Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Greece festivities

Greece is a country full of surprises and wonders. Amongst mountains and myths, sun and sea, festivals and fire-walking, the ever friendly people of this beautiful country go about their daily business safe in the knowledge that they are the envy of many a visitor. It is impossible not to be stirred by the myths and monuments, the processions, the festivals - and of course the locally produced food and wine.

The national flag is a reflection on the soul of a country that found itself a new spirit after its liberation from the Ottoman empire. The importance of the Orthodox Church in the struggle for freedom is recognized by the white cross in the upper left corner of the flag. The nine blue and white stripes represent the number of letters in the Greek word for freedom, eleftheria, as well as symbolizing the unrelenting tides and the white-crested waves of the Aegean Sea.

Choosing a time of year to go is not easy. There are so many things to do, see and experience that whenever you go you are sure to be stunned by what Greece offers - and will yearn to stay that bit longer to see what is round the next corner.

Summer is the most popular time to visit, and it can be difficult to find accommodation until late August. However, the cloudless skies and variety of cultural festivals lure people from far and wide.

Fall is more tranquil, with fewer tourists but still all of the facilities open. The sea is at its warmest for swimming, and the wild flowers come into bloom for the second time in the year.
Winter signals the start of the skiing season, with snow capped mountains seemingly a million miles away from the sun parched peaks found in summer. Rain comes to lower lying areas, although not too much to spoil the experience.

Spring is one of the most beautiful seasons, a time when flowers bloom and fruits start to ripen. The fishing season begins, heralding the glorious catches of fresh fish and calamari, squid, hung out to dry on the verandahs of idyllic seaside tavernas. Of course, religion plays an important part in Greek culture, and more so in Easter, when the holiday festivities grab the attention of the entire country.


Greeks welcome in the New Year by celebrating the Feast of Agios Vasíleios (Saint Basil). People exchange gifts, hailing each other with the traditional New Years greeting of Kali Chronia. On this day, known as Protochroniá, the old Byzantine custom of slicing the Vassilopita (Basil cake or New Year cake) is performed in homes across the country. The cake contains a gold or silver coin and promises a year of good luck to its finder.

Another national holiday follows shortly afterwards, with Theofánia (Epiphany) falling on January 6. Traditionally, the kalikántzari, hobgoblins, who ran amok during the twelve days of Christmas are banished to the underworld by religious rites. In one of these ceremonies, priests perform the Blessing of the Waters, throwing crucifixes into the rivers and seas, which are retrieved by youthful divers plunging into the depths - Pireaus being one of the most spectacular places to see the event.

Gynaikokratía (8 Jan), mainly celebrated in Macedonia and Thrace, sees men and women change roles for the day. Women take over the bars and cafes and the men stay at home to do the housework - all in honor of female dominion, or matriarchy.


Ypapantí, or Candlemas, (2 Feb) is an Orthodox feast day in the calm before the storm of mid February, when carnival season gets underway.


Apókries, Carnival, is roughly equivalent to a combination of Halloween and Mardi Gras. Seven weeks before Easter, Katharí Deftéra (Clean Monday) marks the start of three weeks of frantic festivities, rooted in pagan customs but combined with more modern Christian preparations for Lent. Masses of people head out into the countryside to fly paper kites. During the period people participate in Carnival parades and the donning of fancy dress costumes to bring good luck to their village or town. Other spectacles include majorettes, concerts and dances, with the streets and squares filled with partygoers.

Independence Day is a national holiday marked by parades and dances throughout Greece. On March 25th, 1821, Bishop Germanos of Patras raised the banner of revolution against nearly 400 years of Ottoman rule over Greece. He chose this date to coincide with one of the holiest days in the Orthodox calendar, Evangelismós (deriving from the Greek for ‘good news’), commemorating the day that the Archangel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would bear the divine child.


Megáli Evdomáda (Holy Week), including Páscha (Easter Sunday), can fall in either April or May. It is perhaps the most widely celebrated of all the events in Greece and possibly the most beautiful and exciting time to visit. Processions, blessings, bonfires, parties and feasts, are a small selection of the events that take place nationwide, and are all helped along by lashings of local wine. Easter this year falls on May 1st, and next year on April 23rd.
The Feast of Agios Geórgios, St George (23 Apr), the patron saint of shepherds, traditionally heralds the start of the grazing season, and in Arahova, near Delphi, festivities continue for three days non-stop.


