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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.


Fires of Achlada in Florina, by photographer George Tatakis
Fires of Achlada in Florina


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. 



An eery landscape near Achlada, by photographer George Tatakis
An eery landscape near Achlada


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.



The pile of wood in Achlada for the bonfire, by photographer George Tatakis
The pile of wood in Achlada for the bonfire



We had fun with the kids and they even gave me a tour around the village. 



A decoration around the village, by photographer George Tatakis
A decoration 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 shack, serving as shelter for the bonfire builders, by photographer George Tatakis
The shack, serving as shelter for the bonfire builders


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. 




The bonfire at Achlada is lit, by photographer George Tatakis
The bonfire at Achlada is lit


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. 




People gather round the bonfire, by photographer George Tatakis
People gather round the bonfire




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. 



Enjoying the bonfire at Giourouki, by photographer George Tatakis
Enjoying the bonfire at Giourouki


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. 



Inside the basement of the house in Giourouki, by photographer George Tatakis
Inside the basement of the house in Giourouki


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. 



Admiring the bonfire at Giourouki, by photographer George Tatakis
Admiring the bonfire at Giourouki


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.



Working on building up the pile of woods at Sotira, by photographer George Tatakis
Working on building up the pile of woods at Sotira


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.




Warming up around the bonfire at Sotira, by photographer George Tatakis
Warming up around the bonfire at Sotira



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.



View of Florina atop a hill, by photographer George Tatakis
View of Florina atop a hill





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. 



Portrait of Purpuris at Issaakion village, by photographer George Tatakis
Portrait of Purpuris at Issaakion village


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. 



Two men dressed in the Purpuris costume, by photographer George Tatakis
Two men dressed in the Purpuris costume


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. 



Dancing a traditional circular dance, by photographer George Tatakis
Dancing a traditional circular dance



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. 




Purpuris dancing traditional dances, by photographer George Tatakis
Purpuris dancing traditional dances


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. 


Old people touched by the fact that the custom is revived, by photographer George Tatakis
Old people touched by the fact that the custom is revived


Musicians reaching the edge of the village, by photographer George Tatakis
Musicians reaching the edge of the village


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. 



Purpuris running around Issaakion, by photographer George Tatakis
Purpuris running around Issaakion


Purpuris and company at Issaakion, by photographer George Tatakis
Purpuris and company at Issaakion


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.




Traditional costume of Issaakion, by photographer George Tatakis
Traditional costume of Issaakion



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.


View of the city of Kastoria, by photographer George Tatakis
View of the city of Kastoria


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.



Urban traditional costumes of Kastoria, by photographer George Tatakis
Urban traditional costumes of Kastoria



Rural traditional costumes of Kastoria, at Lefki village, by photographer George Tatakis
Rural traditional costumes of Kastoria, at Lefki village



New Year's fires of Psarades, at Prespa lake


During one of these trips, I wanted to visit the two Prespa Lakes which have a great reputation for landscape beauty. I am not too much of a landscape guy, but since I had a few spare days, I thought it might be a good idea. The visit was really worth it since the landscape is indeed surreal and beautiful. The serenity and calmness of the place really take you over. I visited the small village of Psarades, which is the only village on the shore of the Great Prespa lake. This lake is shared between Greece, N. Macedonia and Albania. 



Sheep round Prespes' lakes, by photographer George Tatakis
Sheep round Prespes' lakes



The idea was to pay a small visit and leave on the same day, but I really fell in love with the place. To make things even better, there were some big wooden towers set on the shore of the lake and children were carrying branches and filling them up. I suspected they were up to something so I inquired. They said they were preparing the Fires. These are two bonfires that are lit on New Year's Eve to welcome the New Year. One of the towers was really high, probably around 10 meters from the ground, so that really looked like it would be interesting. 



Building up the pile of woods for the bonfire, by photographer George Tatakis
Building up the pile of woods for the bonfire


Therefore the one-day trip quickly changed to a four-day stay. During those days I enjoyed strolls along the lake, boat trips to the nearby caves and a very interesting visit to the Small Prespa lake and an islet inside, Saint Achilles. This small island has many medieval ruins on it, even with an old ruined Cathedral. There are also many animals like sheep and pigs. 





I even came across some fishermen pulling their nets full of fish on the wooden bridge that connects the islet of Saint Achilles to the mainland.





If you are visiting, make sure that you will have the local giant beans dish. The area is very famous for the production of giant beans. All dishes were actually magnificent and you can actually taste the lake fish which are very tasty and meaty. The children were very anxious to start the fires because last year they couldn't because of the rainy weather. If you want to see the fires, make sure that you visit a few days before, as the weather forecast might shift the date of the event by a few days. They were going to start two fires. A smaller one first and a huge one second. I arrived on time, but the children were too anxious to wait for the correct time. I saw the small fire burning from afar. 



The smaller bonfire is lit, by photographer George Tatakis
The smaller bonfire is lit


Everyone was standing around enjoying the fire, listening to the crackling sound of the fire, and waiting for the tower to collapse. At last, they could see the result of their effort. 




Enjoying the warmth by the bonfire, by photographer George Tatakis
Enjoying the warmth by the bonfire


Soon after they lit the biggest pile. They used wooden sticks with cloth wrapped around the top and lamp oil. 


The fire was soon lit and the burning was so intense that you could not stand to a radius of probably 30 meters away. Everyone enjoyed the magnificent fire and its warmth with music, food and Tsipouro (a traditional alcoholic drink made from distilled grapes). The fire burned for over half an hour before collapsing. The wood was probably burning until the next morning. 



The scale of the bonfire, by photographer George Tatakis
The scale of the bonfire


During my stay at Prespes, I had once more the opportunity to photograph the local traditional female costumes of the area. I did several shootings around the lakes, at St Achillios islet, but also at a local farm in one of the villages of the vicinity.



The traditional female costume at the Cathedral ruins, on the islet of St Achillios, by photographer George Tatakis
The traditional female costume at the Cathedral ruins, on the islet of St Achillios




Christmas period at Florina's cafés


If you happen to be in Florina around this period, you can experience a nice custom inside the local cafés. There are several small bands with brass instruments that move around and enter local cafés, entertaining the customers with Balkan beats. It is a kind of carol but in a different manner. People in the cafés cheer up and will give money to the musicians.


Musicians playing Balkan beats inside a café in Florina, by photographer George Tatakis
Musicians playing Balkan beats inside a café in Florina




New Year's Eve in Argos Orestikon