How Greek Traditions Work


A kiltlike garment known as a foustanella is part of the traditional costume for men on mainland Greece.
A kiltlike garment known as a foustanella is part of the traditional costume for men on mainland Greece.
iStockphoto.com/HPuschmann

People of Greek heritage may have a reputation for throwing plates around, but it's not because they don't want to do the dishes. Rather, smashing plates is time-honored tradition you might observe at a Greek restaurant or wedding reception. Origins of the practice are murky, but it may have begun in ancient Greece, and is said to have brought about the idea of kefi, which translates to good spirits and fun. Some also believe that breaking plates can ward off evil spirits or, at a wedding reception, bring good luck. Others just smash plates to show their appreciation for the band that's accompanying their revelry.

But of course, flying shards of pottery can be dangerous, so plate smashing was outlawed in the taverns of Greece in 1969. The practice still persists, however -- though sometimes it may take different, safer forms, such as flower throwing [sources: Lusher, Time].

Regardless of where it came from or how it's done, the endurance of the plate smashing tradition undeniably tells us something about the uniqueness of the Greek culture and its love of kefi. But Greek traditions go far beyond parties and dinnerware. Located at the crossroads of the world, between Europe and Asia, Greece has influenced civilization for thousands of years, helping to shape the fields of philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, sports, politics, literature and architecture.

Because of this rich history, the nation's culture is full of traditions, many of which stem from the importance of religion in Greek society. Once Emperor Constantine legally recognized Christianity in 312 A.D., the Greek Orthodox Church became a major influence in everyday Greek life. Specific religious festivals and rituals -- which you'll learn more about later in this article -- surrounding everything from birth and birthdays to marriage to death keep people's lives firmly rooted in the church and in Greek culture.

Family is also at the core of many Greek cultural traditions. For those of Greek heritage, immediate kin are often the most important people in their lives. Gender also plays an important role in the family dynamic; traditionally, males are more often in the public eye, and women tend to be comparatively private, preferring to serve as stalwarts of the church. In recent decades, however, this distinction has faded, with women entering the workforce and even taking up public office.

One thing that hasn't changed, though, is the Greeks' love of socializing around a spread of traditional food. Read on to savor more.

Traditional Greek Food

Greeks often share bite-sized appetizers known as mezé enjoying their beverages.
Greeks often share bite-sized appetizers known as mezé enjoying their beverages.
iStockphoto/Floortje

A hot, dry climate sets the tone for the Greek menu, which relies heavily on fresh food. Fishermen pluck an array of seafood from the Mediterranean. Farmers cultivate lemons, eggplant, artichokes and other fresh fruits and vegetables. Although Greeks don't eat each as much meat as some other cultures, they still create mouthwatering lamb, pork and chicken dishes. To satisfy a sweet tooth, Greeks layer nuts and honey into thin sheets of phyllo dough to make sweet snacks.

The most important food in Greece may be the olive. The olive can be traced back to the Bronze Age (3150 to 1200 B.C.E.) in eastern coastal Mediterranean areas, but it migrated to Greece's first civilization, the Minoans, around 1700 B.C.E. The olive tree, which grows well in arid climates and can flourish in bad soil, has played an important role in Greek society due to its use in lamp fuel, anointing rituals and pharmaceuticals. Today, Greeks grow many varieties of olives, from large, black Kalamata olives to the Cracked Green variety. Olive oil makes an appearance in almost every dish, and a handful of marinated Kalamata olives is a popular snack.

Geography has also influenced food traditions by dictating the availability of certain items. Greece is a very mountainous country, particularly the northern regions of Epiors, Macedonia and Thrace. These areas lend themselves well to herding ruminant livestock, particularly sheep, since those animals don't need as much pastureland as others to survive [Source: Sintori, et al]. Sheep help farmers produce plenty of meat, cheese and fresh, thick Greek yogurt. While vegetable-laden dishes like the eggplant-based moussaka can be found all over the country, the eggplants from Leonidion in the southeast Peoponnese are particularly prized and celebrated with their own festivals [Source: Frommer's].

Greeks love socializing, and traditionally, they socialize over a drink. Be it coffee or a nip of ouzo -- an anise-flavored spirit distilled from grapes, figs or raisins and blended with spices and sugar -- a tasty local beverage provides a way for Greeks to linger at a table and enjoy each other's company.

And, of course, you can't sip a beverage without having a little something to eat. In Greece, a selection of bite-sized appetizers -- known collectively as mezé -- often come grouped together on a platter so that people can share and enjoy them. A mezethakia platter usually offers a variety of tastes, textures and colors and includes items such as cheese, radishes, almonds, figs, anchovies, capers and marinated olives.

Snacks and street food, called kolatsio, are another famous Greek food tradition. Perhaps the most popular Greek snack is the gyro, a pita sandwich made of seasoned meat, salad and tzatziki sauce, a blend of yogurt, cucumber and garlic. Spanakopita, a spinach and cheese pie, is another well-known example of kolatsio.

Greeks often end a meal with fresh fruit, but they do enjoy pastries as snacks. Many Greek sweets are doused in honey, a throwback to the ancient gods' love of ambrosia and nectar. Though mortals weren't allowed to eat those two items, honey served as a most welcome substitute [Source: Hoffman]. Honey-drenched doughnuts called loukoumades are just one of Greece's favorite sweets.

