Today is the opening day of the Patras carnival, in Greece, the largest of its kind in Greece, and rivaling carnivals worldwide. So . . . when people feel the blues because Christmas is over and Lent is looming, they get into the party spirit with carnival. Of course, if Lent is not a big deal for you, then carnival will not be important either. But in largely Catholic countries, or enclaves, there is always at least one city – Rio, New Orleans, Venice – where they pull out all the stops. Such places attract huge numbers of tourists these days, but there is still very much a local presence under the schlock if you know where to look. Patras is unusual in that it occurs in a predominantly Orthodox country.
You might hear the usual rubbish about how Patras carnival has roots in ancient pagan rituals, such as those to honor Dionysus, but there is general agreement that the starting event of the current Patras Carnival was a ball given at the residence of the merchant Moretis in 1829. French troops of general Maison stationed in the city after its liberation from the Turks were a major influence on the carnival, bringing their own (Catholic) culture and traditions to the festivities. During the 19th century, new arrivals from the newly joined Heptanese, the seven islands (plus smaller ones) in the Ionian sea that became part of Greece in 1864 also added their own regional culture and music. Later on, and as a consequence of the prosperity of the city at the end of the 19th century, the carnival festivities took on a more regular nature. The geographical location of the town and the ever-increasing dominance of the port ensured constant communication with Italy and the rest of Western Europe. Their grand carnivals and the Venetian carnival in particular were especially influential in shaping the festivities, giving the carnival its Western characteristics.
The first carnival floats appeared in the 1870s. At that time the floats were exclusively the creations of individuals. Later the Municipality of Patras constructed a large number of them. In 1872, with contributions from the town’s wealthy raisin merchants, the celebrated Apollon Theatre was built by Ernst Ziller in George square. Carnival dances were hosted there, and they continue to be hosted to this day. George square is the central location in carnival celebrations and the Apollon theatre serves as a backdrop to most major carnival events, including today’s opening ceremony, making it emblematic not only of the carnival but of the town itself.
In 1880 on Saint Anthony the Great’s day (today), the first “mpoules” appeared. These were groups who were disguised and anonymously poked fun at friends and other people in the neighborhood. This custom has now disappeared. As the historian of the Patras Carnival, Nikos Politis, points out, beautiful carnivals were organized during the belle époque in the years 1900, 1907, 1909 with attendance for the first time of individuals from all social classes and origins. This period also gave birth to the egg-war custom. Wax eggs were made stuffed with confetti using specially designed machines which the carnival participants threw from balconies. Although this custom has disappeared, it is considered to be the precursor of the chocolate war which still persists. Bars of chocolates are thrown by revelers on floats or amongst groups at parties.
The developments of the following decade were not favorable for the carnival; the continuous wars and conflicts (Balkan wars, World War I, Asia Minor campaign) economic crisis and desolation to the city. In the first postwar years the situation did not improve perceptibly, but the years 1938 and 1939 saw revivals. Nevertheless, World War II and the subsequent Greek Civil War brought interruption. In the 1950s the carnival returned. In the same period the Greek cinema showed scenes of the carnival in its films. Other historic scenes can be seen in prewar films.
In 1966 the carnival was reorganized. The journalist Nikos Mastorakis introduced the Hidden Treasure Hunt, a game in which 94 citizens of Patras and visitors try to find a list of sometimes obscure objects. The first prize was won by a team led by a friend of the carnival from Thessalonica, Alkis Steas, and he started the game the following year, and for decades thereafter, becoming a carnival legend in person and on television. His expressions such as “the Carnival city of Greece”, when he referred to Patras and “be happy” and “keep dancing!” when he referred to the carnival groups, remain catch phrases. In 1974 the modern phase of the carnival began when revelers were convinced to abandon their cars and parade on foot in the streets (until then only floats paraded). Since then each year the spectacle has grown and the carnival has become enormous with thousands of revelers taking part in the parade as hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to Patras to witness the proceedings.
Irrespective of when the Triodion falls, the three-week period preceding the first Sunday of Lent, it is customary for the Carnival of Patras to start on the feast day of St. Anthony the Great (17 January). A town crier appears on the streets of Patras; in recent years this has been a specially constructed float with music. The crier announces the opening with a satirical message and invites the town’s residents to assemble that evening for the opening ceremony in George square. During a spectacular celebration with elements of surprise, as the program is kept secret till the last moment, the start of the Patras Carnival is declared by the town’s mayor from the first-floor balcony of the Apollon theatre. The program usually includes pantomimes, dances, music and fireworks.
Patras is a port city that owes much of its growth and wealth to the import and export of raisins. Greece has been growing raisins since antiquity and Patras was one of the first areas where they were grown. The 19th century, when the Patras carnival was expanding, was a boom time for raisin production and export, reaching 80% of all Greek at one point. So, raisins it is. Here is a recipe for Greek raisin cake.
Greek Raisin Cake
4 cups flour
5 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp salt
1 cup butter
1 ½ cups sugar
3 eggs, beaten
1 ½ cups milk
2 cups raisins
Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C.
Grease a 9 x 13 inch loaf pan.
Sift the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, and salt together into a bowl.
Put the butter and sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer and beat on medium speed until well combined. Turn the mixer to low speed and add the eggs a little at a time until they are well mixed in. Still on low speed, beat 2 cups of the dry ingredients into the egg mixture. Add ½ cup of milk and beat together. Add the rest of the dry ingredients and beat for 1 minute, then add the rest of the milk and beat again. Turn off the mixer and stir in the raisins using a wooden spoon, making sure they are mixed in well.
Pour the batter into the loaf pan and bake for about 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and let the pan cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Turn out on to a serving plate and dust the top with confectioners’ sugar when the cake has completely cooled.