Greece keeps traditional holidays and festivals alive.
Greece, a country steeped in history and tradition, has a rich tapestry of holidays that are celebrated throughout the year. These holidays range from religious observances to Greek national days that commemorate significant events in the country's history.
Almost every day of the year, there is a celebration somewhere in Greece. Nearly all the Greek holidays are religious and, as Greek people favor the Orthodox Church in large numbers, it is normal for businesses and schools to close and for people to attend church. For sure, a feast will accompany the celebration whatever the reason for it was – Greek Orthodox holiday, name day, or political holiday.
Greece has managed to keep alive many endearing traditions despite the invasion of modern trends. Greek holidays and festivals are some of such.
One of the major holidays in Greece is Ochi Day, celebrated on October 28th. This day marks the anniversary of Greece's refusal to surrender to Italian forces during World War II. Schools, businesses, and government offices are closed, and parades are held in various cities to honor the bravery of the Greek people.
Another significant date is March 25th, which serves a dual purpose. It is both the Greek Independence Day, celebrating the start of the War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire in 1821, and the religious feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. This is one of the Greek national days that is celebrated with much enthusiasm, featuring parades, traditional dances, and an abundance of food.
Easter is perhaps the most significant religious holiday in Greece, even more so than Christmas. The celebrations begin with Holy Week and culminate on Easter Sunday, with traditions that include a midnight church service, fireworks, and a feast featuring lamb and a special Easter bread called tsoureki.
New Year's Day, also known as Protochronia, is another major holiday. Apart from the global tradition of welcoming the New Year, Greeks also celebrate St. Basil's Day on January 1st. Children often sing carols and receive gifts, much like the Christmas traditions in other countries.
Other notable holidays include the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on August 15th, and Clean Monday, which marks the beginning of Lent. Clean Monday is celebrated with outdoor activities and special foods like "lagana," a type of flatbread.
The calendar in Greece is filled with a variety of holidays that reflect the country's rich cultural and religious heritage. From Greek national days that honor historical milestones to major holidays that are deeply rooted in religious tradition, there is always something to celebrate in Greece.
Late winter and spring celebrations
Easter is the most important holiday in Greece. It is a holiday long in the making as the season begins with Carnival celebrations about two months before Easter.
Among other foods, they feast on tender spring lamb, eggs, pasta and cheese.
Greek Carnival consists of two weeks of parties, dancing, merriment, and parades culminating in the last night of Carnival, when the party will last all night long, the last chance for drinking, eating and dancing without worries before the restrictions of Lent.
Lent begins 48 days before Easter. This sober period places harsh limits on food. Many Greeks do not eat meat, fish, or dairy, and they do not drink wine, during Lent – even olive oil is restricted. Popular foods at this time are lentils and thick soups, breads made of flour and water, and vegetable dishes. Needless to say, these practices are not followed as strictly today as they used to, but there is still a change of pace. The Lent begins on Clean Monday, the day when traditionally children fly their kites by the beach or mountain and the family has a feast of Lent favorites.
The Easter church service on Saturday night is the most important of the Holy Week. The church will go dark shortly before midnight. At exactly midnight the priest announces that "Christ is risen." He will be holding a single lighted candle and will use it to light candles held by the people close to him and those will turn and light candles held by people around until the whole crowd has received the light. Greeks go home after th service to a meal of traditional Easter soup, Easter cake and other sweets. This soup is known as mayeritsa and made of the edible insides of a young lamb, flavored with dill, fennel, rice, lemon, and egg.
Ready now for the big event of the year, the Easter Sunday meal, families eat roasted lamb flavored with herbs, and braided bread decorated with the dyed eggs. Other foods that may be included in a Easter meal are cheese, olives, taramosalata, spinach and feta salad, artichokes Constantinople, rice pilaf, cookies, Easter twists, and baklava.
Eggs are a symbol of Easter in Greece and there would be plenty of especially dyed red eggs for any Easter celebration. One of the customs will see each member of the family holding an egg dyed deep red and pressing it against someone else’s egg. The person whose egg breaks first is the winner. The red eggs represent the blood of Christ, and the cracking of the eggs is a symbol of the Resurrection - the rising of Christ from the dead.
Christmas was always a religious holiday and Christmas trees, candles and presents were not a sign of Christmas in Greece. However, Christmas celebrations have become alike those in the Western world and now all those turn out in any Greek house at Christmas time. When there is a celebration, there is festive food. Usually, families come together around the table to share a Christmas dinner with cheese or meat filo pastry triangles, feta cheese, pistachio nuts, a Greek salad, cauliflower, artichokes, roast sucling pig, stuffed turkey and, of course, Christmas bread and kourabiethes.
Saint Basil’s Day is the Greek New Year’s Day. The same date, only the day is named after the patron saint on the first day of the year, who happens to be the same saint who brings gifts and grants wishes. Greek households celebrate this day eating a special New Year's bread known as vassilopita. This ia a special cake prepared only this day of the year. Usually a silver coin was hidden just before baking. Whoever finds the coin in the slice of cake received will be lucky for all the coming year. This is they day when Greek families exchange gifts, rather than Christmas Day. New Year’s parties are also common, with a vast offer of appetizers, sweets and coffee. The family dinner for that day may include roast meat – chicken, lamb or turkey – and rice. Within the sweets, expect baklava and melomakarona.
Wreaths are traditional in many parts of the country at Christmas, usually made with pomegranate and fruits, onions or nuts, depending on the available fruits in the area. Opening a pomegranate on the doorstep is one of the many Greek New Year traditions, and it is supposed to give the family an insight into their future depending on how many seeds the chosen fruit has – the more, the merrier, if the pomegranate has many seeds, the family can expect a prosperous year.
The patron saint
Birthdays are not very important in Greece. Greeks celebrate their patron saint day, instead. The patron saint is the saint after whom they where named. People may come to the house to offer small gifts, congratulations and good wishes, and share some good Greek food and drink in return.
Villages also celebrate the day of their patron saint. The festivities can last for many days, with programmed events, dancing, and, of course, great food.
Baklava - pastries made with nuts and honey.
Easter twists - pastries made with eggs, milk and sesame seeds.
Taramosalata - fish roe spread.
Greek salad - endive, lettuce, olive, feta, tomato, and olive oil.
Kourabiethes or kourabiedes - sugar-coated butter cookies, traditionally eaten at Christmas and other festivities.
Melomakarona – spiced semolina cookies drenched in honey traditional at Christmas in Greece.