Crossroads Inn, our countryside hotel, is located at Tripotamos, a listed traditional Cycladic village, in Tinos Island. Every year on Christmas Day, the custom of “Kavos” is revived at Tripotamos, continuing through New Year’s Day and throughout the year until its annual cycle closes on the following Christmas.
Kavos is a custom whose folds whisper secrets of ancient Greek times, secrets of Greek Orthodoxy. Visitors to Greece will encounter it nowhere else but at the village of Tripotamos, Tinos Island. It begins with a Greek Orthodox religious procession on New Year’s Day. That is only one act in a play that tells a unique story. The rituals surrounding the custom of Kavos are maintained throughout the year with the final act taking place on Christmas Day in a way that, to the uninitiated, seems mystical and often apocryphal.
The fact that Tripotamos is among the oldest Cycladic villages in existence, that Tripotamos is the only village where the custom of Kavos is enacted, and that it is situated a few hundred meters away from a significant archaeological site (at the foot of the towering granite starkness of the Rock of Exombourgo) supports the belief that the custom’s roots go back deep into the folds of Time and touch upon ancient forms of worship. Not one of the custom’s countless interpretations has revealed the how’s and why’s it was established. No one can tell with any certainty how deep into the past the roots of Kavos reach. The only thing clear is that the custom’s concept and structure have led researchers to the premise that it is as ancient as the ancient cult and worship of the goddess Demeter (Thesmophoriae of the goddess Demeter is located at the foot of the Rock of Exombourgo) and that it involves indecipherable elements, codes, and rituals which, in earlier times, may have been vested with a far more powerful and comprehensible character. Neither the location of Tripotamos in Tinos Island nor the fact that the custom of Kavos is enacted there are coincidental or random: The archaeological site of the Geometric Era sanctuary of Demeter lies a mere 200 meters north of Tripotamos’ outskirts. It is a site that has yielded significant finds (on display at the Archaeological Museum of Tinos, Chora).
Information as to how and when the custom was embraced by Orthodox Christianity is just as inaccessible, with the earliest mentions of the custom only going as far back as the 1600’s.
Down the passage of Time, the custom seems to have lost many of its essential characteristics. However, Kavos remains a one-of-a-kind and wholly mystifying custom which has maintained its web of inexplicable rituals. It is a story for those who once initiated were empowered to delve within the custom’s mystery. It involves a codified behavior and contains innumerable puzzles as to its origins.
The story of Kavos seems to evolve around a “vigil light”, an unsleeping burning fire contained within a lantern-like oil lamp whose immense significance can be traced to the male figure who carries it, walking ahead of the procession and preceding even the icons and the priest. It is Fire, an inherently dynamic element of Nature, which holds sway over this custom and aptly takes place at the very beginning of each New Year.
The Sacred Fires of antiquity (traces of them are also located at the foot of the Rock of Exombourgo) and the charcoal-burning braziers used in ancient purification rituals spring to mind effortlessly upon seeing that Sacred Flame carried around with precisely the same purifying purpose. On that day, homes remain impassable until they are visited by the “Light of the Kavos”: The unsleeping light ushers in every house of the village the New Year, untainted and free of miasma or undesirable burdens.
That “vigil light” may well serve in interpreting the custom’s name. In Greek, “kavos” means “mooring line”, the rope used to secure boats onto a permanent fixture on quays and piers so as to prevent movement of the boat or ship on the water. It is thus that the vigil light “secures” the custom to its ancient and initial nucleus since it has remained “unsleeping” for centuries, burning day and night without ever being allowed to go out.
Many are those who have argued that the word “kavos” comes from the Italian “capo” which means “in charge”. In that sense, again, we must turn for the name of the custom to that one thing which, at the head of the procession, is placed in charge: the vigilant, unsleeping light. Both the eternally “vigil light” at the head of the procession and the term “kavos” seem to mesh into a code which, understood by the initiated centuries ago, is no more than a riddle today.