What role has religion played in Greece throughout history?

Today, 81.4% of the Greeks are Orthodox Catholics. This is a huge percentage if you compare this to Christians in the UK or Protestants in the US. More impressive is the number when you imagine that modern Greece only exists since 1830. Before, the Greeks have been under Ottoman and Roman rule for years. Besides, when you mention Greek religion, you might think about Nike and Zeus. Ancient Greek goddesses and gods who lived long before the Orthodox religion. Confusing, the Greeks. So here is the story behind religion in Greece, and its impact on society.

From Temple to Church

Ancient Greece

Let’s start at the beginning, with Zeus and Nike. The ancient Greeks had a polytheistic religion. They worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses who were believed to control various aspects of the natural world and human life. These gods were thought to reside on Mount Olympus and were often depicted in art and mythology. Religion was deeply ingrained in everyday life, with festivals and rituals held regularly to honor the gods and goddesses.

Religion also played a role in politics. The city-states often had a chief priest or priestess who served as an intermediary between the people and the gods. In addition, religion was a source of cultural identity for the ancient Greeks. Each god or goddess was often associated with specific regions or city-states.

The Romans

The ancient Greek gods and goddesses were worshipped by the ancient Greeks. However, with the death of Alexander the Great, in 323 B.C., the ancient civilization died as well. Now comes the time of the Roman influence in Greece, and with the Romans, Christianity. A process that took place over several centuries.

The ancient Greek polytheistic religion was practiced for thousands of years and deeply ingrained in society. The spread of Christianity in Greece was initially slow and faced resistance from some members of society. Early Christian communities in Greece were often small and faced persecution from the Roman authorities.

However, as Christianity began to gain acceptance and support from powerful members of society, it slowly began to spread and gain followers. The adoption of Christianity as the official state religion was a major turning point in the spread of the religion in Greece. This happened in the Byzantine Empire in the 4th century A.D. Emperor Constantine the Great, who was himself a convert to Christianity, supported the spread of Christianity He provided funding for the construction of churches and other religious institutions throughout the empire.

The start of the Orthodox Church

With the support of the state, Christianity began to gain widespread acceptance in Greece. Many of the traditional polytheistic religious practices and beliefs were gradually replaced with, or re-explained as, Christian ones. The ancient Greek gods and goddesses were often reinterpreted as Christian saints. Besides, many of the traditional religious festivals and holidays were replaced with Christian ones. It was the syncretism of Christianity with the traditional religion that helped it to spread in Greece. And so the history of the Orthodox religion in Greece begun.

The Orthodox religion in the history of Greece

The Orthodox Church has been an important institution in Greece, playing a central role in the cultural, social and political life of the country. It has played a role in shaping the country’s education, social welfare, and cultural heritage. The Orthodox Church has also been an important force in the preservation of Greek language, culture and tradition. Additionally, the Orthodox Church continues to play an important role in the Greece’s identity. Many religious festivals and holidays are still celebrated and are an important part of Greek society today.

Religion was what defined the Greeks

After the 4th century A.D the main religion in Greece has been the Orthodox religion. However, in these 1700 years, many other things changed in the country. There has been a Byzantine Greece, a Latin Greece and an Ottoman Greece. The country has been occupied by many other empires. Greece has split up and has been attacked. Yet, the Orthodox church survived.

This is what makes religion in Greece something special throughout history. There where times that the Church was the only thing preserving the Greek language, culture and traditions. However, occupants also had an influence on the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Orthodox religion during the Ottoman Rule

During the Ottoman period (1453-1821), the Greek Orthodox Church was placed under the authority of the Ottoman millet system. Which recognized the Greek Orthodox Church as an autonomous community within the empire. The Greek Orthodox Church was allowed to continue its religious practices, but its leaders were appointed by the Ottoman authorities. The Church’s property and finances were controlled by the state. The Church was also expected to support the Ottoman government and its policies.

This had a significant impact on the Church’s role in Greek society. The Church was not able to play its traditional role as an independent institution and was instead used as a tool of the Ottoman government.

