What traditions and customs are there in Greece?
An overview of the customs and traditions of Greece.
Food in daily life
Grains, grapes, and olives are essential in the diet, supplemented by eggs, cheese, yogurt, fish, lamb, goat, chicken, rice, and fruits and vegetables. Certain foods are emblematic of national identity, such as moussaka, baklava, thick coffee, and resinated wine (“retsina”).
Coffee shops have long functioned as daily meeting places for men. Dining out has grown in popularity, with a corresponding increase in the number and variety of restaurants.
Food customs on ceremonial occasions
Guests should always be offered refreshments, and all major ceremonies include food. At funerals, mourners are given koliva (boiled wheat, sugar, and cinnamon), a special cake is baked on New Year’s Day, and the midnight Passover service is followed by a feast, usually of lamb.
Much of social life takes place within a close circle of family and friends. Group activities revolve around eating, drinking, playing games, listening to music, dancing, and encouraging debate and conversation.
These gatherings are often aimed at achieving kefi, a feeling of high spirits and relaxation that comes when one feels happily transported by the moment and the company. Drinking can contribute to the achievement of kefi, but getting drunk is considered shameful.
An important occasion when people open their homes to a wide range of visitors is on the day that homage is paid to the saint for whom a person is named. On those days, it is allowed to call anyone bearing the name of that saint. Guests usually bring sweets or liquor, and the honorees treat their visitors with food and hospitality.
Hospitality is seen as a pleasure and a responsibility. Hosts are generous, and guests are expected to accept what is offered with token protest. Hospitality is often extended to foreigners, but the rush of travellers, ambivalence about the impact of tourism and the inappropriate or condescending behavior of some tourists complicate the situation.
About 98 percent of the population are Orthodox Christians, just over 1 percent are Muslims, and there are small numbers of Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, Roman Catholics, and members of Protestant denominations. The Greeks became involved in Christianity very early.
After the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced the new religion, he moved his capital to Constantinople in AD 330. The new center became the Greek-dominated Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire. Tension between the Christian patriarchs of Constantinople and Rome ultimately led to the schism of 1054, which divided the religion into Orthodoxy and Catholicism.
The Orthodox Church represented and supported the Christian population of Eastern Europe after the Ottoman conquest. In 1833, after the revolution, the Orthodox Church of Greece became the first of several national Orthodox churches in the region, each autonomous, while recognizing the spiritual leadership of the patriarch in Constantinople.
Today there are sixteen separate Orthodox churches and patriarchates. The Orthodox Church of Greece is officially designated as the religion of the nation, its officials exercise some influence in state affairs, and it receives state funds.
The Orthodox Church of Greece is supervised by the Holy Synod, whose president is the Archbishop of Athens. Under this synod are the regional bishops, as well as the monks, nuns, and priests who run specific churches and monastic institutions. Local priests are encouraged to marry, but other members of the clergy are not allowed to do so.
The care of the local churches is the responsibility of the worshiping community, and the priests are assisted by deacons, cantors, and local women who clean the buildings and bake bread for communion.
Rituals and Holy Places
Orthodoxy includes a number of daily, weekly, and annual rites, including the Sunday liturgy and the Twelve Great Feasts, the most important of which is Holy Week and the Holy Week that precedes it. Between 20 and 25 percent of the population attend weekly services, while many more people are present at annual services.
There are four fasting periods and saints’ days in honor of the three hundred Orthodox saints. There are also rites associated with key events in the life cycle, such as funerals, weddings, and baptisms. Many people integrate religious practice into their daily lives, passing by a church or entering to light a candle, pray or meditate.
Larger Orthodox churches are often built in a square cross configuration, all containing a screen of icons separating the sanctuary where the communion bread and wine are sanctified from the rest of the building. Icons are pictorial representations of saints in paint or mosaic that serve as symbols of holiness.
In many homes, there is a niche where icons and sacred oil are displayed. Some churches and monasteries have become national pilgrimage sites due to their association with miracles and historical events.
Death and the afterlife
In Orthodox belief, at the moment of death, a person’s soul begins a journey toward God’s judgment, after which the soul is consigned to either paradise or hell. Relatives wash and prepare the body for the funeral, which is held in a church within twenty-four hours of death.
The body is buried, not cremated, because decomposition is considered part of the process by which a person’s sins are forgiven and the soul travels to paradise. The next forty days are a precarious time, at the end of which the soul is judged. Visits are paid to the relatives of the deceased and additional rituals are carried out, some with open displays of grief and songs of lamentation.
Three to seven years after burial, the bones of the deceased are exhumed and placed in a family vault or communal ossuary. The degree to which the body has decomposed and the bones have turned white is seen as evidence of the degree to which the person’s sins have been forgiven and the soul has entered a state of happiness.
Almost all celebrations have a religious component, and all the main rites of the Orthodox Church are holidays. Celebrations with a predominantly secular orientation include Ochi Day (October 28), which commemorates the occasion when Greek leaders rejected Mussolini’s demand to surrender in 1940; Independence Day (March 25), when Bishop Germanos of Patras raised the flag of revolt against the Ottomans near Kalavryta in 1821; New Year’s Day, when people get together, play cards and cut a special cake containing a lucky coin; and, Labor Day (May 1), the day of picnics and excursions to the country.
Arts and Humanities
The Ministry of Culture supports all the arts in terms of production, education, advertising, festivals and national centers such as the Greek Film Center. There are provincial and municipal theaters, folklore institutes, orchestras, conservatories, dance centers, art workshops and literary groups.
Oral poetry and folk songs thrived even under Ottoman rule, and became more formal and written forms as the nation-state emerged. Poets and novelists have aligned contemporary national themes with major movements in Western literature. There have been two Greek Nobel Prize winners: George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis.
The ancient traditions of pottery, metalworking, carpet making, woodcarving and textile production have been carried forward by cooperatives of artisans and artisans. Many sculptors and painters are at the forefront of contemporary European art, while others continue the tradition of orthodox icon painting.
Music and dance are important forms of group and self-expression, and the genres range from Byzantine chants to the urban working-class music known as rebetika. The distinctive Greek styles of music, dance, and instrumentation have not been displaced by the popularity of music from Western Europe and America.
Some of the most widely used instruments are the bouzouki, santouri, lauto, clarinet, violin, guitar, tsambouna, and lyra, many of which function as symbols of national or regional identity. Popular composers Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hadjidakis have achieved international fame.
Shadow puppets revolving around the cunning character known as Karagiozis were very popular in the late Ottoman period. Dozens of theater companies from Athens, Thessaloniki and elsewhere perform contemporary plays and ancient dramas in modern Greek.
Movies are a popular form of entertainment, and various Greek filmmakers and production companies have produced a body of melodramas, comedies, musicals, and arthouse films.
Share the customs and traditions of Greece.