February 5, 2010

Astoria’s Thracian Gynekokratia

Joyous celebrants dancing the night away
By Giovanni di Napoli

Last Sunday I had the great honor to partake in the ancient Thracian celebration of Gynekokratia, or Women’s Day. Around 150 Participants from around the Tri-State area descended on The Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York's Stathakion Center in Astoria, Queens, for the occasion.
Traditionally, on January 8th the married women of Thrace visited the local midwives and made them offerings of soap and vegetables in gratitude for their invaluable services. Out of deep respect and appreciation, the women ritually washed the midwives’ hands. In some villages the women would visit newborns and anoint them with oil and honey. 

Also on this day, the traditional roles between men and women were reversed. Women would take care of the town’s affairs and gather in the cafés while the men folk tended the children and did the housework. Any man unlucky enough to be caught outside during the holiday by the celebrants would be ridiculed or beaten with brooms.
Today, this wondrous tradition is a celebration of motherhood and the strength and nobility of Women. The Thracian women still congregate and respectfully wash the hands of their community’s senior members and the men cook and cater to their wives and mothers. 
At 7:00 PM the hall’s doors were opened and we men were finally allowed to join the celebration. It was more than a little amusing to watch the men stall and hesitate entering the hall. These days, instead of beatings, the first ten adult males to arrive are forced to wear an apron symbolizing the role reversals. As much as they wanted to join the party no man wished to don an apron. After some delay the impatient women stormed the hallway and forced their husbands to wear the garments. Everyone had a good laugh at their expense. 
(Left) Mrs. Eleni Arvanitidis enjoying the fruits of her labor. (Right) Secretary, Stacy Seretoudis, and former President of the Pan-Thracians, Ioannis Fidanakis, pose for a picture. 
Obviously the women were in good spirits and ready to party. After all, they had a two-hour head start on the ouzo and wine. They danced all night long, only occasionally stopping to eat, drink and mingle with their family and friends.  
I couldn’t help but notice the similarity between the Hellenic and Southern Italian folk dances, clearly showing our common heritage and shared origins. The dancers twirled and pirouetted in time with the music, traditional folk songs about love and their ancestral homeland. (In hindsight I regret not taking the ladies up on their offer and joining them on the dance floor; it looked like a lot of fun.)
In modern times, Gynekokratia has been integrated with the traditional New Year’s Day celebration and Saint Basil's Feast Day, when gifts are traditionally given. For someone like myself who was raised Roman Catholic and grew up celebrating Christmas on December 25th it was interesting to see Santa give children presents in January.  However, I never get tired of seeing the joy in a young child’s face when they receive their present.
I especially enjoyed the ceremonial cutting of the Vasilopita, a traditional bread not unlike our own brioche. The giant loaves were ritually cut in honor of the Thracian people and homeland. The breads are sometimes dedicated to Christ, a king, St. Basil, the memory of a prominent member of the community, etc.  Slices are distributed to guest according to age.
Cutting and serving the Vasilopita
A gold coin, called a lira, is baked into the Vasilopita. Anyone fortunate enough to receive the slice with the hidden prize is said to win good luck for the entire year. Evidence supporting this belief was seen when this year's winner of the coin also won the top prize during the raffles. Interestingly, the coin depicts King George V of Great Britain, recalling his reign in 1919.
The gold "Lira" and it's lucky winner
Celebrations such as this clearly show the positive characteristics of our ancestors, and through them help us understand ourselves. We are a culmination of our history. I would like to commend the Pan-Thracians for keeping this rich cultural tradition alive, and I was thankful to be a part of it.