Each year, the BLE marks the Greek pre-Lenten carnival season with a lively event, Karnavali. The celebration of Carnival began in ancient times, likely as part of the worship of Dionysos, the god of wine and festivity. In the Greek Orthodox Christian tradition, carnival (apókries/απόκριες) is a three-week period of preparation for Lent. Apókries – literally, “departure from meat” – is marked by feasting, masquerade and unique regional traditions.
This year, the featured tradition at Karnavali originates in the village of Sohos (Σοχός), located forty miles northeast of Thessaloniki, where the carnival celebration is called Mériou. Beginning with the opening of the book of the Lenten Triodion in church liturgy and lasting until the first day of Lent, men in the distinctive Mériou costume roam the streets of the village, rhythmically shaking their bells to awaken the sprouting forces of nature.
The Mériou costume consists of pants and a vest made of black goat pelts, a brightly colored knitted shawl, and a face mask decorated with multicolored ribbons and horsehair whiskers, called a kalpáki. The costume is topped by a tall cone decorated with colorful ribbons and a foxtail, symbolic of the harnessing of nature by man. When the Mériou bow their heads forward, leaning their headpiece to the ground, they mimic the act of fertilizing the land and seeding their crops.
Around the waist, five cast metal bells are worn: one large batáli at the waist, and four kypriá, two worn on the front and two on the rear of the costume. The bells are selected with special care to produce harmonious sounds, and are handed down from father to son. Individual families can be recognized by the specific chiming of their bells.
The masqueraders carry a walking stick and a bottle of ouzo. Wandering the village, they enter shops and taverns, offering the drink and singing. On Clean Monday, the start of Lent, a crowd assembles in the village square, dancing to music played on the zournás and the daoúli. Other groups of masqueraders play their roles, but the parade of Mériou takes center stage.
The Mériou is part of a broad category of ceremonies held by farmers during the transition from winter and spring, to strengthen the forces of germination and sprouting. The villagers of Sohos believe that a good reenactment of the custom paves the way for a successful harvest in the months to come.
The Boston Lykeion Ellinidon extends its gratitude to Zach Latsios, whose generous advice on the intricacies of the Meriou helped us bring our presentation to life, to Dawn Georgiadis for her inspired chairmanship of this year’s event, to Andrea Messina for her tireless efforts in creating the costuming, and to the members of the Boston Lykeion Ellinidon dance troupe for their spirited portrayal of the Meriou.