The Orthodox religion in WWII

During the period of German occupation in WWII, the Greek Orthodox Church was initially seen as a potential ally by the occupiers. However, the Church and its leaders soon became vocal opponents of the occupation. Many priests and bishops actively supported the resistance and many were arrested and executed by the Germans. The Church’s property was also seized and its leaders were exiled.

After the war, the Church regained its independence and played a significant role in the reconstruction of the country. The role of the Church during the war helped to establish the Church as a symbol of national resistance and identity.

Religion in Greece today

Today, the Greek Orthodox Church is still the dominant religion in Greece. The religion plays a central role in the cultural, social, and political life of the country. Many schools and hospitals are run by the Church or by Church-affiliated organizations. The Church also continues to play an important role in the preservation of Greek language, culture, and tradition. Many religious festivals and holidays are still celebrated and are an important part of Greek society today. Additionally, the Orthodox Church continues to play an important role in the country’s political and social development, and it is considered as an important element of the Greek national identity

The Church of Greece is self-governed and administrates its own affairs, but it remains under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. However, it also has its own independent hierarchy, the Church of Greece, which is headed by the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece.

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5 unique and local Easter traditions around Greece

Easter is the most significant religious holiday in Greece. It is celebrated by all Greeks, all over the world. However, it is the perfect time for you to explore Greek culture. While the celebration of Easter is a time of joy, renewal, and hope for the Greeks, family and friends to come together, share traditional Easter foods, and break some red-dyed eggs. Greek easter traditions include lighting the Paschal candle, reading the Passion of Christ, and a spit-roasted lamb. Besides, every island and region in Greece has its own unique and local traditions related to this special holiday. Below is a list of the most unique and local Easter traditions in Greece.

The Rocket War at Chios

The northeastern Aegean Sea island of Chios is known for its unique Easter tradition. The Rouketopolemos, or Rocket War. In other words, a friendly competition between the two main churches of Chios. Locals gather at Saint Marcos and Panagia Ereithiani, and from there they launch thousands of homemade fireworks at each other. The result is magnificent, as the whole town lights up with the horizontally flying fireworks.

The origin of this event is unknown, but local legend dates it back to the Ottoman era. However, the event did not go without danger, and often the emergency resources had to step in. Fires and accidents were far too common. As a result, it is no longer allowed to aim directly at the other church from the streets since 2021. Nevertheless, the event remains a unique and local Easter tradition in Greece.

The smashing pots of Corfu

On Corfu, the earthquake custom is revived in the Holy Church of Panagia ton Xenos, where the faithful hit the pews to simulate the earthquake that occurred after Jesus’ resurrection. While bells of all the city’s churches ring joyfully at 11 a.m., the residents throw water-filled clay jugs tied with red ribbons from their balconies or windows. This Corfu-only tradition dates back to the Venetian occupation of the island and represents the removal of bad luck and the bringing of good luck and prosperity.

The balloons of Leonidio

In Leonidio, a tradition is practiced on the night of the Resurrection. Residents light hundreds of colorful balloons and release them into the sky while the priests chant” Xriston Anesti. Christ is Risen. Before this night, every household in Leonidio’s five parishes prepares their balloons with great care, employing a unique technique involving cane and paper. The balloons can fly up high into the air and are detonated with a piece of oil-soaked cloth. The view is unbelievable, like a swarm of flaming birds forming a new constellation in the sky accompanied by fireworks. 

The tradition is thought to have originated in ancient times when lighted torches in specific locations on mountaintops were used to send messages over long distances. However, local sailors were said to have been inspired by similar customs in Asia. They brought the hot air balloons back to their homeland, where it was incorporated into the Resurrection celebration.

Acting in Paros

Easter traditions in Greece are not limited to Easter Sunday. Instead, the Greeks celebrate a week of Easter, the Holy Week. The Friday before Easter Sunday is the day on which Jesus was crucified. The Greeks celebrate this with the Epitaphios processionThe Greek Good Friday parade.

On Paros, the parade follows an interesting route along the mountain villages. It goes around the streets, but along the way, there are multiple stops. At these stops, a scene from Jesus’ life is represented. Around 200 people, mostly children, participate to act in these different scenes. A fascinating tradition!

