If you happen to be in Athens on 15 August, don’t be surprised if the city is somewhat deserted and hardly any Greeks are around. The 15th of August is one of the biggest celebrations in Greece – and a national holiday – as it is the day of the Dormition of Virgin Mary.
On the Greek Orthodox calendar this date marks the moment when Mary, Christ’s mother, ascended into Heaven. It is considered a day, not of mourning, but a celebration of joy for the union of the mother with her son.
Greeks prepare themselves by fasting from 1 to 14 August. The fast is broken on the 15th.
Greeks go to the village
It is tradition for Greeks to flock to home villages or islands and attend celebrations that are held at churches throughout the country.
During this time, rooms and tickets for ferries are almost impossible to book and buses and trains operate on modified schedules.
Among the most popular celebrations across Greece are those held on Tinos (Panagia of Tinos), Paros (Panagia Ekatontapyliani), Imathia (Panagia Soumela), Lesvos (Virgin Agiasotissa), Nisyros (Panagia Spiliani), Patmos (Epitaph Mary) and Kefalonia (Lady Fidousa).
According to legend, when the island was attacked by the pirate Barbarossa in 1705, the nuns in the convent at Markopoulou prayed to Mary to help them escape and were turned into snakes.
Since then, “Virgin Mary’s snakes” enter the Dormition of Virgin Mary Church and head for the bishop’s throne and the icon of the virgin.
The snakes are harmless and, according to villagers, bring good luck to the island. If they fail to appear, it is said to be a bad omen, as happened in the years of major earthquakes in Kefalonia some decades ago.