Greek religion and culture
Among religions in Greece, the largest denomination is the Greek Orthodox Church, which represents almost the entire population and which is constitutionally recognized as the “prevailing religion” of Greece. Other major religions include Catholicism, Islam, and Protestantism. The ceremonies in the church are spoken in the ancient Greek language.
The Greek Orthodox Church, a member of the Eastern Orthodox Communion, is accorded the status of “prevailing religion” in Greece’s constitution. Its members comprise between 95% and 98% of the population. Of those who identify themselves as Greek Orthodox, about 700,000 to 1 million are Greek Old Calendarists.
The status of the Orthodox Church as the “prevailing religion” is largely based on the role the church played for the preservation of the Greek nation through the years of the Ottoman Empire but also for the role the church played in the Greek War of Independence. As a result, many attribute an ethno-religious identity to the Modern Greek nation, though granted not as strong as it exists say as in the Jewish nation.
A Greek Easter
Holy Week and Easter Sunday offer an unsurpassed opportunity to share in some of the most moving and impressive moments of the Greek Orthodox worship and tradition, and an opportunity to participate in these traditions handed down from generation to generation for almost 2000 years now. The previous week to the week before Easter (the holy week or as the Greeks call it the big week) is commonly called the dumb week because there are no church services held until the Friday night (the eve of the Saturday of Lazarus).
On Friday, it is common for Greek housewives to cook special sweet bread buns which are called Lazaros, these bread buns sometimes have the shape of a man shrouded in a winding cloth, these buns are often decorated with raisins or nuts. Tradition is that the children should roll these bread buns down hills and at the place where the bread bun stops rolling, they hope to find a partridge. In some villages, children make dolls out of reeds and then decorate the doll with rags, flowers or ribbons and then they go from house to house singing the lazarakia, which are hymns that describe the resurrection of Lazarus. This custom is said to have derived from the Ancient Greek festival of Adonis.
On Palm Sunday (Kiriaki ton vayion), most churches are decorated with branches of pain and myrtle. The strict fasts (nisties) become relaxed, and dishes of fresh or salted fish are prepared (usually fish soup). This feast recalls the triumphal entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem after having raised Lazarus from the dead. The eating of fish is symbolic in anotha for the letters of the Greek word for fish, ichthys, stands for the words Isou Ct Theou, Yios, Sotir (Jesus Christ, God, Son, Savior). This was the secret symbolic password of the early Christians during their persecution by the Romans. This day name day of women named Vaya and men named Vayios.
Monday begins the final week of humble fasting and observance of the events that lead to the Passion. Even the not-so-devout refrain from eating meat, eggs and dairy products, and children are also not allowed to drink milk. In some households even olive oil and wine are eliminated from the table. (Fasting for the Orthodox considered a deprivation but a ritual cleansing of the body as well as the soul, a purification making one worthy of Christ’s sacrifice, and the more devout fast for a full 40 days before Easter.)
Tuesday service is devoted to scripture readings referring to Mary Magdalen, and on this day prostitutes make it a point to attend church. Housewives traditionally whitewash their houses, including the edges of the street and the trees, during the first part of the Holy Week.
Holy Wednesday is devoted to the anointment of the faithful with holy oil (efhelaio) and worshippers bring home some holy oil to anoint other members of the family and religious icons, etc., in the home, using a sprig of oregano. These sprigs are then placed near the family icon to be saved for emergencies, for they are believed to have magical healing powers. If a new house is to be built, one of these oregano sprigs is placed on the cornerstone of the foundation.
Holy Thursday finds the household up and about very early, for there is much to be done; and in spite of the many preparations for the Easter feast begun on this day, it still remains a sacred and austere occasion. On Thursday morning, the church is decorated in black, purple and white, and the priests—attired in black vestments with silver crosses—read the gospel passages referring to the Last Supper. Afterward the communion is dispensed to all baptized faithful, and even the youngest children are brought by their parents to partake of it. Communion is dispensed with a spoon containing a small piece of holy bread together with a portion of the wine.
