How Greek Traditions Work

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.

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