In both north and south Cyprus there are two types of festivals and public holidays – those associated with religion or politics and local festivals.
Inevitably, given the importance of Easter in the Greek Orthodox Church (much more important, for example, than Christmas), a lot of the festivals relate to Easter – the run up to it, the day itself, and its aftermath. This is why Easter flights to Cyprus can be so expensive – there’ll be competition from Cypriots wanting to go home for the holiday, and it’s a great time to visit the island, with weather that’s not too hot and lots of spring flowers.
The main festivals that are celebrated across the republic are as follows.
(Dec 25). Although never as important as Easter in the Greek Orthodox Church, Christmas is increasingly celebrated as in the rest of Europe with church services and feasting. Children go from door to door, singing the traditional “Kalanda” Christmas songs in return for small sums of money, and special Christmas sweets (such as kourabiedes and melomakarona) are eaten.
(Jan 1). The feast day of Agios Vassilos, New Year’s Day is celebrated by the eating of a special cake called “vassilopitta” baked the previous evening, and containing a coin which confers good luck on the person who finds it in their share.
(Jan). Together with Easter, one of the biggest religious festivals in the Greek Orthodox calendar. Epiphany celebrates the baptism of Christ, and the festivities culminate on Jan 6 with the “blessing of the water” – a religious procession walks through the streets to the sea or nearest lake, a cross is ceremonially baptized by being thrown into the water, then young men dive to try to retrieve it.
(Feb/March). Green Monday (also known as “clean Monday” or “pure Monday”) marks the beginning of Lent, and is celebrated across the island with outdoor music, dancing, vegetarian food and kite flying. In Lemesos the period is celebrated by a full carnival lasting a fortnight, with parades and fancy-dress parties, and much drinking and eating – meat during the first week, cheese during the second.
(April/May). The biggest event in the Greek Orthodox calendar. There are processions on the evening of Good Friday, midnight Mass on Easter Saturday, and lots of eating and drinking and games on Easter Sunday and Monday. Note that the Greek Orthodox Easter doesn’t always coincide with that in the rest of Europe.
(First Sunday in May). Probably with pagan roots going back to Ancient Greece, Anthestiria celebrates the arrival of Spring with parades of floats where the emphasis is on fresh flowers.
(May 1). Public holiday marking the republic’s accession to the European Union in 2004.
(June). A day of celebration of the Holy Spirit which takes place 50 days after the Greek Easter, Kataklysmos has a complicated relationship with the New Testament, the Old Testament (in particular the Flood, hence the name) and even Greek mythology’s Aphrodite and Adonis. As with many Cypriot festivals, it is strongly related to the sea, with religious ceremonies on the coast, concerts, boat races, swimming galas and water-throwing activities, all connected with Pentecost and the purification of both body and soul.
(Aug). Look out for village festivals throughout the region – live music, traditional Greek dancing and lots of food and wine.
North Cyprus uses the same Gregorian calendar as the rest of Europe, but its main religious festivals, shared with the rest of Islam, change by approximately eleven days each year owing to the lunar Muslim calendar. A number of secular celebrations coincide with important dates in Turkish history.
(Dec 25). Not formally recognized, but increasingly celebrated, especially in tourist areas.
(Yilbasi). A one-day holiday similar to that in most countries.
(Muhammad’s Birthday) (February/March). A one-day break to celebrate the birth of the Prophet.
(April 23). A celebration of the opening of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in Ankara in 1920, an event which marked the establishment of the modern Turkish state. Shared with Turkey.
(May 1) Left-wing celebration of workers, common to many countries around the world.
(May 19). A commemoration of Ataturk’s landing in Samsun, triggering the liberation movement in Turkey. Shared with Turkey.
(July 20). Marks the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, which was launched on July 20, 1974.
(Aug 1). The TMT was a Turkish Cypriot paramilitary movement established in 1958. Its activities are remembered with folklore festivals in the bigger towns.
(Aug 30). A commemoration of the battle which ended the Turkish War of Independence in 1922. Shared with Turkey.
(September). End of Ramazan (widely celebrated in Muslim countries as “Eid”) marked by a three-day holiday, with exchange of presents, distribution of sweets (it is sometimes known as the sugar festival) and a funfair in north Lefkoşa. Most Turkish Cypriots will make some efforts to mark Ramadan by forsaking alcohol, not eating during daylight hours and praying more often. Nevertheless, disruption is minimal.
(October 29). Marks the proclamation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Actually starts at 1pm on the day before. Shared with Turkey.
(November 15). Festival celebrating the declaration of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus on this day in 1983.
(November). Four-day celebration to mark Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. Families sacrifice a sheep or chicken according to means (though this practice is beginning to die out among Turkish Cypriots).