LivingTravelThe custom of breaking plates in Greece

The custom of breaking plates in Greece

The Greeks breaking dishes to accompany the musicians is a mental image of Greece practically as common as the sight of the Parthenon. But if it were really as common in Greece as foreigners believe, there would not be a single dish left intact in the entire country. How did this noisy custom start?

Ancient origins

In its earliest form, plate crushing may be a survival of the ancient custom of ritually “killing” ceramic vessels used for festivals to commemorate the dead. Voluntary plate rupture, which is a type of controlled loss, may also have helped participants cope with the death of loved ones, a loss they were unable to control.

Similar offers may have been made at other times to include the dead in festival performances, with the result that this custom for the dead began to be linked to all manner of celebrations.

Here are other possible ancient roots for this tradition:

Use them once, then throw them away.
One must also be suspicious of the ancient wandering potters who used to travel from village to village making their wares where the clay was good and there was enough wood to light a kiln. Could the first people to introduce the locals to this exciting custom were the potters themselves? Could this party-breaking custom simply stem from a cunning old-fashioned marketing ploy?

Let’s skip that house
Breaking dishes can also be a symbol of anger, and the sound of smashed dishes is a classic part of domestic disturbances. Since plaque rupture often occurs on happy occasions, it may have started as a way to trick malicious spirits into thinking the event was violent rather than celebration.

Throughout the world, noise is believed to drive away evil, and the sound of plates hitting the stone or marble floors of Greek homes would be loud enough to drive away almost anything.

Lively step, kids
There is a phrase used by children about cracks in the sidewalk: “Step on a crack or you will break the devil’s plates.” (Today, it is less common than the threat to “break your mother’s back.”) In early Crete, ritual offerings and vessels were thrown into the cracks and fissures located near the peak shrines. These “cracks” would certainly have had “plates” in them, and later followers of Christianity may have demonized the old practice.

Since children’s singing is actually a warning to avoid stepping on cracks, it may refer to ancient associations with these dishes. Therefore, breaking dishes during a performance can be a way to protect dancers and musicians by destroying the supposedly evil influences present in the poor dishes.

You break my heart, I’ll break your plate
A Greek singer occasionally smashes dishes against his head while singing a song about the pain of love. He improves the rhythm of the piece with the crushing of the plates and, in character for the song, tries to ease the pains of romantic love by counteracting them with physical pain. Generally, breaking plates in praise of a musician or dancer is considered part of kefi , the irrepressible expression of excitement and joy.

A plate could also be broken when two lovers break apart so that they can recognize each other by matching the two halves, even if many years passed before they met again. In this way, modern Greek jewelers wear small, split versions of the mysterious Phaistos disc, with half being kept and worn by each of the couples.

The modern take

Breaking plates is also an act that implies abundance, since in “we have so many plates that we can break them.” It is similar to lighting a fire with a piece of paper money.

But breaking plates is now considered a dangerous practice because of the flying shards, and perhaps also because of intoxicated tourists who have poor aim and can hit dancers or musicians. It is officially discouraged and Greece does require a license for establishments that want to allow it. (Supposedly, the smashing of plates replaced another previous way of showing approval: throwing knives on the wooden floors at the feet of the dancer.)

If you are offered dishes to toss during dances or other performances, please note that these dishes are generally not free and will be counted at the end of the night, usually at least a euro or two each. They are loud and expensive. Try clapping your hands or yelling “Opa!” instead. And if you wear sandals, carefully go through the fragments. Closing your eyes when breaking the plate is also an excellent idea.

Modern Greeks hold the custom with a certain disdain. Nobody breaks dishes like a sign of kef i anymore. People throw flowers instead. In all bouzoukia (nightclubs) or other modern establishments, girls with baskets or plates of flowers surround the tables and sell them to customers, who throw them at the singers during the program.

Club owners find this custom less messy and more fragrant to their liking, as do artists – another commercial ‘machine’ for nightclubs to make money. It is well known that all singers (especially famous ones) get a percentage from flower consumption.

New twists on an ancient tradition
In recent times, broken plates have been used to draw attention to Greek restaurants outside of Greece, with “plate smashers” stationed at the doors to periodically toss another plate and attract the attention of passersby.

Some Greek restaurants even cater to customers’ desire to break plates by designating a “special area.” Many countries, including Britain and Greece, are regulating the ritualized breaking of dishes, although clumsy waiters are still seemingly exempt.

Recently, breaking dishes has also been used as a protest. Activists who wanted to free the hunger strikers “Thessaloniki 7” coordinated an international day of smashing dishes, with the fragments sent to local Greek embassies with the message that they had been publicly smashed in protest. It worked? Hard to say, but the hunger strikers were released the following week, possibly a case of starvation that ends with an empty plate instead of a full one.

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