May Day, Protomagiá (1 May), is a national holiday famous for the exodus of many families to the countryside, picking wild flowers and making wreaths with garlic, hung above doors, off balconies, on fishing boats and in many other places, with the intention of warding off evil and ushering in the spring season.

In Macedonia, fire-walking ceremonies (Anastenaria) are popular, held in honor of Agios Konstantínos and Agía Eléni (21 May). People walk and dance across burning charcoal embers clasping icons of Constantine and his mother Helen, the first Orthodox Byzantine rulers.
The unification of the Ionian Islands with the rest of Greece is also celebrated, mainly in Corfu. Análipsi, Ascension, usually falls in late May, 40 days after Easter, and is considered such a great holiday that "even the swallows do not build their nests" on that day.


Pentikostí, Pentecost or Whitsunday, is another feast day, held seven weeks after Easter. Also starting in June is the Athens Festival, where both international and Greek artists have come together to perform every summer since 1955. The ancient Herod Atticus Odeon, an open air theater found nestling beneath the Acropolis, plays home to modern and classical dramas, dances, orchestral symphonies, opera, ballet and even jazz. The festival, which lasts until mid September, is a multi-venue event, encompassing the Lykavittós Theater, with its spectacular panoramic views of the city. 100 miles away, in the Peleponnese, the Epidaurus Festival complements the Athens Festival, with more open air theater performances.
Agios Ioánnis, St John’s Day (24 Jun) is a nationwide celebration of the birth of St John the Baptist. The night before, Midsummer’s Eve, sees bonfires being lit, people jumping through the flames, and the wreaths so loving gathered in May consigned to the flames.


Profitis Ilías, the Prophet Elijah (20 Jul) is celebrated widely at mountain-top shrines and in churches and monasteries.

The Epirus Festival is a showpiece for authors, paintings, popular art, theater, dance and concerts. It runs from July until August. Many villages take part in the festival of Agía Paraskeví (26 Jul) but more so in Epirus.

Agios Panteleímon is revered for being the patron saint of hospitals. He was a doctor who became beatified, and is held in high regard in rural areas, with special celebrations held in his name in the village of Anaxos on the island of Lesvos.


Metamórfosi, the Transfiguration of Christ the Savior (6 Aug) is another important feast day for the Orthodox Church, shortly followed by Koímisis tis Theotókou, Assumption of the Virgin Mary (15 Aug), the second biggest religious holiday after Easter. Pilgrims flock to the island of Tinos, crawling on hands and knees up to the church to pay homage to the holy icon inside. It is customary for Greeks to return to their home towns and villages to spend time with their families. Lesvos is the main focus of activities, with a wide variety of cultural events taking place in Agiasso, Petra and Stipsi.


Génnisis tis Theotókou, the birth of the Virgin Mary (8 Sep) is one of two important feast days in September, the other being Ypsosis tou Timíou Stavroú, the Exaltation of the True Cross (14 Sep) which is thought of as the last of the major outdoor summer festivals despite taking place in Fall.


Many Greeks celebrate Agios Dimítrios (26 Oct), particularly in Thessaloníki where Dimitris is the patron saint, which signals the end of grazing season.

Ochi Day (28 Oct) translates as "No Day," the response Mussolini received from General Metaxas when requesting free passage to occupy Greece at the height of World War Two. Military processions, wreath laying at war memorials, patriotic displays and festivities commemorate the day that the Greeks started to repel the Fascist forces back through Albania.


Ceremonies take place on 8 Nov in the many rural monasteries and churches named after the Archangels Michael and Gabriel.

Eisódia tis Theotókou, the Entry of the Virgin Mary in the Temple (21 Nov) is celebrated around Greece, as it is an important Orthodox feast day.


Agios Nikólaos, Saint Nicholas (6 Dec), the patron saint of sailors, travelers and children, sees numerous processions heading down to the sea and the many chapels named after him.
Christoúgenna, Christmas (25 Dec) is an important national holiday and feast day, as is Synaxis tis Panagías, ‘The Gathering Around the Holy Family’ (26 Dec). Although Western influences such as Christmas trees, decorations and presents are strong, Christmas is not considered to be as important as Easter, the most sacred time of year.


It is usual in Greece to celebrate giortí, name days, and not birthdays. The eldest son is usually named after his paternal grandfather, and the eldest daughter named after her paternal grandmother. There are still very few exceptions to the rule. Also, in many areas the tendency is for large numbers of the populace to bear the name of the local patron saint, and name days can turn into quite important parties - with feasts laid on for family and friends, and small gifts given to the person whose name day it is.

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