Northern Greece's pagan customs of Christmas
Every year in Northern Greece, Dionysian traditional events take place over the Christmas days, from 23 December to 8 January. Spanning back centuries, these activities, customs and ceremonies have their roots firmly fixed in the traditions of this region and comprise key elements of the local culture. In this article, we explore the rituals that I happened to be present and photograph, over a course of four years; events which not only unify a community but also offer insight into its spiritual heritage. Here then is my experience with Pagan / Dionysian customary festive practices in Northern Greece.
Fires of Achlada
The fires of Christmas is an ancient custom that is very widespread in the villages around Florina in Greece. Large bonfires are being set in central squares and each village tries to make a bigger and better fire than their neighbours. These fires usually take place on 23 December each year.
The initial idea was to go to the fires of Florina and make images, but I always like to find more surreal places that are less crowded and maybe more original. I set to travel towards some villages that I saw on the map near the borders of North Macedonia. I liked the scenery while travelling to the village of Achlada, which at times was surreal enough for me.
I was lucky enough to spot the wooden construction set on the square of Achlada, so I stopped the car to ask when they were going to light it. A group of children had prepared the place and set the construction to be set on fire. The chief of the gang was Dimitris.
We had fun with the kids and they even gave me a tour around the village.
A small shack had been set up nearby the woods by the children with any materials they could find. Nylon, old mattresses and plywood.
The fire was due to start at midnight and everyone was anxious, especially the children. People had gathered around a fire drinking wine and eating local delicacies, such as roast sausages. Soon, it was midnight and the fire started.
Everyone sat around the fire and had fun until the fire started to go off. Some of the people would go to the local bar and have a few more drinks. I had to go to sleep as I had a very early start the next morning.
Fires of Giourouki
While waiting for the fire of Achlada to start at midnight, the people I met there told me to go together to the next village, Giourouki, to see the fire there as well. They would start that earlier than Achlada, since that was a smaller village and most of the local people there would visit the big fire of Achlada later.
I went on foot since it was less than a kilometre away. We met the people there who were very friendly and inviting. They invited me inside the basement of a local home. Everyone was sitting there as a table had been set and there was plenty of food, mainly sausages and meat as well as plenty of local wine of course. I joined them at the table and took some drinks and food.
It was around nine in the evening, that everyone started to gather outside. There was a large pile of branches and other wood. The fire was lit and soon a large bonfire was at play.
It was a very nice and cosy experience and when the fire started to go off, we made our way to Achlada.
Fires of Sotira
On another occasion, I visited a village nearby the famous Pozar warm springs, called Sotira. I was passing by while searching for fires around the Florina vicinity when I noticed by chance this big pile of wood that was being built. The people who were working on building that pile told me that they would light the fire during the night. I thought to stay and take some photographs and then come back later at night to take some more.
Indeed, on the same night, 23 January, people had gathered around the pile, and at some point, maybe around 10pm the pile was lit and a large bonfire started. Since many people prefer to visit Florina at midnight which is a bigger city to see the fires and meet up with more people, many fires in smaller places tend to be lit a bit earlier so that you still have time to visit Florina as well. There was some wine and food to go along while watching the fire burning up.
The Fires of Florina
I personally prefer to visit smaller places than Florina during the Christmas fires on 23 January each year, since they tend to produce better photos. Florina is a city, so the cars, streets and crowd do not help much with this purpose.
However, I have visited Florina, as it has a long tradition of these fires and most people know of this custom. The municipality also helps to build huge piles of wood, by bringing in heavy machinery, so the city shines with fires, as many different ones light up at midnight.
Purpuris at Issaakion
Didimoticho is a city in Greece near the Greek-Turkish borders. I am always intrigued by places that at least sound remote. It is a rather long trip to reach there if you are travelling by car. It takes three and a half hours to reach there from Thessaloniki. I found shelter in a guest house, owned by the local municipality which is a renovated old mansion in the city. This was really nice and cosy. It could probably sleep over twenty people, but I had it all to myself. The custom would take place on 27 December in the nearby village of Isaakio. Each year the date changes, but is always around the 27th. That was only two kilometres away from the city so it was very convenient. Luckily, I went to a tavern to have lunch in Didimoticho and overheard two men talking about the custom. I talked to them and one of them, Apostolos, was the president of the Isaakio cultural club, the organizing party of the custom. This was very useful as we learned a lot about the custom.
It is true, that many of the Thracian traditions and customs are not widely known to the rest of Greece. This makes it very interesting for me as a photographer, as I feel I am discovering something new. It is always useful to look at something with fresh eyes, thus being able to make images of things that a local may oversee. Early in the morning, I arrived in the village and the weather was very cold. I looked for shelter and found the local cafe. At first sight, I thought it was closed but on my second round by car, I saw a couple of people inside. I stopped the car and went inside. A big wooden stove was sitting in the middle and the place had the sweet warmth of the burning wood.
I had coffee and chatted with a local, Christos, about the custom. These villages had been originally built by refugees coming from Turkey across the river Evros, following the Lausanne Treaty in 1923. They had chosen this place so they would be able to see their old houses across the river. They had brought their customs together, one of them being Purpuris.
Purpuris would get dressed inside the local cultural club, whereas the dancers would dress up in Didimoticho. Purpuris has to wear a mask at all times and never show his face. This mask is made of a pumpkin and the original purpose served to guerrilla soldiers that wanted to visit their families during the fight for Independence. They would dress up like that and pretend to serve the custom, they were able to come and visit their loved ones.
After they are all ready, the music starts and the parade will visit the church of the village to get a blessing from the local priest. Two people were dressed up as Purpuris. In the old days, they used to have five of them, because the village was formed of five different groups. Each one of them would have its own Purpuris.
The group will be visiting the houses of the village and dancing around their yards. They will wish prosperity and fertility for the year to come and the house owner will treat them with food and drinks, usually Tsipouro (a Greek alcoholic drink made from distilled grapes).
This custom had ceased for a long period of time and started only a few years ago again. It is interesting to see some old people's happiness and sentiment at seeing this custom being revived.
The custom will continue in the same manner and late in the afternoon, it will end with a dance in the church's square until late at night.
It was a great day and made me curious to get to know more about the customs of Evros throughout the whole year. I am sure I will be back there very soon and explore more of the local peculiarities.
During my stay at Didimotichon, I had the chance to take some photos of the local female traditional costumes of the area. Specifically, Apostolos arranged to shoot the costumes of Makra Gefyra, Issaakion and Metaxades.
Kastoria & Prespes lakes
As I have visited Northern Greece on several occasions to photograph the traditional Dionysian customs that take place during the Christmas period, I would have days where no event would take place. This gave me the opportunity to visit places and enjoy the scenery in several towns. Kastoria is a really beautiful lake town and a great opportunity for a quick getaway. The Prespes lakes that are not too far away are a feast for one's eyes.
During my stay at Kastoria, I managed to also photograph the local traditional costumes. I have shot both the urban costumes around the city of Kastoria, inside traditional houses and mansions, as well as the rural costumes in the village of Lefki.
At Lefki, we had to break inside the house to do the shooting as the owners were not at the village at the time. Of course, they gave us their consent over the phone to enter their house which gave us an interesting backdrop for our photographs.