Anyone who’s in Greece on August 15th can’t possibly miss the countless festivals celebrating the Assumption of Virgin Mary.
Assumption or Dormition?
The Orthodox do not call it Assumption. To them it is Virgin Mary’s Dormition, a word which means falling asleep, and is actually a euphemism for dying. After her death, they believe, she was physically taken up into heaven.
The Virgin Mary in Greek tradition
More approachable than the abstract figure of the Father, more human than the Son, and certainly less elusive than the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary has been close to the heart of the Greek Christians, who direct a large part of their prayers towards her. To them, she is the great confidante and mediator, who listens to the prayers of the faithful and mediates to G-d on their behalf. It is not surprising that churches in her name can be found in nearly every village, and a good number of all the Greeks one meets will be named after her, with Maria and Panayotis being the most common names (the latter deriving from her Greek appellation, Panayia, meaning Most Holy).
Fasting berore the Holiday
How is this major holiday celebrated? First of all, the day is preceded by two weeks of fasting, beginning on August 1st. During this time no animal protein may be consumed, whether meat, fish, poultry, eggs or dairy. Olive oil consumption is also restricted.
How can this be true when gyro shops are full of the smell of roasted meat, and pizza delivery mopeds zip up and down the streets? The answer is that although the majority of Greeks consider themselves Orthodox Christians and will deny being anything else, in fact most have a very lax attitude towards their faith, especially when it comes to observing inconvenient restrictions (such as not ordering a pizza when they’re in the mood for one, or not having sex before marriage).
A time to fulfill pledges
Others take things more seriously. Many people, especially women, dress in an all-black mourning garb for two weeks, in her honor. For most, this is a pledge to the Virgin to be repeated every year. Other pledges to the Virgin may also be fulfilled at the time of the Dormition. Let me explain here that a pledge (tama in Greek) is a necessary part of any prayer asking for a personal favor. For example: “Dear Mother of G-d, please help my daughter deliver a healthy baby and, I swear, I’ll buy you a candle as tall as she is.” Such prayers may involve asking for anything, ranging from cure for a serious illness to business success. The pledges also vary, with candles as tall as oneself being a common offering. Others may offer to build a chapel in her Honor, whitewash the church before the holiday (or pay to have it done), name a child after her etc. Donations in silver and gold, are not uncommon, and will be displayed next to a miracle-working icon.
Such pledges are common for many saints, but especially for the Virgin, the pledge may take a different form: in Tinos, for example, where the most famous church of the Virgin is, people go up to her church on their hands and knees in grateful humility for miracles worked or expected. In recent years, a special carpeted corridor is prepared for them, all the way from the port to the church.
In Rhodes, where the local Virgin of Tsampika specializes in blessing barren couples with children, the parents go to the church carrying on their shoulders the children begotten through her mediation.
In Lesvos, people have go to the Virgin’s church in Agiassos on foot, from all corners of the island, a walk which may be as long as 50 km.
But let us return to our holiday. On the eve of the big day, every village that has a sizable church of the Virgin hosts a fair. Stalls line the streets selling toys, trinkets and any other merchandise pilgrims and locals may be likely to fancy. There’s also food, wine and lots of very loud Greek music and dancing – some traditional, some a little less so.
The 15th, the day of the Dormition (or Assumption) is a bank holiday. Every public service will be closed, except for the hospitals and the occasional pharmacy. Of the shops, only those that cater to the tourists and pilgrims are open – taverns, restaurants, souvenir shops and the ubiquitous kiosks of course. There’s a special Mass early in the morning, in some places with a procession of the Virgin’s icon. Then the fast is broken and everyone is free to celebrate any way they like. Some people will go to the beach, others will have a family reunion over lunch and others will try to combine both.
The afternoon and evening are spent visiting all those Marias and Panayotises I mentioned earlier. It is their name-day, the name when their patron saint is celebrated, which has a status nearly equal to birthdays. Florists, pastry shops and liquor stores have a busy day, as the custom dictates that the visitors bring something to the home they visit. In turn, those being visited, have to treat their guests to food, drink and sweets. Children may get presents, but these have to be bought in advance, as toy shops are closed that day.
The Assumption marks the end of the tourist season for Greeks. Those who could afford a holiday will go back to work the day after the holiday, or, if they are lucky and have saved some days off, on the first Monday after that. Shops take down swimwear and begin displaying school bags, notebooks and the like. It will be quite hot well until the end of September and people will continue escaping to the beaches every weekend they can; shops won’t start displaying autumn fashions until October.
The end of the tourist season is coming too and with it comes time to rest, play with the children and write some posts about my favorite subject, archaeology, that I’ve been meaning to post for some time.
Till then, enjoy the rest of your summer.