Local festivities, Sifnos island

Greek customs and traditions

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There are customs and traditions everywhere you look in Greece. Some, like Easter and Christmas, are religious holidays while others, like Carnival and May Day, have their roots in ancient Greek festivals and rituals. They feature traditional songs and dances, as well as colourful costumes and local dishes, and they bring communities to church and families around the dining table. Others, like summer festivals, are full of Greeks’ famous love of life, welcoming locals and guests to eat, drink and dance in village squares. What all Greek customs and traditions have in common is that locals love to celebrate them and invite everyone else to join in.

Traditional costumes & dances 

Local costumes and dances represent everything that is colourful about Greek customs and traditions. They give life to summer festivals, with variations found both on the mainland and on islands – both as chains, such as the Aegean and Ionian islands, and between the islands themselves. Dances carry messages of kinship and solidarity, with lyrics that praise the roots of a place and tell stories of love, mourning and joy. Costumes, meanwhile, are designed to represent the social status of the person wearing them, especially of women. For Greek ethnic groups (the Vlachs, the Pomaks, the Arvanites, the Pontic Greeks, the Tsakones of the Peloponnese, the once nomadic Sarakatsani people of Epirus and more), local costumes are literally the embodiment of their identity.

Costume craftsmanship

The detail and craftsmanship that go into making folk costumes can be extraordinary. Many date from Byzantine times (rather than ancient Greece) and are made from fabrics like silk, felt and linen as well as cotton. Women’s dresses feature intricately embroidered motifs and gold or silver ornaments and jewellery, and are accessorised by belts, scarves, aprons and flowers. Men traditionally wear waistcoats (sometimes embroidered), shirts, belts, long cotton socks and – most notably – kilt-like fustanellas. And nothing screams “Crete” more than the stivania boots of men, still occasionally worn as part of everyday dress in mountain village and seen in acrobatic folk dances.

Traditional dances

Traditional dances are at the heart of most joyous Greek celebrations. At weddings and baptisms, they are performed in circles or in pairs of dancers, with lyrics that praise the place and the roots of the community. Everywhere in Greece has its own traditional dances and songs … Macedonia, Crete, Epirus, Thrace, Thessaly, Central Greece, the Peloponnese, the Ionian, the Aegean islands etc.

Memorable dances include the Tsamikos, where participants hold each other’s hands with their elbows bent at right angles and the last person of the line or circle performs acrobatic leaps. Likewise, there are many versions of the Syrtos, where dancers form a chain or circle and the leader breaks away to perform improvised steps. Variations include the Chaniotikos, Kalamatianos, Ikariotikos, and Roditikos pidiktos (named after the destination) as well as the Balos (performed in pairs). Cretan dances include the Pentozalis, the Maleviziotikos and the Sousta, just as there are Pontic folk dances, the Zonaradikos dance of Thrace, and the Rouga or Perdika dances of Corfu.

Sounds of the past

Lutes, lyres, violins, mandolins, guitars, flutes, clarinets, zurnas, tsampounas (a kind of bagpipe), tambourines, davul drums and many other instruments (often with local variations) combine to create the unique sounds that accompany traditional dances. All are made in workshops by craftsmen who have learned their trade from past generations.


Carnival (Apokries) is the most fun tradition in Greece, lasting three weeks and reaching a climax on the eve of Clean Monday (the first day of Lent) when the countdown to Easter begins. The carnival tradition is linked to the ancient worship of Dionysus, the god of wine, who was often depicted with satyrs and sileni in masks and animal skins. The main events include fancy dress parades and carnival floats, but there are musical events and shows for all ages, such as the gaitanaki dance, where participants dance around a pole holding a ribbon, and treasure hunts. The carnival period includes tsiknopempti (grilled or smoky Thursday) on the second to last Thursday before Lent, when vast quantities of grilled meat are consumed.

Everywhere in Greece does Carnival in its own way. The biggest carnival is held in Patras (culminating in a grand Sunday parade) and there are colourful carnivals everywhere from Xanthi in the north to Naoussa in the Peloponnese, which involves a performance of Genitsari (unmarried young men) and brides known as Boules (also performed by men). In Galaxidi, the Alevromomoutzouromata involves colourful flour being thrown in the streets, and Amfissa recreates the Night of the Ghosts (recalling the story of a young tanner who took his life when his fiancée was killed by lightning). Kalamata is famous for its gaitanaki dances and in Ioannina locals dance around fires called tzamales.

Carnival is also a special time on Greek islands, including Corfu (where costumes have a Venetian flair), Syros and Naxos. The Rethymno Carnival in Crete is always lively and the Skyros Carnival features the pagan ritual of young men representing the geros (old man) wearing goat masks, animal hides and goat bells and women (the korela or daughter) wearing bridal veils.

Clean Monday

After the revelry of carnival comes Clean Monday (Kathara Deftera), another favourite Greek tradition. It’s a movable feast (depending on the date of Easter) and marks the first day of Lent (known as Sarakosti), which ends on Easter Sunday. Clean Monday is a national holiday and involves sitting down with family and friends and eating lagana (unleavened bread with sesame seeds), taramosalata, halva, seafood, vegetables (raw or pickled), olives, pulses (strictly speaking, without oil) and other Lenten food. Another Clean Monday tradition is the flying of kites, which fill the sky. Clean Monday celebrations that take place in the countryside are known as Koulouma.