Following the morning service, housewives rush home to continue their preparations for the Easter feast. This is the day that the traditional scarlet Easter eggs are dyed, (the color red symbolizes the blood of Christ and the egg itself is an ancient and universal symbol of the world, rebirth, and fertility). In one popular folktale, a woman who happened to be holding a basket of eggs was told that Christ had risen from the dead. She cried out incredulously, “Indeed? And can these (eggs) from white become red?” When she looked again, miraculously they had.
In many households, eggs are not simply dyed red but decorated. Designs are made with wax before dying; some wrap the eggs in red onion skins, which will impart a marbled effect after dying. Another popular method is to place various fresh leaves or flowers on the egg, holding these in place with a bit of tulle or nylon stocking so that the imprint of the leaf is left on the egg. Many other folk rituals and beliefs are associated with the dyeing of the Easter eggs, many of them related to the miraculous powers of the first egg dyed, the dye bath itself (which is blood-red), and even the hens which lay the eggs. Many of these beliefs have their origins in pre-Christian practices.
Holy Thursday is also the day when Easter loaves of bread, buns, and cookies are made. These are rich, sweet, yeast-raised loaves of bread baked with spices (aniseed or machlepi, ground wild cherry seeds) and decorated with one red egg and dried fruits and almonds. These sweet loaves of bread are called tsoureki and can be purchased in the local bakeries. Other cookies, called koulourakia are also baked in various shapes for the children.
The evening service, the longest of the Holy Week, is commonly known as the liturgy of the twelve gospels, when the priests read 12 different passages describing the Passion of Christ. After the fifth passage, the Crucifixion itself is read, and a life-sized crucifix with an icon of the crucified Christ on it is placed in the center of the church. The worshipers adorn it with three candles and wreaths of flowers. The remaining seven passages referring to Christ’s death and burial are read. The participation of the faithful becomes intense; the women become the guardians of the cross, joining the Holy Mother in grievous mourning and singing funeral hymns in an all-night vigil. It is believed that the souls of the dead are released on this night as the savior descends to the world below.
Good Friday morning is spent attending the service of the descent from the cross. Offices and shops are closed until noon; flags are flown at half-mast and church bells ring a funeral knell throughout the day. Little food is eaten, often just a plate of boiled beans or lentils with vinegar. Many radio stations play classical music. Shortly before noon, the bier on which the body of Christ is to be laid is decorated with gold cloth, and fresh flowers are woven around the elaborately carved epitaphios, where the icon-body of Christ will lay in state until evening. The faithful pass by to bow and kiss the “body of Christ” and stoop under the bier in order to receive its grace.
On Good Friday evening the epitaphios is carried out of the church and the funeral procession begins, often headed by a band playing funeral marches and followed by the local authorities of the state or town and the crowds of faithful, each participant carrying a long candle (lambada). On this night, in some villages, an effigy of Judas is burned and the ashes from this fire scattered on the graves of the dead. Each region and island of Greece has its own local customs marking this holy day.
Holy Saturday sees the gloom of the previous days begins to lift. The service of the first resurrection is held. Noisy scenes then take place in the churches so as to scare away demons who hover about trying to hinder the resurrection and the salvation of mankind. The remainder of this day is spent completing the preparations for the Easter feast. Lamb or kid is sacrificed, and a special soup is prepared from the innards and intestines of the animal. This soup is the famous mageiritsa which is very delicious even if the ingredients may sound unappetizing. The organ meats and entrails are cleaned! parboiled and cut into very small pieces, simmered with spring onions and dill and rice, and dressed with egg-and-lemon sauce. This soup, together with freshly made cheeses, the red eggs and Easter bread will be consumed immediately following the midnight service. Traditionally, this meal was simple, but nowadays many other dishes and salads and desserts are prepared.
