthonic spirits intensified on the last day known as Chytroi – which could be translated as “pottage (day)”. On that day, people prepared a pot of cooked fruits, flowers, and grains as an offering to the spirits and souls, but also to Chthonic Hermes. As you may already know from Helinika’s latest video, god Hermes had a darker side to him that few people know. He was not just a messenger god; he also fulfilled the role of the guide of the souls from one realm to another.

Apokries: the Greek costume celebration | Halloween in Greece

Coming back to Halloween and similar Greek celebrations, we should also address the dress-up part of the Celtic tradition. Halloween is all about transforming yourself into something different, usually a ghost, spirit, or anything spooky. In Greece, there is one celebration that involves wearing costumes: Apokries. This celebration is the Greek equivalent of the Carnival. It is a celebratory period full of indulges, before the fasting period of the Great Lent.

On the Sunday of Apokria, people put on costumes and go out on the streets to eat meat, drink alcohol, dance, and flirt before the restrictions. It is said that costumes help people free themselves from shame. By changing their appearance, they can indulge freely, as if they are not themselves. Of course, this is followed by a period of restrictions.

The main difference to Halloween is that the costumes are not necessarily meant to be scary, spooky, or gothic. They are meant to be funny or satirical. You may see people dress up as vampires, witches, or ghosts but there is always a light-hearted, less serious element in their costumes. Often, this element is sexy or provocative.

If you are interested in attending the Greek Carnival, you may want to visit the city of Patras in the Peloponnese or Xanthi in Northern Greece, which are known for their spectacular festivities.

These were some Greek celebrations that are similar to some aspects of Halloween. Do you celebrate this holiday? If you could choose between a Halloween or a Carnival costume party, which one would you choose? You can share your thoughts in the comment section.

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