Forty Days and Forty Nights (Sarakosti) – Great Lent

With Fat Thursday out of the way you have  only 10 last days left to challenge your personal boundaries and inhibitions and honor your Dionysian side during carnival. Clean Monday is rapidly approaching and with that it all stops and gets serious for a while, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Actually I know of a lot of people who welcome this time of reflection and cleansing, me being one of them.

Sarakosti's dishes

In Greece we call this 40 day Lenten period Sarakosti which is exactly what the word means in Greek – 40 days. The Great Lent starts on Clean Monday and ends on Holy Saturday, after midnight. For devout Orthodox Christians this is a time of going to church, fasting from foods that contain red blood (meats, poultry) and their products (milk, cheese,eggs etc) and fish and seafood with backbones.  On some days even olive oil and wine are restricted. The purpose of course is to cleanse the body and the spirit but also to adhere to a discipline in preparation for the acceptance of the resurrection of Christ.

Taramosalata  Greek chickpea soup (revithia)  Pasta with octopus
When I was young and living in the United States I could not understand this practice very well. With an abundance of food around me I could not understand why I couldn’t have a hamburger with my friends on a Friday night or why I couldn’t enjoy my cherished Hershey bar. What could be the harm in that I wondered? Why would God get mad if I had a chocolate bar? My grandmother seemed to have spies everywhere so sneaking in a treat was out of the question and a one-way ticket to you know what in the afterlife. I still couldn’t understand so I asked my grandfather which always gave me a more logical explanation in these matters. “It’s not only about what you put in your mouth ” he explained, “it’s also about what you put in here”  pointing to my heart “and in here” pointing to my forehead. Lent should be a time of retrospect, a time of forgiveness both of others but also of yourself. Lent is also about love and contribution and above all it is about faith.

Candles inside a Greek Orthodox Church

This I could accept, this had meaning for me then and it continues to do so today which is why I always look forward to this time of abstinence not just from animal products but from any other potentially harmful substances that we can put into our hearts and in our minds. I look forward to sticking to a rigid schedule, to spend time in prayer or meditation. I am not an avid church goer but during the Sarakosti I try to go to the main religious days mainly to listen to the hauntingly beautiful hymns. I may not understand the words (unfortunately it is in ancient Greek) but I close my eyes and feel the words in my heart because it understands the universal language of love.

A colorful, delicious and perfect lunch for lent.

A colorful, delicious and perfect lunch for Lent!

So let me take this opportunity to wish you all a good Sarakosti!

If you are in Athens during the Lenten period you will learn so much more about the tradition and customs during this very holy time in Greece on the Athens Food Tour which has been modified to include foods eaten during this time. They run daily except on Sundays. Your guide will explain to you why this particular food or dish is eaten during this time and of its symbolic significance.

I would highly suggest, whatever your religion, to participate in the practice of Lent. Take the time to slow down and look around at the really important things in your life. At the end of the 40 days you will feel lighter in all ways. And I’ll tell you something – that Hershey bar never tastes better than it does on Easter Sunday after 40 days of waiting.

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