After the service of the first resurrection, the churches are redecorated with fresh flowers and branches of sweet bay, myrtle, and rosemary, all symbolizing the coming joy of victory. People dress in their best, and children are dressed in new clothes and often a red coat or sweater and shiny red shoes. Everyone gathers in the churchyard holding unlit white candles. Children are given special, elaborately decorated candles called lambathes, usually by their godparents. The service of the resurrection, or anastasi. begins around 10:00 p.m. Shortly before midnight, all lights go out, symbolizing the blackness of the grave. Soon, however, the priest appears at the door carrying a lighted candle and chanting “Come and partake of the light and glorify Christ who is risen from the dead.” The congregation then lights candles from the priest’s, and each, in turn, lights their neighbors’ candles, and everyone joins the priest in singing the Easter, hymni Christos anesti (“Christ is Risen”). Families exchange kisses; church bells ring out joyful™ and fireworks are set off. The priest reenters the church and the service, attended by the most devout, continues. Most people return home, trying to keep their candles lit in order to bless their homes before entering by making the sign of the cross above the threshold with the candle’s smoke. Family members then sit down for the traditional midnight supper. The first food they will eat after the seven-week fast are the red eggs. Before eating these eggs, the Greeks engage in a delightful ritual of cracking ο another’s eggs amid joyful cries of Christos anesti and chronia polla. This is one of the oldest Greek Easter customs from the Byzantine era, when it was believed that just as the newborn chick emerges from the cracked egg, so Chris t’emerged” from the tomb.
Competition is keen on this occasion, for the person whose egg cracks all the others (without breaking his/her own) is said to have good luck throughout the year.
The following morning finds householders out in their gardens early, stoking the fires over which the Easter lamb or kid will be roasted on a spit. In some regions, this is a community affair and the fires are built in the town square. Wherever it is done, the roasting requires many hours and the men take turns turning the spit. A festive atmosphere is created as everyone enjoys the wine, ouzo and mezedes (appetizers), accompanied by folk songs and dancing. In some parts of Greece, the feasting lasts for three days and the crumbs from the Easter table are scattered in the orchard or the vineyard to ensure a good harvest.
Easter Sunday afternoon or early evening is reserved for a special service of Agapi (“Love”) which takes place in the church and the gospel of the resurrection is read in several languages, symbolizing the brotherhood of all nations. At the end of the service, “kisses of love” are exchanged between friends and enemies alike. Easter Monday is also an official holiday, and those whose name days fell during the Lenten period or Holy Week (usually St. George, April 23), celebrate their name day. Other special festivals, rituals, and customs are followed in the various regions of Greece during the whole of “White Week,” as the week following Easter is called; but for Athenians, Tuesday means “back to work.” Children return to school the following week. One is well advised to leave Athens and get out into the countryside to appreciate the real meaning and atmosphere of Greek Orthodox Easter.
A Greek Orthodox wedding
The sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and communion are closely linked in the Greek Orthodox Church and mark the most important events in a youngster’s life. The baptism and the confirmation ceremonies, called vaftisia in Greek, was traditionally held 40 days after birth, the baby’s first outing was to church to become a Christian. Nowadays children are baptized up to two years of age. The parents of a child simple witness the ritual, which is carried out by the priest and the godfather and godmother (koumparos / koumpara).
A koumbaros or a koumpara takes his or her responsibilities very seriously because this act ties him/her spiritually to the child throughout the rest of their lives.
After the priest first blows three times in the child’s face, symbolically chasing away the evil spirits, the koumbaros/a renounces the devil and his works three times and then recites the Apostolic Creed. The child is then brought to the font and rubbed all over with oil by the koumbaros/a, who then gives the baby to the priest announcing the child’s name—usually the name of the paternal grandfather for a first boy or the paternal grandmother’s name for a first girl. (Maternal grandparents’ names are given for second boys and girls). At this point, the priest baptizes the child by completely immersing it in the font three times, invoking the names of the Trinity. Complete immersion symbolizes the burial and mystical resurrection of Christ.
Immediately following the baptismal part of this dual ceremony, the child is confirmed. The priest anoints various parts of the body by making a sign of the cross with a special ointment called chrism or myron on the forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hands, breast and feet, saying each time “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (In order to become members of the Greek Orthodox church, Christians of other faiths who have already been baptized will be confirmed.) Afterward, the priest cuts off three tiny locks of the child’s hair as a gift to Christ and then holds the child up to the altar three times before giving it to the mother to be dressed in a completely new outfit of clothes and a gold cross provided by the godparent. The koumbaros/a then carries the child around the font three times, accompanied by the priest, before presenting the baptized and confirmed child to the parents. Soon after the baptism, the child is brought to church on three successive Sundays to receive communion.
