One of the Great Feasts of Orthodox Christianity, the Dormition of the Theotokos, (literally, the Mother of God) is similar to the Roman Catholic Assumption of Mary and is celebrated on August 15. It is one of the most popular holidays in Greece. Marking Mary’s death and her assumption into heaven, the Feast of the Dormition is a big deal in a country where even the tiniest village is likely to have at least a chapel dedicated in her honor.
It’s all in the name
In Greek, Mary is primarily referred to as Panagia, the All Holy. You’ll find churches dedicated to her everywhere, from the most modern urban district to the tiniest of remote villages, and they’ll usually be named for their most prized icon, a distinctive characteristic of the church, or a local miracle attributed to the Virgin Mary. For example the Church of Panagia Ekatontapyliani in Parikia, Paros, is named for the one hundred doors the church was said to have (ekato pyles = one hundred gates), whilst the Monastery of Panagia Soumela on Mount Vermio is named for the icon that was brought there from its original home in Sumela near Pontus.
The Great Feast
Traditionally, preparations for the Feast of the Dormition began on August 1 with two weeks of fasting, similar to the Great Lent. In the days before leading up to the Feast proper, parish women busy with preparations: They clean and decorate the icon with fresh flowers, bring offerings of fresh bread, and prepare the bier—similar to that of the Epitaphios—where this is used for the occasion. On the day itself, churches and their courtyards are decorated, and in smaller villages, the main square is often taken over by festivities. These special celebrations—known as panigiria—are held up and down the country on the day itself, August 15.
Celebrations around the country
Some of the biggest celebrations are held at the Church of Panagia Evangelistria on the island of Tinos, at the Church of Panagia Soumela on Mount Vermio, and at the Church of Panagia Ekatontapyliani on the island of Paros.
On Tinos, pilgrims from all over Greece arrive and go up the hill from the port to the Church of Panagia Evangelistria (meaning ‘bringer of joyful tidings’) on their hands and knees as a sign of humility and devotion to the Virgin Mary. For many believers, August 15 is a day to pray for her favor, often offering valuable tokens in hope of a miracle. Celebrations on the island last eight days, until August 23.
In northern Greece, the Monastery of Panagia Soumela, tucked away on the lush slopes on Mount Vermio, becomes a focal point for Greeks of Pontic origin, who travel here from across the country and even further afield to celebrate the Great Feast as well as their distinctive cultural heritage. After the church service, traditional music and dancing last into the small hours.
On Paros, the main celebrations are held at the Church of Panagia Ekatontapyliani, with the feast featuring traditional island music and generous quantities of local wine. On the other side of the island, tradition in Naoussa has fishing boats row into the harbor with lit torches to signal the start of festivities.
Local traditions vary, but wherever you find yourself in Greece, you’re certain to find a panigiri and get a taste of traditional Greek hospitality. In most places, tables will be set out in the church courtyard or town square, with food and drink provided free or for a small fee. Of course, it wouldn’t be a celebration without traditional music and dancing (often with performers in full traditional costume), and locals and visitors alike are invited to participate in the festivities.
This is also a great time to just explore the countryside, whether you’re heading to Tinos for traditionally devout festivities or want to explore the churches and customs of Greece’s many wonderful islands, from Santorini to Corfu and from Paros to Crete. Those wanting to explore the countryside while staying closer to Athens can visit the Peloponnese on a day trip, treat themselves to an excursion to nearby Delphi to experience traditional celebrations in mountain villages like Arachova, or go a bit off-topic and discover the grand ancient temples and breathtaking coastline of the Attican peninsula.
A great time to be in Athens
Staying in Athens? Fear not. Athenians leave the capital in droves around this time of year, so if you’re staying, prepare to experience Athens like you’d never imagine. The traffic and crowds all but disappear, and the busy metropolis adopts a quieter, slower rhythm that actually makes for a fantastic day out sightseeing and exploring the city center, whilst local churches around the city will still give you the opportunity to experience a panigiri and get a taste of the spirit of the day.
Just keep in mind that appearances can be deceiving—this really is the peak of the peak season. Make sure to plan in advance, check availability, and make any bookings well before the day. Availability in the countryside, particularly in popular destinations like Paros and Tinos, can be tricky, and in Athens, many business owners give themselves a long weekend off. So whatever you decide to do, plan ahead to avoid disappointment!