On the Greek Orthodox calendar, this day marks ‘The Assumption’ – when the devout believe Mary (the mother of Jesus) was taken to heaven. It is one of the major religious festivals in Greece, as many thousands of people attend religious services and celebrations.
Mary is a holy figure for Greeks, not only as the mother of Jesus but because many link her with the nation’s freedom. She has been given quite a lot of different names all over Greece, as locals wanted to give thanks for her aid in some of the woes they faced. Local beliefs of people affect their festivals, so Assumption celebrations can be quite different from one place to another.
Orthodox Greeks prepare themselves by fourteen days of fasting, which happily ends on August 15th with church services and great feasts. Many Greeks travel to their home towns – a kind of pilgrimage, to family, culture, faith, and country. Big cities like Athens are almost emptied, while islands and small villages are suddenly very crowded.
On Crete there are almost as many different kinds of celebrations as there are villages. Many times, even their dances vary from place to place. In hard times, dances were used to educate people and maintain a strong national memory and awareness. Cretan dances have kept some of these special characteristics, but in recent years have been performed mainly for entertainment purposes.
At the foot of the White Mountains in the small Sfakian village of Anopolis (population: 300), more than 3,000 people showed up for the festival. These were former residents and their descendants who now live in other places around Greece. Our Sfakian friend, who grew up in the village, said dinner consisted mainly of lamb (cooked in every possible way lamb can be prepared). The celebration included singing, dancing and celebratory shooting of guns into the air.
On Tinos (which a friend of ours calls “a very religious island”), thousands of faithful gather to celebrate in the presence of Evangelistria of Tinos (Our Lady of Good Tidings). This ancient and mysterious icon was discovered in 1823 by a young nun, after she had a dream in which she was told where it was buried. The icon is said to heal the sick – and there are documented cases of miracles. On past visits to Tinos, we have seen people crawling up the hill to the beautiful Panagia Evangelistria Church, to pray before the famous icon.
This year, the famous icon was carried through the streets by a military honor guard, and church services were celebrated by five metropolitans of the Orthodox Church. Many notable politicians also attended the services and the festival that followed.
On the island of Paros, which we visit regularly, the Assumption festival is focused at Panayia Ekanontapyliani (meaning Virgin Mary of One Hundred Doors). It is one of the oldest and best preserved Christian churches in the world. We have never counted the doors, but it is said to have 99 visible doors and one that cannot be seen. The 100th door will be revealed only when Greeks once again occupy Istanbul, which they call Constantinople (once the center of Christian religion).
Faithful people from all over Greece gather here in mid-August to venerate the image of Panagia Ekatontapyliani (created in the 17th century) and take part in the festivities. After the solemn Procession of the Bier (Epitafios) symbolizing the tomb of Mary, there is a great festival of the people, partying until the early hours, with traditional music, Parian wine and local delicacies. At the same time, dozens of fishing boats approach the pier with lit torches. It is more impressive with the arrival of “pirates” who start the festival with island dances. Finally, there is a huge fireworks display over the harbor.