The traditional greeting on the occasion of baptism is ‘na zis’i—”May s/he live!” After the ceremony, small tokens called boubounieras containing sugar-coated almonds (koufeta) are distributed and sometimes sweet pastries are offered or a more elaborate lunch or dinner is given by the child’s father for family and friends. It is not necessary to bring a gift to the baptism; this is usually done when paying a visit to the new baby right after it is brought home.
Remember, a baby is never called by its name before being baptized. Even a one- or two-year-old unbaptized child is called “o bebis” or “y beba” (for girls). So don’t be surprised when asking someone what their baby’s name is, when they tell you that the baby will be named after the mother- or father-in-law, but don’t refer to the baby by that name.
Greek name days
The importance of a name in Greece cannot be underestimated, for a name going 1 as it does through the family’s past ultimately embodies the whole of Greece’s history and mythology. And what wonderful names they are too! Coming down to us are names of mythical, heroic and martyred or saintly figures of Greece’s past sue Odysseus, Agamemnon, Eleni (Helen), Hercules, Alexander, Socrates, Plato, Artemis, Constantine and Maria. In fact, many of the most familiar names in the Western world today are derived from these names. Consider the name Ioannis:. John, Ian, Jane, Juan and Ivan are all derivatives of this one Greek name.
The celebration of the saint’s day, or nameday is much more important than the birthday. Young children celebrate their birthdays with the usual parties, but only they are ten or 12 years old.
Traditionally, the person whose name day it is, gives the party or carries a box of sweets or chocolates around with him, in order to treat friends and family. Also at school or at workplace sweets are offered to classmates or coworkers. An open house might be at home with coffee, cake, liquor, wine, hors d’ oeuvres (mezedes) or an entire buffet, Invitations are not necessary, because everyone knows whose name is being celebrated on that day. It is a good idea to call someone on his/her name day, not only to wish him chronia polla (many happy returns) but also to find out if s/he is celebrating at home. If the person is not celebrating, you’ll be told “den yiortazo,” which means the person is not holding an open house for any variety of reasons—recent death in the family, lack of money etc. If you do go to the celebrant’s house, you should take a gift of boxed sweets cake (tourta), flowers or a plant (which can also be delivered in case you are unable to pay a visit), wine, whiskey, perfume or cologne, or an even more personal gift if know the person well.
Nameday etiquette is more rigidly adhered to in small towns and villages, less so in Athens and large cities. A phone call is always a good way to keep in touch with friends and business associates. It is also common practice in business circles to send a telegram to Greek business associates and clients on their name day.
Greek wedding (o gamos)
Up to 20 years or so ago, most marriages in Greece were arranged by the parents οf the bride and groom, and to some extent “arrangements” are still made on behalf of some unmarried young people. But today most young people simply meet, fall in love, get engaged and then married. Although dowries are legally out, other traditions still prevail. A young couple usually keeps their involvement to themselves and their friends, although the new generation now seems more likely to bring their current “flames” home to meet mom and dad, whatever their reaction!
What happens, however, when the couple decides to get engaged is still very much tied to tradition. There are no diamond rings slipped on trembling fingers over candlelit dinners or the surprise announcement, “We’re engaged!” No, things are much more complicated than this, after all, this is Greece!
Engagements are of two distinct types, or perhaps they should be viewed as being carried out in two parts. Of course, one or the other part can be eliminated, thus simplifying things. The first phase is when the couple pledge themselves to one another in the presence of their parents: they give their word (dinoun logo) this marks the first time the immediate families of the couple meet each other and the occasion is usually over dinner at the bride’s home. The future groom (gambros) formally declares his love and devotion to his intended and, “all going well,” gives his word that they will marry. His father gives his future daughter-in-law (nyfi) a ring or a piece of jewelry, and the bride’s father gives his future son-in-law some token. In the past, this was when the dowry was brought up, but now it is either not mentioned at all or only in passing—but fathers still try to give their daughters an apartment or house to live in. From then on the families visit back and forth on name days, etc., and the couple is ostensibly engaged. The families are now sypetheroi (co-inlaws).
