It is true that the tradition of “name days” exists in many European countries, but in Greece, these name days are strongly respected and celebrated. For many Greeks, the name day celebration is actually more important than a birthday, especially for adults, and it is customary to call and congratulate someone on their name day. The person celebrating often treats his/her guests to either an open house or for a drink at a taverna.
Kalo Mina (good month) is a traditional greeting you will hear on the first day of the month. Important to Greek culture, the first day of the month symbolizes a new beginning. Greeks greet each other to wish good things for the month ahead.
Perhaps the most notorious superstition that Greece shares with Turkey (as well as other places) is the belief that the evil eye is a curse (matiasma) cast by an envious or jealous person. To protect yourself against it, Greeks believe you must wear a charm. This is what the famous blue pieces of glass with an eye painted on are for.
If you have seen my Big Fat Greek Wedding, you are familiar with this. Greeks believe spitting chases the devil and evil away. Greeks do not actually spit but actually say ‘ftou, ftou, ftou’ (three times no less). It is common to spit when someone mentions a bad piece of news or a death, when someone comments on the beauty or health of someone, or even when complimenting a baby or a child, so that the comment doesn’t give the person the evil eye.
In Greece, some names are very common. This comes from an ancient tradition that was intended to ensure the continuation of a name. The firstborn is named after a grandparent: if it is a boy, he takes the name of his paternal grandfather. If it is a girl, she takes the name of the maternal grandmother. It is also common that the first child is named after the father’s parents, regardless of whether it is a boy or a girl. It is not uncommon to find cousins with the same names, though they can be adapted or nicknamed differently to avoid confusion. In recent years, many parents have chosen not to follow this tradition, or instead use the grandparent’s name as a middle name.
Another interesting fact is that a child doesn’t have a name until he or she is baptized. Until then, the baby is called “baby”.
All year round, saints’ days are celebrated in chapels and churches, mostly in rural settings, although it is possible to see them in bigger cities. On this day, a panigyri, or festival, is organized after a mass. The feast includes free food and drink, traditional music and dancing until the next morning. On islands, these panigyri can sometimes be accompanied by processions and marching bands.
Another tradition Greeks are famous for is the smashing of plates. While the origins of this practice are obscure, it is associated with the expression of joy and happiness, or to show appreciation for the music played at a party. This tradition was banned in 1969 and replaced in live music clubs (bouzoukia) by throwing flowers at the feet of the singer, or at each other. You may still see some plate smashing in private celebrations, although plaster plates are more likely to be used.
Traditionally, Greeks didn’t decorate with a Christmas tree but a Christmas boat. It was only in 1833, when Bavarian King Otto celebrated his first Christmas on the throne of Greece, that the Christmas tree tradition was introduced to the country. As a symbol of the seafaring nation, the boat was decorated in honor of the sailors returning home to their families around Christmas time. Nowadays, the tradition is making a comeback, not only in the islands, but also on the mainland.
Greeks celebrate spring with an age-old tradition of martis, a red and white bracelet made of thread, which is worn during the whole month of March. The white symbolizes purity while the red represents passion and life. In ancient times, the bracelet was made to protect the person wearing it from disease and from the spring sun. When the wearer sees the first signs of spring, whether a flowering tree or a swallow, he/she must tie the bracelet to a tree. It is truly a beautiful sight. Other countries also practice this tradition, such as Bulgaria.
While many consider Friday the 13th a day of bad luck, for Greeks it is Tuesday the 13th. This date is linked with the fall of Constantinople (today Istanbul) on that day, back in 1204.
A unique tradition happens before a Greek wedding day. The krevati (literally meaning bed) is a tradition where the bride-to-be and her single friends come together and decorate the couple’s future marriage bed with fresh bedding and decorations, and throw gifts, money and rice on it. Even small children are placed in it. This ritual is done to promote prosperity and fertility for the couple. (This tradition is not always observed in modern-day Greece.)
Easter, not Christmas, is the most important religious celebration for Greeks. If you ever get a chance to visit the country at this time, you will truly have an unforgettable experience. From Lent (and even Carnival, or Apokries) to Easter, the Greek calendar is filled with traditions and rituals that many Greeks still observe.
Kicking things off, the Thursday of the second week of Carnival is known as Tsiknopempti, or Burnt Thursday. Greeks traditionally get together and grill meat on this day. In Athens, you can even see staff at tavernas grilling in the streets. The occasion is a joyful celebration.
The whole of Holy Week is also full of traditions, with the dyeing of eggs (in red) to symbolize the sacrifice of Christ, the decoration of the epitaphios (the tomb of Christ) with flowers, and the many processions. The night of Holy Saturday is the pinnacle of celebrations, with a special ceremony that the majority of Greeks attend. People dress well and gather at the local church, where all lights are turned off, to symbolize the darkness of Jesus’ tomb. The priest lights a candle with the Eternal Flame, brought especially for the occasion from Jerusalem, and sings the Christos Anesti psalm (Christ has risen). The flame is then offered to everyone present.
On Easter Sunday itself, families enjoy a traditional Easter lunch, which may last well into the late afternoon, with roasted lamb on a pit and many other delicious dishes.