Traditional shops and merchandise on the streets of Lindos in Rhodes
COVER STORY

Traditions in Greece

READING TIME
As long as it takes to eat a Greek salad

Roots, places, manners and customs… Greek civilisation isn’t just about monuments and myth

Customs whose origins are lost in the mists of time and cultural practices that have been observed since Homer’s day. Fascinating traditions tied to different clans and localities, with multiple layers of social, economic and ritual significance. Rites inextricably connected with specific places, communities and holidays.

These are the deep roots of Greek culture. They live on in customs and local traditions…from Crete to Macedonia and the Aegean to the Ionian islands, the wealth, diversity and colour of this country’s customs and traditions will astound you.

Customs & dancing

Tradition in Greece is still part of everyday life. During your holidays here, you’ll meet locals dressed in traditional costumes. In western Crete, the older men still proudly sport their high boots, breeches and black-tasselled kerchiefs; on Karpathos, the women have two sets of costumes, a simple one for every day and a very elaborate, colourful one for festivals and weddings; in Metsovo, on special occasions, you’ll see men in embroidered waistcoats, woolly hats, woven trousers and clogs.

Perhaps, nothing has a more powerful presence in Greece’s everyday culture are traditional dances. Greek communities everywhere love to dance, in couples or in circles, young and old; and in dancing, they celebrate their homeland and their roots… the ties that bind. The musicians playing on handcrafted instruments contribute the rhythm to festivals and parties all year round.

The customs of Greece

Birth, baptism, engagement, wedding, funerals: the milestones that give shape and definition to life and a person’s place in society. If you’re lucky, your holidays in Greece will include witnessing or even taking part in the following:

Traditional weddings that start with dressing the bride and bouncing a baby boy on the nuptial bed; the bride escorted to the church by musicians; the especially complex wedding rituals of Lefkas; the heart-wrenching Maniot dirges, the musical accompaniment on the journey to the other world.

And you’ll find festivities everywhere, but Patras boasts the most organised and famous celebrations where disguises, fertility symbols, wild music, endless dancing, pranks and general frivolity – with roots in pagan fertility rites – precede the austerity of Lent.

Clean Monday, equivalent to Ash Wednesday, ushers in the 40-day fasting period with meatless picnics and a sky full of colourful kites. May Day usually involves making flower wreaths before sunrise, then burning them on Midsummer Eve.

In autumn, the slaughtering of the family pig in Crete and the Aegean islands is a time-honoured ritual, while on Zakynthos, on September 14, the Day of the True Cross, the blessing of the flour and basil for leavening bread takes place.

Christmas & Easter in Greece

Every region has its own wealth of traditions for these important dates on the calendar, with special holiday dishes, songs or seasonal carols like the Christmas kalanda. On Epiphany, young men on all the islands and coastal regions of the mainland dive into the cold sea to be the one who retrieves the cross thrown by the priest.

Easter celebrations hold a special place in Greek tradition. Holy Week before Easter is solemn but full of anticipation. On Maundy Thursday, the place to be is Patmos where the Last Supper is piously re-enacted in a mass, but on Good Friday every church in the country has its own candlelit procession following the bier of Christ decorated with white flowers. Easter customs differ widely, from the marching bands and ‘breaking of the pots’ in Corfu to the pyrotechnic ‘rocket wars’ of Vrontado, Chios. In Arahova, on April 23, or on Easter Monday if the date falls within Lent, the feast day of St George takes place with competitions in traditional costume. 

Masked players at the Medieval Rose Festival. The festival is held in Rhodes old town

Saint’s Day Celebrations

Saint’s Days are celebrated in rural chapels and town churches all year round. Usually preceded by a mass on the eve of the local or patron saint’s name day, the panigyri – festival – features free food, drink, traditional music and dancing with the congregation into the wee hours. On the Ionian islands of Corfu, Kefalonia and Zante, the patron saints Spyridon, Gerasimos and Dionysios are honoured processions accompanied by marching bands.

In Agiassos on Lesvos, on Prophet Elijah day, riders on decorated horses climb up to the mountain chapel, where one of them will be selected to bring down the Prophet’s icon. The celebrations on August 15 in honour of the Virgin, attract thousands of worshipers. Especially popular are those at the cathedral of Tinos, Ekatondapyliani on Paros and Hozoviotissa on Amorgos.

Ethnic diversity and tradition in Greece

Vlachs, Cretans, Epirots, Macedonians, Aegean and Ionian islanders, Greeks from the Pontus (Caucasus), Asia Minor and Egypt, Pomaks, Thracians, Tsakones, Sarakatsans, Maniots, Arvanites (of Albanian descent)… the roots of modern Greece run deep, can be traced back centuries and reach many corners of the earth

They all make a fascinating mosaic of tribes, some nomadic, some indigenous, some from former ancient colonies, who eventually settled in Greece. The result? A uniquely diverse population for such a small country; a gathering of seafarers, with limitless horizons; small circles of subculture, overlapping and intersecting to form one great nation.

Each part of Greece has its own characteristic customs, traditions, manners, holidays, cuisine and local products, art, costumes, architecture, dances, songs, idioms and dialects.

Discover them one by one, travelling to known and little known destinations in Greece.

Probe their peculiarities, find the features that connect them and those that make them distinct.

Take part in their festivities, in their daily lives, their symbolic rituals. You’ll be charmed by their authenticity, the love and pride each group has in its homeland and roots… love and pride they show and share with anyone who displays an interest.
 

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