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Clean Monday and It’s Traditional Observance

Clean Monday (Greek: Καθαρή Δευτέρα) refers to the leaving behind of sinful attitudes and non-fasting foods. The entire first week of Great Lent is often referred to as “Clean Week,” and it is customary to go to Confession during this week, and to clean the house thoroughly.

Strictly observant Orthodox hold this day (and also Clean Tuesday and Wednesday) as a strict fast day, on which no solid food at all is eaten. Others will eat only in the evening, and then only xerophagy (lit. “dry eating”; i.e. eating uncooked foodstuffs such as fruit, nuts, halva, bread and honey, etc).

The theme of Clean Monday is set by the Old Testament readings appointed to be read at the Sixth Hour on this day. Isaiah 1:1-20 says in part:

“Wash yourselves and ye shall be clean; put away the wicked ways from your souls before Mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do good. Seek righteousness, relieve the oppressed, consider the fatherless, and plead for the widow. Come then, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: Though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white as snow; and though they be red like crimson, I will make them white as wool. If then ye be willing, and obedient unto Me, ye shall eat the good of the land. But if ye desire not, nor will obey Me, the sword shall devour you, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (v. 16-20).

Genesis 1:1-13 is also read to imply that this is a time of renewal and new beginnings.

The reading from Proverbs 1:1-20 instructs us towards clean and sober living through the use of wisdom, the beginning of which is “the fear of the Lord.” The clearest piece of advice given says: “My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent.”

The Three Day Fast (Ιερὸ Τριήμερο)

For those who are able and willing, it is encouraged by the Church to keep a three day strict fast where neither food or water (if possible) is consumed until Clean Wednesday when one partakes of Holy Communion at the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy. Some of the strictest monastics even go so far as to do this for the entire Clean Week, accepting only Holy Communion during the week. This is an excellent way to mark the beginning of a holy struggle against one’s passions and weaknesses.

Abstaining from all food and drink for three days will help us approach the Lord on a deeper level than ever before. It will also help us to see and know ourselves on a deeper level. During these three days one will observe that they will be able to more clearly see their weaknesses, their passions, their spiritual poverty, and their nakedness of all the virtues, the dark abyss within, and the inner ugliness. Physically one will recognize how truly weak the flesh is even when the spirit is willing. This humbling attitude is a prerequisite to a successful fast. It is also a motivating factor for the rest of Great Lent as well as the entire spiritual life in general. And when one partakes of the Holy Mysteries after three days of such fasting, there is instilled in the individual a deeper appreciation for the Lord’s presence within the Mysteries.

Such a fast should not be imposed, but only encouraged and accepted willingly. It is only in this way that it can be of benefit. If one has a spiritual father, his blessing should be given for this to be done. There is no danger to this fast, as it is a long-held tradition, but if one is on medication or has an illness or is pregnant or any other medical condition, such a fast is discouraged. But for healthy people, it has been known that even doctors have encouraged such a fast, at least for purposes of cleansing the body, which has great health benefits. It should also be mentioned that the fast is alleviated the more one is able to attend the Divine Services and keep a prayer rule.

There is an old Greek saying or joke which says: “Σάν συλλογιέται ὁ παπᾶς τό Τριήμερο, μαύρη Τουρνή (Τυρινή) τοῦ πάει.” In other words, a few days before the fast, that is during Cheesefare Week, when the priest is contemplating the three day fast he is about to undertake, it is a Black Cheesefare – he is sad and mournful.

Overall, the joy of the three day fast will last the entire journey one undertakes throughout Great Lent and Holy Week. And it will help to bring us more joy on the holy day of Pascha. This is the spiritual fruit of the three day fast. An abundance of grace flows when the paschal mystery shines within the heart of an Orthodox believer.

Great Lent in Cappadocia

From the first day of the Great Fast the pious Orthodox of Cappadocia would enter a period where the soul was given priority over the body. Clean Monday for them was the first day for the cleansing of the soul.

Preparations for Clean Monday started from the day before. After Forgiveness Vespers all would go home and any celebrations of the past two weeks would cease. They would prepare for the long fast by eating a boiled egg. This was done so that they would eat the same thing last as they do the first time when the fast ends on Pascha and they eat the paschal egg. On Clean Monday the women of Cappadocia would boil hot water with ashes and thoroughly clean all their dishes, silverware, and cooking pots. This was done so that there would be no trace of previous foods on them lest they break the fast unknowingly, which they still considered a sin. The fasting during Great Lent was very strict and only those who fasted strictly approached Holy Communion. Engaged men would send their fiances a cake of halva decorated with pomegranates and nuts. Early on Clean Wednesday they would go to Pre-Sanctified Liturgy, receive Holy Communion after an especially strict fast, then proceed to their normal work. On the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25) they would have a little relief from their fast, but continue through until Pascha.

Kyra Sarakosti (Η “Kυρά Σαρακοστή”)

An old Greek tradition which would be incorporated to help devout Orthodox Christians keep the strict three day fast has to do with a woman named Kyra Sarakosti (Lady Lent). The women especially back then would keep the three day fast like nuns, eating and drinking absolutely nothing during that time. When the three days were up they would only eat dry foods for the rest of Clean Week.

Kyra Sarakosti was their calendar for Great Lent. On Clean Monday they would draw a woman on a piece of paper. They would not draw a mouth because the woman was fasting, and the hands were crossed as in prayer. She also had seven legs for the seven Sundays of Great Lent and Holy Week. Every Saturday a leg was cut off till she had no more legs after Holy Saturday. In Chios they would put these legs in a dried up fig or walnut tree and whoever found it would be considered blessed.

In other places Kyra Sarakosti was made out of fabric and they would fill it with feathers.

In Pontus they would boil a potato or onion, stick seven feathers from a chicken on it, and tie it to the ceiling in the house. There it would stay the entire time of Great Lent. Every week a feather would be plucked. It was known as the “rooster” (κουκουράς).

This is a tradition that is increasingly being revived today.

Modern Day Greece and Cyprus

Clean Monday is a public holiday in Greece and Cyprus, where it is celebrated with outdoor excursions, the consumption of shellfish, octopus, taramosalata (for the more lenient), and other fasting food, including a special kind of azyme bread, baked only on that day, named “lagana” (Greek: λαγάνα). This feast would be accompanied with the widespread custom of flying kites. Eating meat, eggs and dairy products is traditionally forbidden to Christians throughout Great Lent, with fish being eaten only on major feast days, but shellfish is permitted. This has created the tradition of eating elaborate dishes based on seafood (shellfish, molluscs, fish roe, etc). Traditionally, it is considered to mark the beginning of the spring season, a notion which was used symbolically in Ivan Bunin’s critically acclaimed story, Pure Monday.

The happy, springtime atmosphere of Clean Monday may seem at odds with the Lenten spirit of repentance and self-control, but this seeming contradiction is a marked aspect of the Orthodox approach to fasting, in accordance with the Gospel lesson (Matthew 6:14-21) read on the morning before, which admonishes:

“When ye fast, be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face, that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret…” (v. 16-18).

In this manner, the Orthodox celebrate the fact that: “The springtime of the Fast has dawned, the flower of repentance has begun to open…” (Aposticha, Vespers on Wednesday of Cheesefare Week).