Later, a second or more formal engagement ceremony (aravonas) might (or might not) take place in the presence of a larger group of family and friends, when the actual wedding bands are exchanged and worn on the left hand. This betrothal is sometimes even blessed by a priest. There is much eating, drinking and dancing, and the happy couple are toasted with kala stefana (“happy crowning,” referring to the coronation ceremony during the wedding) or i ora kali (the hour is right or good). Also, the more typical congratulation (synhariteria) is appropriate. If you are invited to an engagement party, flowers or a decorative plant is an appropriate gift. At this point, the couple usually starts making definite wedding plans and set the date.
Showers are not given for brides in Greece. The linens, trousseau and furnishings for the new home are provided by the bride’s family, and a typical bride will have an entire hope chest filled with hand-embroidered and crocheted linens made by herself or her mother and aunts and grandmothers. One custom sometimes still takes place on the eve of the wedding, the formal “bed-making” (to krevati). On this occasion, the nuptial bed is made up by the bride’s girlfriends and female relatives, and gifts of money, often in the form of gold coins signifying prosperity, are thrown on it. Sometimes a small boy is tossed on the bed in the hope that the first child will be a boy. The krevati custom is more commonly practiced in smaller towns and villages than in the large cities.
The groom awaits his bride outside the entrance to the church along with his family am other guests. The bride arrives in a flower-bedecked car and is given away by he father. She kisses her mother-in-law (pethera) and the groom, and they enter the church followed by the guests. The couple are attended by their best man and/or maid οf honour (koumbaros and/or koumbara). There are no other attendants except (sometimes) small children dressed in white (paranymphi). A table flanked by two large decorated candles (lambathes) has been prepared in front of the iconostasis; on it is \ goblet of wine, the rings, the crowns, the New Testament, and a plate of sugar-coated almonds.
The marriage service is divided into two parts, the betrothal and the sacrament proper (or ceremony of crowning). During the betrothal the rings are blessed and placed by the priest on the couple’s right hands, and the koumbaros/a exchanges them between the bride and groom three times. The second part of the service culminates ij the ceremony of coronation, when the priest places the crowns (stefana, made of pear and small artificial flowers and joined by a long satin ribbon) on the heads of the couple; these are also exchanged three times by the koumbaros/a. The three exchange of the rings and the stefana signify the special grace the couple receives from the Hoi Trinity. Afterwards, the couple drinks wine (three sips) from the common cup, which recalls the marriage at Canaa and symbolizes the beginning of their shared life. At th very end, the couple joins hands and are led by the priest and the koumbaros/a three times around the marriage table in the “dance of Isaiah” (choros tou Isaia). At this point the bridal procession is showered with rice and flower petals passed out to the guests by young friends of the bride. The rice symbolizes happiness and prosperity
The priest once again blesses the union, and the couple leaves the church. 1 receiving line is formed either in the foyer of the church or outside. Wishes of long lift na zisete, are extended to the newlyweds, and na sas zisoun (“May they have a Ion life”) to the koumbaros/a and family members in the receiving line. Before leaving, the guests are given a token of thanks, traditionally an odd number of sugared almonds tie up in squares or rounds of white tulle with a white ribbon. The almonds signify fertility and happiness, the sugar the sweet memory of the occasion. This custom dates from Roman and Byzantine times, when honey-covered nuts were eaten at wedding
For formal weddings, invitations to the reception are issued with the wedding invitation (prosklisi) and require an RSVP. In less formal situations, the father of the bride or groom will issue a verbal on-the-spot invitation after the wedding for a “little get together” at a tavern or at the house in honour of the bride and groom. This last minute situation sometimes is confusing to foreigners, who might feel uncomfortable at being asked at the last minute. Rest assured you should go along, kids and all; you would not have been asked if you weren’t welcome.
Gifts can either be sent to the home or brought to the church. Appropriate presents are small household furnishings, small appliances, silver or crystal objects—but never linens (these are always part of the “dowry”). Wedding gifts should be gift-wrapped in the shop where purchased, which will insert a card giving exchange instructions, should also include your calling card with appropriate congratulations written on back. Gifts should not be rewrapped in special wedding paper, nor is a wedding necessary. Wedding lists or registries are beginning to be featured at the larger shops and department stores, but this is still not an “accepted” practice probably because it’s considered gauche to tell people what to buy or even to imply that newlyweds need anything (since the dowry previously provided all).
