August 15, 2010

August 15th Celebrations in Greece for the Virgin Mary

August 15th is one of the biggest celebrations in Greece and is a national holiday. It is the Orthodox Church's celebration of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, only of lesser importance than Easter and Christmas.

In August most people have a holiday and Athens becomes a ghost town as Athenians go back to the villages where they or their parents were born. It’s great if you happen to be having a holiday in Athens, as it’s very peaceful and easy to travel around for a change, but if you are in a holiday resort, it will be packed. Don’t travel without having booked accommodation or you might find yourself having to sleep in a church.

Cephalonia’s (Kefallonia) Snakes Go to the Church Service

In the little village of Markopoulou, on the island of Cephalonia, a miracle is said to occur, that of the Virgin Mary’s snakes. Legend has it that when the island was attacked by the pirate Barbarossa in 1705, the nuns in the convent at Markopoulou prayed to escape being ravished and killed by the pirates, so they were turned into snakes. The pirates were horrified when they entered the convent, as it was crawling with snakes.

Now, at the service which celebrates the Dormition, the snakes enter the church and head for the bishop’s throne and the icon of the virgin, crawling through holes made for the bell ropes, and over the congregation and furniture. The snakes are harmless, and have black cross marks on their heads, villagers say.

Apparently they did not put in an appearance in 1953, the year a disastrous earthquake struck the island, or in 1940, the year before Greece was attacked by the Axis forces. Nor did they appear during some years of the Turkish Occupation of Greece.

There are videos of this event to view on YouTube.

The Island of Tinos is a Centre for Pilgrims

The church at Tinos has many steps to climb before it is reached, and at this time of year, pilgrims ascend the steps on their knees. The church houses an icon of the Virgin, which was found after a nun had a vision of the Virgin, who explained where the miraculous icon could be found. Six months after this vision the icon was unearthed in 1823 and taken to the church. It is believed to have miraculous powers of healing, which is why so many supplicants visit the island at this time of year.

The Greek government arranges more ferries to Tinos at this time, but it would be unwise to go to the island without having booked accommodation well in advance.

Celebrations on the Island of Paros

Celebrations here are slightly different to those held in the rest of Greece, as the 15th of August also commemorates the time in the early 18th century when the island was attacked by the pirate Barbarossa. He took the women and children from Naoussa, and held them for ransom. The islanders would not pay tribute to him, so he set fire to the castro, or castle, in the harbour of Naoussa and killed his captives. The people on the neighbouring island of Naxos saw the fires, and paid him the tribute he demanded so that they would not meet a similar fate.

The islanders now hold reenactments of the pirate raid and these pageants are accompanied by fireworks and celebrations. It is also the time of the Paros wine festival, so a good time is usually had on this island on the 15th of August.

From 1st to 14th August is a Period of Fasting

As in Lent, strict Orthodox Greeks will fast in the fortnight leading up to the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. They believe that she ‘fell asleep’ rather than died, so in some places you will read of the ‘Dormition’ [not Assumption] of the Virgin as being celebrated on this date. Fasting means not eating any red meat, nor any products from red-blooded creatures, nor olive oil, and no wine should be consumed either. Octopus and squid can be eaten as they are not red-blooded. Because of this, there is always a lot of food at celebrations on 15th August, celebrating the end of the fasting period.

In Naoussa, Paros, the food is free and the best place to be is the harbour area.

Name Day Celebrations

A name day is more important than a birthday in Greece, and August 15th is the celebrations for Maria, Marios, Panagiotis, (or Panos), Panagiota (or Iota), Despina and Thespina. As Maria is one of the most common girl’s names in Greece, the chances are you will know one and you might be invited to share the name day festivities. A small gift is always very much appreciated, if you are invited, but of course it’s not compulsory.

Wherever you are in Greece on this day you will certainly be involved in the celebrations. So go ahead and join in the Greek dancing. It’s always fun.

Paros Reenactment in August

Tinos on August 15th