The feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos has a special place in the festal calendar of the Orthodox Church, and it is directly linked to the uniqueness of the person of the Panagia in the work of the "salvation in Christ" of humanity, making it the greatest of the festivals established by the Church in honor of the Mother of Christ, known as the so-called Marian feasts or feasts of the Mother of God.
The first testimony for the celebration of the Dormition of the Theotokos appears in the fifth century AD, around the time the Third Ecumenical Synod in Ephesus (431) convened, which defined the dogma of the Mother of God which became the reason to further develop the honor towards the person of the Theotokos.
The first time it seems to have been celebrated was in Jerusalem on the 13th of August and later on it was moved to the 15th of the same month. It had a general Marian character, without specific reference to the event of the Dormition, and it was called the "day of Mary the Theotokos". A "kathisma" (central church of a monastery) outside the walls of Jerusalem on the road to Bethlehem is mentioned as being the initial center of celebrations. The connection between this celebration and the Dormition of the Theotokos began in =the Church of the Panagia found in Gethsemene, where her tomb was, and the feast was established by Emperor Maurice (582–602).
According to ecclesiastical tradition, the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is preceded by a fast, which was established in the seventh century. Initially it was divided into two periods: before the feast of the Transfiguration of the Savior and before the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. In the tenth century they were merged into one fast, which includes fourteen days and begins on August 1st. During this fast we abstain from oil, except on Saturdays and Sundays, while on the feast of the Transfiguration of the Savior fish is allowed.
During the fifteen days of August we chant in the churches during the evening hours (except Sundays), alternatively, the "Small and Great Supplication Canon to the Most-Holy Theotokos", otherwise known as the "Supplications" or "Paraklesis".
The Mother of Jesus Christ, according to ecclesiastical tradition, was informed of her impending death by an angel three days prior to it happening, and she began to properly prepare. Because on the day of her Dormition not all the Apostles were in Jerusalem, a cloud grabbed them and brought them near her. The only one absent was the Apostle Thomas.
The Dormition of the Theotokos took place in the house of John the Evangelist, where he lived after the crucifixion of Christ. After having shut her eyes, the Apostles carried her deathbed to the Garden of Gethsemene, where she was buried. After three days the Apostle Thomas went to her tomb, and only found her grave clothes. Over the tomb of the Panagia a large church was built by Saint Helen. After its destruction, the Byzantine Emperor Marcian (450-457) together with his second wife Pulcheria built a new church, which exists until today.
Between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches there are doctrinal disputes concerning the Dormition of the Theotokos. The Catholic Church believes in the dogma of the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Assumptio Beatae Mariae Virginis), which was officially established with the apostolic encyclical of Pope Pius XII "Munificentissimus Deus" (1 November 1950). In contrast, the Orthodox Church speaks first of the Dormition of the Theotokos, which was a real death (the separation of soul and body), and then of the translation of the Theotokos, which was a resurrection (the union of soul and body) and ascension near her Son.
The feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is celebrated in a less emphatic manner in other Orthodox and Catholic countries of the world, in which most the day of August 15th is a public holiday, like Greece. The Protestant confessions consider the Dormition of the Theotokos a secondary feast, since it is not based on biblical references.
Countless churches and monasteries have been built in honor of her Dormition, magnificent frescoes adorn each church behind the main entrance, together with amazing compositions for her sacred funeral, chosen hymns that decorate her Service, and with brilliant words and eulogies delivered by the Fathers and newer clergymen on the day of her memorial.
In Greece, the Dormition of the Theotokos is celebrated with great brilliance, and is called the "Summer Pascha".
In many Aegean islands (Tinos, Paros, Patmos) an epitaphion is decorated and paraded to honor the Panagia.
In cities and villages throughout the country, in churches dedicated to the Dormition of the Theotokos, traditional festivals are organized, leading to widespread revelry.
Panagia Soumela is to be found in Vermion Imatheia from Mount Mela.
In Tinos the celebration is linked to the torpedoing of the "Ellie", and together with the Dormition the Greeks commeorate those who perished.
In Leros is the Kastrovasilissa, in Astypalaia the Portaitissa, in Rhodes is the Kremasti, in Paros the Ekatontapyliani, in Lesvos is Holy Zion in Agiasos, and in Nisyros is the Kyra Spiliani.
In Crete is the Kalyviani and Neapolis has the Megali Panagia.
In Imbros is Panagia Imvriotissa and in Halkidiki there is the Megali Panagia.
In Goumenissa there is the Monastery of the Mother of God, in Epirus is the Molivdoskepasti, in Kefalonia is the Ophiousa, in Andros the Phaneromeni, in Karpathos is the Panagia of Olympus, and in Amorgos the Hozoviotissa.
In Skiathos the Vaggelistra, in Leonidio Kynourias is the Panagia of Elonas, and in Mantinea is the Episkopiotissa.
The Dormition of the Theotokos is not a mournful event for the Greek people, because the Panagia was "translated to life".
Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.