A Greek funeral (kideia)
Wherefore, be of good cheer about death,
And know of a certainty that no evil can happen to a good man, either in this life or after death…
The hour of my departure has arrived, and we go our ways — I to die, and you to live.
Nothing characterizes the extraordinary awareness and acceptance that Greeks have death better than these last words of Socrates before drinking hemlock. There ii desire to hide the inevitable; there is no pretense. This attitude is evidenced by the speed with which funerals and burials take place, usually within 24 to 48 hours after the death.
All arrangements for the funeral service and burial are made through funeral parlors (grafio teleton). These oversee the details of selecting flowers, services, transports and the posting of death notices in the neighbourhood of the deceased. Wakes are rarely held in Athens, and the body is usually kept at the hospital for determining the calls death. In villages, however, the traditional wake still takes place at home, where women of the family and neighbourhood sit with the deceased until morning. In some areas ritual wailing is still practiced and special songs and poems of lamentation called myrologia are sung, a tradition dating from ancient times.
The casket is normally closed for the funeral service, which is usually quite short (30 – 40 minuts). Sometimes a friend or colleague of the deceased delivers a eulogy. At the end of service, mourners pass by the coffin, kissing its edge and the icon near it. Some people lay flowers on the coffin. It is then transported to the grave site, where it is opened, and where the priest bestows final blessings and close family members kiss the forehead of the deceased. After the coffin is closed and lowered into the grave, mourners throw flowers and handfuls of soil on it. Immediately following the burial, mourners a invited to partake of bitter coffee, brandy and dry toast with the bereaved at a nearby kafeneio. At this point, respects are paid to the family of the deceased by saying zoi se esas, na ton (tin) thimaste (“Life to you, may you remember him / her)”), or a simple sylipiteria (condolences).
If you are attending a funeral, be sure to sign a card or register with your full name and address, usually available at a small table before entering the church. One may also order a large flower wreath (stefani) from any florist and have it sent to the cemetery Should you be unable to attend the funeral, it is correct to send a letter / email immediately upon learning of the death. Although immediate family members wear black to the funeral, one need not wear black, although red and bright colors are frowned upon.
Sometimes the family serves a meal of boiled fish after the funeral. This happens less often in Athens and is more common in villages. Should you be invited to the meal under no circumstances should you bring food, sweets or flowers.
Deep mourning continues for 40 days. During this time, men used to wear a black necktie and a black armband, today they do not shave their faces for the 40 days while women dress in black. Music and dancing is forbidden for the 40 days after the funeral. For some, mourning continues for six years, and widows often remain in black for the rest of their lives. If you are close the family you might want to telephone or visit during the 40-day official mourning period (penthos) but once again, do not bring sweets or flowers.
Traditional mourning periods are based on Christian beliefs associated with Christ’s resurrection. Since the soul is believed to linger for three days, the family goes to the grave with the priest the third day after death, where a simple plate of boiled wheat (koliva) is blessed by the priest before being scattered to the wind and the plate ceremoniously broken on the tomb, symbolizing the release of the soul from the body. Another ceremony is held at the grave nine days after death. A more elaborate church memorial service (mnimosino) is held on the Sunday shortly before or after 40 days” after death (ta saranta). This memorial marks the ascent of the soul into heaven. An the service, coffee, brandy and sweet cakes are again served, along with koliva; this time the boiled wheat is mixed with parsley (signifying the bitterness of death and the green which grows over the grave), nuts (symbolizing the wood of the coffin and of the cross) and pomegranate seeds (signifying life and rebirth). The entire mound of koliva is covered with a white icing of sugar, symbolic of the shroud. The koliva is spooned into little bags and distributed to participants after the service. This ritual is not only the loveliest and most comforting of Greek funerary traditions, but also the oldest, reaching back to antiquity, and the 40 days memorial service provides the opportunity to those who missed the funeral to pay their final respects to the deceased. A meal of macaroni and meat is sometimes served at the family’s house on the ‘saranta’. There are other memorial services after a year and then after three years. At the end of a three to seven year period, the body is usually disinterred and the bones are placed in a special crypt (osteofilakio).