August 15 is for Greeks a day of celebration as important as Easter, marking the Virgin Mary’s spiritual sleep and departure from the physical realm. On this day, churches and chapels, monasteries and nunneries commemorate the passing of the Theotokos or the “God bearer” and communities of faithful hold massive feasts. For the unassuming traveler, the experience should not be missed.
Besides marking the crux of the summer season, the Feast of the Dormition is commemorated all over Greece with grand events and massive open-air festivals featuring plenty of food, song and dance. In the past, fasting was practiced from August 1 and the church did not perform wedding services in that time.
Among the most known for the splendour of their festivities dedicated to the “Koimisis tis Theotokou” (meaning Her “falling asleep” and ascending into heaven) are Tinos, Paros, Nisyros, Kefalonia and the northern Greece village of Kastania.
When referring to the Dormition of the Holy Virgin, the Cycladic island of Tinos is first on the list as it is home to the “Miracle Worker”. The “Panagia tis Tinou” has since 1823, when Her icon was discovered, performed countless miracles: healing, seeking, finding, saving, empowering, inspiring, enlightening… bearing proof that faith is hope and hope is life.
On Tinos, this day has an additional significance, as it is here in the ground under the massive marble church named “Megalocharis” (The Gift Giving) that Her icon was found and where thousands stand patiently in line to worship it. Beside them, kneeling believers who have crawled their way up to the church as a “tama” (a sign of devotion) to the Virgin in return for Her miracle. Feasting continues outside the church and at most chapels on the island dedicated to the Holy Mother.
Paros & its Church of 100 Gates
Standing proudly over Parikia, the Byzantine Panagia Ekatontapiliani (or ”church of a hundred gates”) welcomes the faithful who flock to the island to venerate the Virgin Mary as the 17th-century icon is carried in a litany accompanied by the island’s philharmonic. Once the Orthodox service is over, a feast with traditional island music, local food and wine continues into the early morning hours. In Naoussa, meanwhile, dozens of boats sail into the port with lit torches and fireworks to mark the beginning of festivities.
Nisyros’ Virgin of the Cave
Located at the top of a cliff at Mandraki overlooking the port, the monastery of Panagia Spiliani is built in a cave and divided into two churches: one dedicated to the Koimisis tis Theotokou and the other to Agios Haralambos.
The centuries-old ritual here begins on August 6, when women dressed in black known as the “enniameritisses” (women of nine days) arrive from the surrounding islands and remain in the cave to carry out the nine-day memorial rites of the passed, caring for the temple and preparing the icon ahead of its procession. Once the icon is removed from the church and carried to the village, the women depart and the feast begins with traditional song, dance, wine and food.
Kefalonia & the Holy Snakes
On the Ionian island of Kefalonia, every year on August 6 dozens of little snakes bearing a cross on their neck appear at a tiny temple dedicated to the Holy Mother near the southern village of Markopoulo. By August 15 the harmless snakes have multiplied roaming the church ground.
Legend has it that decades ago, a convent was almost ravaged by pirates. Having nowhere to flee, the nuns begged the Virgin to save them and so she did transforming them into snakes. Soon thereafter the church of Panagia Lagouvarda became known as the Panagia Fidousa (The Virgin of the Snakes).
The small serpents appear every year and are seen by the locals as a sign of good luck. The snakes did not appear in 1953, when Kefalonia suffered the most devastating earthquake in its history on August 12.
Kastania – The ‘Exiled’ Virgin
The tiny village of Kastania in the Vermio Mountains is home to the new church of Panagia Soumela. It is here that exiled Pontic Greeks re-built their lives and church in honor of the Virgin Mary they left behind. The Pontic Greeks were forced to leave their homeland in Anatolia following the genocide of the Greek population carried out by the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish national movement over the 1913-1922 period. Those who survived were relocated under the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey.
The original 1,600-year-old Soumela Orthodox Monastery is carved into a steep cliff at an altitude of 1,200 metres on the Melá Mountain in the Pontic Mountains, in Trapezounta or (Trabzon Province, modernday Turkey).
The history behind the new Soumela explains the importance of the celebrations in Kastania which last for 10 days. The church, built in 1951 by the Pontic Greek refugees, is home to the icon of the Virgin crafted by Luke the Evangelist. On August 15, after the religious service and procession of the icon, a feast with dozens of traditional Pontic music and dance events follows. Pontic communities from across the globe come to Kastania every year for the event
As a final note: August 15 – Dormition of the Virgin Mary is a national holiday observed across Greece with dozens of outdoor events, each village, town or city bringing to the fore its own unique rites and traditions. Wherever you may be, there is bound to be a celebration. Ask around. Meanwhile, friends and family named Maria, Mary, Panagiotis, Panagiota and Despoina celebrate their name day on August 15.