Traditional Greek Clothing

The uniform for the Evzones, the Greek presidential guard, includes a white pleated foustanella and pointed shoes called tsarouhia that are topped with pompons.
The uniform for the Evzones, the Greek presidential guard, includes a white pleated foustanella and pointed shoes called tsarouhia that are topped with pompons.
iStockphoto/ vladacanon

Ancient Greeks wore simple garments that draped over their bodies. The chiton and peplos were both simple outfits made from one-piece rectangles of fabric, with holes cut out for the head. The peplos was sleeveless, while the chiton covered part of the arms. Over this, people could wear a cloak called a himation. These outfits were usually made of wool, a fabric used frequently in Greek clothing, due to the prevalence of sheep farming in Greece and the country's surprisingly cool winters. Linen was also traditionally used for clothing worn during the hot Mediterranean summers.

While Greeks today mainly wear modern "global" style clothing, they still don traditional regional costumes for festivals and national holidays [Source: Riehecky]. These costumes' styles vary between the mainland and the islands, but many contain some elements of the ancient draped garments, and they all have some similar components in terms of materials and basic construction.

Once worn by fighters in the 1821 War of Independence, the traditional costume for men on mainland Greece features a kiltlike garment known as a foustanella. For example, the national costume -- today the uniform for the Evzones, the presidential guard -- includes a white foustanella that has 400 pleats, symbolizing the 400 years Greece was ruled by the Ottomans. That's paired with a wide-sleeved white shirt and topped off with an embroidered woolen vest. Long, white socks, a sash and pointed shoes called tsarouhia -- topped with their recognizable large pompons -- complete the outfit.

On the islands, the men's traditional costume starts with a white undergarment and is layered with baggy pants, known as vraka, a white shirt, a sleeveless coat, a sash, a jacket and a tasseled cap.

Traditional women's clothing in Greece also varies from region to region, but these outfits also contain similar elements. Most traditional costumes for women have a simple cotton dress as a base, with a sleeveless wool vest over it. To this, women may add aprons, sashes and, perhaps most importantly, large head scarves.

One example of a traditional outfit for women is the karagouna. This traditional wedding dress from Central Greece is very colorful and can be quite heavy. Like some other traditional Greek costumes, it includes many layers, starting with a black-fringed white underdress. Over that, women wear a few different coats, starting with an embroidered wool coat, followed by a long white sleeveless coat and then another embroidered waistcoat. This is all topped by a red apron. A woman wearing a karagouna will also don a head kerchief and chains of gold coins across her forehead and bosom to signify wealth.

Traditional costumes have their place, but so do traditional customs. Read on to learn more about traditional Greek culture.

Greek Customs and Traditions

Because Greek society is so religious -- approximately 98 percent of Greece's population belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church -- many of the culture's traditional celebrations center around sacramental services in the church [source: U.S. State Department].

At birth, eldest children are named after a grandparent, an ancient tradition that ensures the continuation of a family name. Then, throughout their lives, a lot Greeks -- many of whom are named after saints -- don't celebrate birthdays; rather, they celebrate Name Day, the day associated with their namesake saint.

The church recognizes hundreds of saints each year; most days on the calendar honor multiple saints. If you're named after the saint whose day it is, you celebrate your Name Day by hosting an open house where your friends and relatives come to visit. For Greeks, regardless of how old you are, Name Day is an important celebration because it ties you to your namesake saint, which Orthodox Christians believe brings you closer to God. Those who have local or foreign names not associated with saints may celebrate on All Saints' Day instead.

Because family is so important in Greek culture, it's expected that children will get married, and they typically do so in big celebrations. During the ceremony, superstitious wedding attendants may wear traditional eye charms to ward off the evil eye. The belief in the evil eye, also called vaskania, stems from ancient times, when it was believed that some people were so jealous and envious that if they looked upon something or someone, it brought destruction. A version of that belief persists in the Orthodox Church today [source: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America].

Weddings typically culminate in large receptions with plenty of music and dancing. A traditional Greek band, in fact, is a staple at any Greek festival or wedding. These bands include instruments Western audiences are familiar with, such as the clarinet, violin and guitar, but they also incorporate traditional Greek instruments, including the guitarlike bouzouki, the bagpipe known as a gaida, and the toumbi drum. With their unique sound, Greek musicians entice revelers to dance traditional horas, or circle dances, and line dances.

But, of course, Greek family traditions extend beyond just the happy times. When a family member dies, women usually wear black for up to a year to show their respect, while men wear black armbands for up to 40 days [Source: George Mason University]. Women also make special food such as kollyva, a boiled wheat dish, and paximadia, a biscuit similar to biscotti.

The deceased is celebrated long after the funeral, through a memorial service held 40 days after death, as well as additional memorial services held annually after that [source: George Mason University]. These services are held not only to usher the deceased into the afterlife, but also to properly grieve and celebrate that family member who is no longer a part of this world.

For more on Greek cultural traditions that apply to all stages of life, read on to the next page.

Related Articles

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