When you think of Greece, what comes to mind? The different shades of blue, the clear waters of the Aegean Sea. Kilometers of sandy beaches, Minotaurs, mythology, mountain villages, or small windy roads blocked by sheep and goats – bleating, bells ringing. Perhaps many images come to mind when you think of Greece, but what about its people, their culture, their traditions? Read on to learn more about the people and culture of this fascinating country.
Filotimo: the Greek word that has no translation.
Did you know that there is a word in the Greek language that even the Greeks themselves have trouble agreeing on its single definition, and cannot be accurately translated into English? Filotimo describes a complex array of values, all held dearly in Greek culture. It is a core value that Greeks live by, which makes them “stand out” from the rest of the world as far as culture and hospitality go. Filotimo encompasses dignity, pride, and honor as well as the ideal actions and behaviors, hospitality, trust, and bonds between each other. When children display unconditional love and respect towards others, they are said to be displaying filotimo. It extends to include appreciation and admiration for ancestors and heritage.
Greeks, as a culture, are extremely family orientated. Everything revolves around the family. Everyone is related to everyone, and so the typical celebrations such as weddings and baptisms can result in a guest list of over 1,000 people. When you’re invited to a wedding, your immediate family is invited, too — children included. A typical wedding ceremony begins between 6 and 8 p.m. with a religious service conducted by a Greek Orthodox priest followed by the Greek glenti (party) with live music and an abundance of Greek specialties such as lamb, pork, spaghetti, rice, tzatziki, salads, and wine. Everybody dances, from the oldest grandpa or grandma, right down to the youngest, who can barely walk. It seems Greeks were born with a passion for dancing. Don’t be surprised to see the priest on the dance floor, too! Myth – Greeks only eat lamb at celebrations such as weddings, baptisms, Christmas, and Easter!
One of the most important religious ceremonies in the Greek Orthodox Church is the baptism, the day a child officially becomes a Christian. Greek children are baptized between the ages of 18 months and three years. Parents choose godparents who are usually good friends or, on occasion, family members. Godparents are responsible for purchasing the items used by the priest during the ceremony: a white towel, soap, candles, olive oil, scissors, a set of new clothing, a hat, shoes, and a gold cross and chain. The toddlers are submerged completely in the font three times and signed with a cross on the forehead with holy water. After the child has been dried and then clothed in their new garments including the cross and chain, everyone gathers for the baptismal celebration, which includes live music, food, dancing, and wine. Guests receive martyrika (small crosses attached to ribbon and pinned to the guests’ clothes) as well as koufeta (candy-coated almonds) to thank them for being part of the family’s special day. If you’re a guest at a baptism, it’s tradition to give money, baby-related gifts like clothes and toys, or religious gifts such as icons and crosses.
Name day celebrations are more common than birthdays in Greece. Throughout the year, the Greek Orthodox Church dedicates certain days of the year to celebrate its saints or martyrs. Most Greeks are named after a saint or martyr, so, on the designated saint’s day, if you’re named after that same saint, you’ll celebrate that day, inviting family and friends to celebrate with you. But how do Greeks choose names for their children? Tradition has it that children are, more commonly than not, named after their grandfathers or grandmothers.
Military Service is Mandatory:
Between the ages of 18 to 24, all Greek men must serve a minimum of 12 months in the military. They have the option to either serve after graduating from high school before they move onto study at a university, or after the completion of their college degree. The penalty for not serving is imprisonment. The first six weeks of military service is basic training ending with a “swearing of the oath” ceremony in the presence of families and friends.
Going out for a coffee is a daily ritual for Greeks, both young and old. The younger generation enjoys coffee and pastries in the more modern cafés, while the older generation prefers the kafeneio — old traditional cafés which have existed for decades and continue to be the meeting point for elderly men. Kafeneios are in abundance throughout Greece, in every village and town, and while everyone is welcome and treated courteously, it remains a place mainly for men. They’re places where they spend their mornings chatting, reading the newspaper, playing cards or backgammon, discussing politics, and drinking raki (homemade brew).
Open House 24/7:
Unlike most Western cultures, you don’t need an invitation to drop in on a Greek friend or family at their home. Greek homes are open 24/7. As soon as your feet enter the door, you’ll be invited to sit down and offered something to eat and drink, no matter what time it is and no matter if you’ve already eaten. Unexpected visitors will also make an appearance since your friends probably already made calls, letting people know you are there and inviting them to join you. For this reason, every home has something hidden in its cupboard just waiting for that unexpected visitor. If you’ve been invited to dinner, make sure you go with an appetite. More likely than not, you’ll be offered at least four different courses, if not more!