May Day

May Day (Protomagia) in Greece has its roots in the ancient rituals honouring Demeter, the goddess of harvest and agriculture, to celebrate the fertility of the fields, the fruitfulness of the earth, the blossoming of nature and the definitive end of winter and rebirth of summer. Today, wreaths of flowers are made and hung on the doors of houses for good luck and fertility. Protomagia also coincides with Labour Day celebrations in Greece.

Easter in Greece

Easter is the most important festival in the Orthodox Christian calendar (falling up to four weeks apart from the date of Catholic Easter) and is traditionally celebrated by people in their home village. With spring in full bloom, each day leading up to Easter Sunday is special. Maundy Thursday is traditionally when tsoureki (a sweet, enriched bread) and koulourakia (Easter cookies) are baked and eggs are painted red (symbolising the blood of Christ). On Good Friday epitaphs (flower-decorated wooden biers, representing the coffin of Christ) are paraded through the streets. On Holy Saturday, the First Resurrection is commemorated in a morning church service, where the priest throws laurel leaves over the faithful, and the whole country attends the midnight Resurrection service. Church lights are switched off as the priest emerges with a lit candle representing the Holy Light. As church bells ring joyously, people light each other’s candles and fireworks fill the sky. People then return home or visit friends to eat magiritsa (an Easter stew traditionally made with liver and other intestines), marking the end of Lent. Easter Sunday is an all-day feast with lamb on the spit and endless amounts of food, wine and laughter.

In Corfu, philharmonic bands greet the arrival of the epitaphs in Corfu town and botides (painted clay pots) are dropped from balconies during the First Resurrection celebrations of Holy Saturday, while Syros has the tradition of the meeting of the epitaphs in Ermoupoli’s Miaouli Square. (Corfu and Syros are also two of the few places where Orthodox and Catholic Easter are celebrated on the same day each year.) In Patmos, the Maundy Thursday Niptiras custom in Loza Square recalls the events of the Last Supper. And in Tinos, the Good Friday service at the church of Agios Nikolaos includes the carrying of the epitaph into the sea.

Easter celebrations in Greece are special wherever you are. Just a small selection include Zante (where worshippers at the Church of St Nicholas hit metal objects during the First Resurrection service to represent the earthquake described by the Holy Gospel as a consequence of the Resurrection), Paros (including a representation of the Passion of Christ), Santorini (burning lanterns in tin cans), Nafpaktos (with hundreds of candles and torches welcoming the epitaph and a flaming candle illuminating the entrance to the harbour).

August 15 celebrations

Another landmark day in the Orthodox Christian calendar, marking the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven. Along with solemn church liturgies, music-filled summer festivals are held in every corner of the country, making August 15 another much-anticipated date among Greek customs and traditions.

Every village takes advantage of some saint’s day to hold a fair involving music, dancing, tons of food and tanker-loads of wine and raki

Tinos becomes a place of pilgrimage, with some visitors approaching the Church of Evangelistria on their knees to fulfil their vow to kiss the miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary. On Patmos, monks carry out the procession of the Golden Epitaph of the Virgin Mary in a custom that has Byzantine origins. The Koufonisia isles have the tradition of a kaiki (traditional boat) ‘race’ between Kato (Lower) Koufonisi and Pano (Upper) Koufonissi, while the inhabitants of the mountain village of Olympos in Karpathos attend one of the most solemn services in Greece. In Paros, meanwhile, the 17th century icon of the Virgin Mary takes centre stage at the early Christian church of Ekantontapyliani in Parikia. And in Pirgi, one of the mastic villages of Chios, the church of Panagia holds a service followed by a joyous feast of dancing, eating and drinking.

When it comes to August 15 festivals (panigiria), Vitsa (one of the Zagori villages in Epirus) celebrates to the sound of clarinets and in Trikala the tsipouro flows freely. And with summer in full swing, Greek islands, naturally, take centre stage. On Ikaria, Folegandros, Amorgos, Lesvos, Serifos, Crete… you name it … you’re bound to find festival celebrations that last long into the night.

Christmas and New Year

Greece has its own way of celebrating Christmas and New Year. While stuffed turkey is now served on Christmas Day, the traditional Christmas dish in Greece was pork with celery and chicken soup (with variations depending on the region). Another Greek Christmas or New Year's Day custom is the doorbell ringing with children playing triangles and sometimes wind or percussion instruments and singing kalanta carols. The custom is repeated on January 6 during Fota (also known as Theofania or Epiphany, when Christ was recognised as the Messiah). Fota church services in coastal areas end with priests blessing the waters and throwing a cross into the sea. Young people excitedly jump into the sea and compete to retrieve the cross. Other customs involve model boats being decorated with lights (although Christmas trees are increasingly common) and the first person entering a house at New Year breaks a pomegranate for good luck.

When it comes to food, kourambiedes (almond butter biscuits) and melomakarona (honey cookies) are eaten by the boxful. In Rhodes, Crete, Halkidiki and other parts of Greece, Christopsomo (Christ’s bread) is decorated with a cross and scented with aniseed, while in Zante (Zakynthos), kouloura bread is made with aromatic spices, walnuts, grapes and wine. And on New Year’s Day, every Greek household cuts a vasilopita (a sweet cake, although savoury versions are made in some regions) containing a charm or flouri. The first slice is for God, followed by the home and then each member of the family. Whoever finds the charm will have good luck for the coming year.

Greek customs and traditions

So what’s it going to be? Easter of Christmas in Greece? Or have we put you in the mood for joining a carnival parade or a summer festival on a Greek island. One way or another, this is your invitation to take part in the customs and traditions of Greece

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