The Dormition of the Virgin Mary, a holiday that is observed only by the most devout Christians in much of the western world, holds in Greece a significance on par with that of Easter and Christmas. It is the festive climax of summer, the season’s quintessential peak. If your Greek holiday coincides with the 15th of August, you are in for a very special experience indeed.
The Religious Significance of the Holiday
Oddly, although it is a deeply significant holiday in Orthodox Christianity, the Dormition of the Virgin – in Greek “Kimisi Theotokou” (Η Κοίμηση της Θεοτόκου) – is more popularly referred to by the date:“Dekapentavgoustos” (Δεκαπενταύγουστος).
Although it commemorates the death of the Holy Virgin (“koimisi” = “sleep”), it is not a sad day at all. It celebrates her divine spiritual qualities, and also marks the day she ascended into heaven.
The more devout Orthodox Christians observe a period of fasting before the 15th of August, just as they do before Easter, Christmas, and All Saints Day. And many people abstain from meat the day before the holiday.
The celebration of the Dormition of the Virgin dates to Christianity’s earliest centuries. Apart from the reverence felt for the Virgin Mary, many miracles are attributed to her- in Greece, many are attributed to icons of Virgin.
Customs in Celebration of the Dekapentavgousto
This really is a very special season to visit Greece. From the most remote islands to villages nestled among mountain peaks, all churches organize special mass, with vespers on the evening before the holiday as well.
And after the celebratory mass on the 15 of August, many churches, especially those dedicated to the Virgin, hold great festivals – “Panygyria” (Πανηγύρι). It is the custom in Greece that a church always celebrate the name day of its patron saint, and this is the biggest one of all. Traditional music and dance, local specialties, and great joy express the devotion of the people. As always in Greece, strangers are made to feel most welcome as all join in honoring the Virgin Mary.
Name Days – Many Celebrate on August 15th
The Virgin, possessing so many virtues and miraculous qualities, goes by a number of names in the Orthodox Church. Along with many names related to Mary – Mario, Marika, Maroula, and many more – there is the “Guide” – “Odigitria”, the Madonna – “Panayiota” (and Panayiotis for men), the Lady – “Despina” (from despozo – to rule), and Gesthimani (Gethsemane), among others. Many of these are of course popular names in Greece – every family will have at least one member named for the Holy Virgin, if not several. As on all name days, the person celebrating will offer treats to friends, neighbors, and co-workers, and often invite people to a dinner or an evening at home or out.
Where to Celebrate the Dormition of the Virgin in Greece
While this Holy day that marks the apex of everyone’s favorite season is indeed celebrated everywhere, some places are very famous for their celebrations, and draw crowds of pilgrims each year.
Tinos is the first place that comes to mind for the August 15th celebrations. The Church of the Panagia Evangelistria was specially built to house the miraculous icon. The icon itself was buried for centuries – lost perhaps, or to hide it from Muslim invaders. The Virgin came to a nun in a dream, and told her where it was. Many miracles associated with the Holy icon have been documented.
Christians the world over come to Tinos on a pilgrimage to honor the Virgin on her holiday.
On Paros, in the town of Parikia, is the famous church Ekatontapiliani (“the Church with 100 doors”), dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin. A procession follows the Epitaph of the Virgin along the waterfront. Then by nightfall, great fireworks displays celebrate the Virgin.
This quieter Cycladic Island is in full swing on these Holy days. The center of activity of the church of Panaghia Eptachoriani in Aegiali. On the eve of the Dormition of the Virgin is a community meal of “nistisima” foods – foods without meat, dairy or eggs, suitable for the religious fast.
The next day, regional festive foods such as meat and potatoes cooked over the coals are shared by all. They need to gather strength for the night of dancing that lays ahead!
In western Macedonia in the Kozani prefecture, the town of Siatista had a beautiful custom for celebrating the Dormition of the Virgin. There is food, followed by dancing, as elsewhere. But first, the “Kavalarides tis Panagias” – the horsemen of the Virgin, ride to the Monastery of Mikrokastro. The riders wear traditional clothing, and the horses, too, are very festively decked out. The custom dates from the Ottoman occupation, and signals pride in the Christian identity of the local Greeks.
Celebrating the 15th of August in Greece
Have you ever participated in an authentic religious Panigyri in Greece? It can be a wonderful way to really feel a connection to faith and to the local culture.