Festivals and Celebrations in Corfu
January 1st - New Year's Day
Following a morning church ceremony presents are exchanged, and there is singing, dancing, and feasting. A special cake, called a vasilopita, is baked with a coin inside. The person who eats the piece with the coin will have a year of good luck. The traditional New Year greeting is "Kali Chronia."
January 6th - Epiphany
Epiphany is the celebration of Jesus's baptism by John the Baptist (St. John). The day is marked by blessing the waters. Around the island rivers, lakes and oceans are blessed, and crosses immersed in them.
Carnival developed from ancient Greek roots, from rites associated with Dionysios the God of wine, and occurred at the beginning of the spring to ensure a good harvest and successful breeding of the animal stock. Now the celebration of Carnival has widened and in Corfu has been enhanced with Venetian influences. The first parade takes place in Corfu Town on the first Sunday of Carnival with a procession of floats to start off the fun and get people in the mood. On Tsiknopempti (the last Thursday of Carnival) the tavernas fill with songs, glasses fill with wine and the streets fill with confetti. The climax of the celebrations take place on the third and final Sunday with the procession of King Carnival, who is brought to trial for the sins of the previous year and sentenced to death by fire, so that all the evil is burnt with him. At the end of the procession he is cremated, his will is read and a great party with music and dancing follows. However, it is in the countryside and villages that Carnival really returns to its roots. The villagers disguise themselves from head to toe, often as old women and dance together to the music of the local 'orchestra'. These disguises traditionally allowed women to join in the fun without fear of recognition. The dancing is followed by the cremation of King Carnival accompanied by much eating and drinking before the forty days of fasting which precede Easter.
The next day is known as Clean Monday which marks the beginning of Lent. Far from being a solemn occasion it is a day dedicated to picnics of fasting food and kite-flying. Families picnic on shellfish, octopus, taramasalata, salads, pickles and the loaves of unleavened bread specially baked on this day. Huge quantities of wine are drunk and this feast where no meat, butter, eggs or cheese are present ushers in forty days of fasting, which until recently most Greeks observed.
Easter is the most important holiday in the Orthodox Church and especially so in Corfu where the mummified body of the town's patron saint, Saint Spyridon, is paraded through the town on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. It begins with a 40-day fast. During that time only natural foods are eaten. No meats, dairy, fish, poultry or dishes that are prepared with these foods can be eaten. During Holy Week complete fasting takes place. In Corfu, as in the rest of Greece, the festivities begin on Good Friday with the candlelit procession of a shrouded funeral bier that is carried through the streets to the local church. On Saturday morning, at 11 o'clock, earthenware pots are thrown from upstairs windows into the street below in the belief that any bad spirits in the house will be thrown out with them. The best place to witness this is to the left of the Liston. On Saturday night there is a Resurrection Mass at 11 pm. Midnight on Saturday is a magical time and the churches and squares are packed. They are slowly lit by the candles carried from the church and a candlelit procession follows a representation of the empty tomb. As the bells peal midnight the sky is set ablaze by fireworks accompanied by flares and shotgun blasts. Then the Lent fast is broken by eating red-dyed eggs and mayiritsa soup (made of lamb offal). Easter day is spent with the family, singing, dancing, and feasting on roast lamb and red eggs. The greeting for the day is "Christos Anesti" (Christ is Risen) and the reply is "Alithos Anesti" (Truly He is Risen).Easter Monday is a national holiday.
March 25th - Independence Day
On this day in 1821 the Bishop of Patra, Germanos, began the uprising that started the War for Independence. Today it is celebrated with military parades in most major cities. Independence Day also coincides with the Feast of the Annunciation, so it is also a religious festival.
May 1st - May Day
On this national holiday it is traditional for people to go to the countryside, have picnics, gather flowers, and make them into wreaths to hang on their front doors.
May 21st - Unification of the Ionian Islands
After the liberation of Greece and the establishment of the Greek State, the Ionian islands claimed their unification with Greece. Despite its strong objection, Britain together with France and Russia signed on June 5 1863, in London, the Treaty according to which Britain gave up its role as the power protecting the Ionian Islands. On May 21st 1864 the unification of the Ionian Islands with Greece became official.
August 15th - Assumption of the Virgin
This is the second biggest religious holiday after Easter and is celebrated in almost every town and village in Greece.
August 23rd - Pelekas Festival
This festival celebrates the feast day of The Virgin Odhigitria (leader) after whom the local church is named. Once again the square is filled with music and dancing and the smell of souvlakia (kebabs) cooking on charcoal grills. It is a time of year when those from Pelekas who have moved away to the cities return to their village and join in the celebrations. Every parish in Greece has an annual celebration and similar festivals take place in and around Pelekas at other times of the year including Mirtiotissa on 24th September.
October 28th - No Day (Ochi Day)
During World War II, Mussolini issued an ultimatum to Prime Minister Metaxas demanding free Italian passage through Greece. Metaxas' response was "Ochi" which led to the subsequent battle and eventual defeat of the invading Italian army in 1940. Today, Ochi Day is celebrated with remembrance services, military parades, folk dancing, and feasting.
December 12th - St Spiridon
Corfu's patron saint is St Spyridon and his mummified body lies in the church dedicated to him in Corfu Town. He was The Bishop of Cyprus and was famous for performing miracles. He took part in the first Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325AD and died a martyr's death shortly afterwards. His remains were taken to Constantinople and interred in the Church of the Holy Apostles until 1453 when the city fell to the Turks and he was brought to Corfu, along with the remains of Saint Theodocia. It is said that when the Turks attacked the island on August 11, 1716, Saint Spiridon appeared with a lighted torch and scared the invaders away. That day is also one of the days which commemorate Saint Spiridon (the others are Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday when Corfiots celebrate him saving the island from the plague and an epidemic). Many boys on the island are named Spiridon (Spiros) in his honour and celebrate their name day on December 12th.
December 25th - Christmas
Although less important that Easter in the Greek Orthodox religion, Christmas is celebrated with religious services and feasting. Today there is considerable western influence with Christmas trees, decorations, and presents. Throughout the Christmas season children sing carols door-to-door.
Few people in Greece celebrate their birthdays, but almost everyone celebrates their Name Day. This custom stems from the Greek Orthodox religion in which all children are baptized with a name that is acceptable to the church. Each name has a day, based on the day when the saint died. On your name day everyone you know will call you, come to your house, or otherwise contact you to wish you all the best. If you're feeling especially celebratory, you'll take your friends out for drinks or dinner - but you have to pay the bill. Each Greek Orthodox Church is also named after a saint, so there are also community celebrations on the appropriate name days. These celebrations, or panigiria, include food, drinking and dancing.