If you’re in Greece on August 15th you’ll soon find out it’s a national holiday for the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. It’s one of the most important feast days and biggest celebrations in Orthodox Christianity. Dekapentavgoustos, literally the 15th of August, is also a huge part of Greek culture.
What is Being Celebrated?
I was brought up Protestant, so Mary didn’t feature heavily in my Sunday School teachings. But She’s an important part of both Orthodox and Catholic Christianity. Catholics are in the minority in Greece, but there are groups throughout the country.
In fact, Catholic Greeks had to get special permission from The Pope to celebrate Easter at the same time as the rest of the country because the Greek Orthodox Calendar (or at least the calendar used by most Orthodox countries is different to the Gregorian/Roman Catholic calendar.
I digress, although this August public holiday is sometimes called Easter of summer. But what I’m saying is that the Holy Mother is important to most religious Greeks, even though there are slight differences in beliefs.
in Athens one of the Orthodox Churches named after Mary, Mother of Christ
Inside Holy Church of the Virgin Mary Gorgoepikoos and Saint Eleutherius
In the Greek Orthodox religion, the Celebration of the Dormition of the Virgin is about celebrating that Mary died/”fell asleep” before rising to Heaven. The Catholics believe in the Assumption of Mary, where she ascended straight away.
Regardless, the religious tradition is relevant to both the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Church and Mary’s life and qualities are celebrated on 15th August. (Rather than it being a day of mourning and grief.)
What Happens During the Day?
Celebrations in Greece take place all over the country, with some standout celebrations in particular parts of Greece.
Special church services are held in the morning at churches named after the mother of Jesus Christ, and sometimes there are processions with icons of Mary afterwards.
Getting together with family is a big part of the religious celebration, as is eating lots of food! Greek Orthodox Christians traditionally fasted in the weeks leading up to religious feasts like this.
Usually, they’d abstain from meat, dairy products, fish with backbones and alcohol, eating an almost vegan diet to cleanse the body.
Holy Church of the Virgin Mary Chrysokastriotissa in Plaka, Athens
Celebrating on Tinos
The Cycladic island of Tinos is the epicentre of Greek pilgrimages. The famous Orthodox church in Chora, Panagia Megalochari, or the Holy Church of the Virgin Mary Evangelistria, sees scores of believers crawling up the carpeted street seeking miracles from the Holy Virgin.
On a major feast day like the 15th August, the island is packed.
Events on Tinos island start on 14th when a wreath is laid on the memorial for the Greek destroyer Elli which was sunk by the Italians on 15th August 1940.
The next day, after the divine liturgy religious services, the Miraculous Icon of the Virgin Mary is carried via procession to the port. There are usually military celebrations in the evening similar to Oxi Day.
If you’re on some of the other Greek islands (I’ve heard the island of Paros has great celebrations as well as Amorgos, amongst others), you can expect to see church fetes with traditional costumes, traditional Greek music, Greek food and Greek wine.
Lots of people travel back to be with their families, but locals and visitors celebrate together.
Divine Liturgies take place in the Panagia Evangelistria Church on the Greek island of Tinos
It’s A Name Day, Too
Mary is, of course, the Latinised version of the original name. In Greek, it’s Maria. If you’ve read my post about Greek Name Days, you’ll know that celebrating name days in Greece is bigger than celebrating birthdays.
And the 15th of August is one of the most celebrated name days since about 8% of the population is called Maria.
As usual, all the variations of that name are celebrated along with some different names like Marios, Panagiotis, Panagiota and Despina (my landlady!).
Not every Maria celebrates in August, but lots do. In some places, single and married Marias celebrate on different dates. There are several throughout the year that are devoted to Mary since the life of the Panagia (mother) is so celebrated.
You’ll easily find a Greek Orthodox Church that celebrates Name Day and the Dormition of the Mother of God
What Else to Expect on This Holiday?
Since this The Assumption of the Virgin Mary is about the largest feast day and a huge Orthodox tradition not many people are at work.
Most shops, supermarkets and services businesses are closed on the day. You will find restaurants open, though as many families to go out to eat and lots of the tourist shops in Athens stay open.
In some places, celebrations begin on 14th and you might find some shops and businesses are closed from then (in addition to those that are closed for the general August exodus from Athens to the islands.)
In Athens, some of the museums actually stay open as normal, so you won’t miss out on your sightseeing.
You can visit the:
- Acropolis Museum
- National Archaeological Museum
- Byzantine and Christian Museum
- Numismatic Museum
- Ancient Agora and Museum
Public transport runs on a Sunday service and there are still taxis about.
More Greek Culture
I’ve already given you the links above to read up on Greek name days and the Oxi Day holiday. If you’d like to read more about Greek traditions and culture, you can find out about Greek mountain tea here, Greek beers and Greek gifts.
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