Theofáneia (January 6th) is one of the most important religious celebrations in Greece. It commemorates the visit of the Three Kings to baby Jesus and the confirmation of his divinity. Everybody appreciates the presents of myrrh (we do after all still give each other perfumes) and gold (no competition there), but many are understandably confused by frankincense. However, if I told you that it used to be an insect repellent and it warded of Evil you might understand better. Frankincense is still used in Greek Orthodox mass for the same purpose: to sanctify churchgoers.
But I digress..
Like at Christmas, Easter or the local saints’ feasts, every region of Greece celebrates Theofaneia with its own particular tradition. Yet, nowhere I think is it stranger than in the small town of Galátista, only 40km from Salonika in the middle of the Halkidikí peninsula. This is where a giant camel – like an oversized pantomime horse – marches through the street in a procession full of local colour.
Legend has it that it commemorates a real event. Some time in the 19th century, a beautiful local girl called Manió was betrothed to her childhood sweetheart, until she caught the eye of the son of the local Turkish aga. The aga was against any meddling with the Christians, but his son, madly in love, kidnapped the girl and brought her to the Turkish camp.
After attempts to free her failed, her betrothed organised the Feast of Theophaneia that was coming up, featuring a giant camel with his friends inside. They held it outside the Turkish camp, invited everyone inside and the Turks opened the camp gate and caroused with the Greeks until they all fell drunk in the morning. Of course the Turks in Greece liked their raki, and would be horrified at today’s Islamic fundamentalists – but, once again, I digress.
While everyone was asleep, the people inside the camel jumped out and freed the beautiful Manió. Almost immediately she married her sweetheart in a shotgun ceremony to force the issue; and they lived happily ever after.
Of course, this sounds very much like the story of the Trojan horse, so I wonder whether any of the Greek villagers had read the Iliad – the Turks clearly hadn’t.
Or is this a custom that stems beyond the 1800s and has been altered through the mist of centuries?
You decide, for here it is.