A march into the sea at Tinos

The Tinos church is a popular destination for many holidays, particularly Easter. On Good Friday night, the Catholic Epitaph is walked around the Chora area, followed by seven epitaphs from different parishes gathering on a marble platform for prayers. Many people attend the ceremony, and boats and ships participate by “whistling” and bowing in unusual ways. Saint Nicholas’ epitaph is then carried into the sea with lit torches and a burning cross, creating a magical atmosphere.

Travel tip:

If you’re planning on visiting on of these unique and local Easter traditions in Greece, keep in mind that Greek (Orthodox) Easter, might not be on the same day as your Easter. This year, Easter will be celebrated on the 16th of April.

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The Greek red Easter eggs explained

In Greece, Easter is the most important religious holiday. However, the Easter bunny does not bring its colorful eggs to this country. Instead, Greek Easter is celebrated with traditions including lamb, candles, and the famous red eggs. But why are they red? And what do these eggs mean to the Greeks? Here is the tradition of the Greek red Easter eggs explained.

Why are the eggs red?

The custom of decorating eggs for Easter dates back to ancient times and can be found in many cultures around the world. In Greece, however, the color of the eggs is fixed. They have to become red. This tradition is a centuries-old custom with deep religious and cultural significance. In fact, the color red symbolizes the blood of Jesus Christ, which was shed on the cross.

Painting the eggs

In Greece, the tradition of dyeing Easter eggs is a multi-day process that begins on Holy Thursday. On this day, families gather to dye the eggs red using natural dyes made from boiling red onion skins or from the madder plant. After the eggs get their red coat, they are left to dry and later decorated with intricate designs using wax and dye.

The decorated eggs are then displayed on the family’s Easter table. Besides, they are exchanged among family and friends as a symbol of love and friendship. On Easter Sunday, the eggs are cracked open and shared among the family as a symbol of new life and resurrection.

Cracking the red eggs

The custom of cracking the red Greek Easter eggs is also a meaningful tradition. Since cracking the red Easter eggs symbolizes the cracking of the tomb of Jesus Christ. The eggs are cracked on Easter Sunday. Either right after the Resurrection Service in front of the church or at home amongst family. 

The tradition of cracking the red eggs is called tsougrisma. This is a small and easy game. You take one egg, and you have to tap it against another person’s egg. The goal is to crack other eggs without breaking your own. You can choose which end of the egg you use as long as it is not broken. The person whose egg remains unbroken is considered to be blessed with good luck for the coming year.

A strong tradition

The Greek tradition around red Easter eggs is one of the most widely practiced traditions. It is a cherished part of the country’s cultural heritage. Many families continue to use natural dyes and decorate the eggs with intricate designs, passed down from generation to generation. 

The tradition of red Easter eggs is also celebrated by many Greek communities around the world, keeping the customs and culture alive for future generations. I actually cracked my first red Easter eggs in the Netherlands!

Easter in Greece

Easter is one of the most important holidays in the Greek Orthodox Church and is celebrated with great solemnity and reverence. The Easter eggs are just one aspect of the rich tradition and symbolism that surrounds this time of year. Other traditions include lighting the Paschal candle and reading the Passion of Christ. Easter is also a time for family and friends to come together, share meals, and enjoy traditional Easter foods. A spit-roasted lamb and Easter bread are some examples. The celebration of Easter in Greece is a time of joy, renewal, and hope. Besides, every island and region in Greece has its own unique and local traditions related to this special holiday. 

If you’re planning on visiting Greece to explore the Easter traditions yourself, keep in mind that Greek (Orthodox) Easter, might not be on the same day as your Easter. This year, Easter will be celebrated on the 16th of April.

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The tradition of Names Day in Greece

Every culture has its own unique customs and traditions, and the Greeks are no exception. One of the most celebrated traditions in Greece is the celebration of Names Day. They occur throughout the whole country nearly every day of the year. But what is this tradition of Names day in Greece? Where does it come from, and how is it celebrated?

What is a Names day?

Greek culture is intertwined with the Orthodox religion. It was actually the Orthodox church that preserved the Greek nationality throughout the many years of occupancy in the country’s history. Name days in Greek culture are, as well, an Orthodox tradition.

In the Orthodox religion, there are many Saints. A Saint is a man or woman, chosen by God to serve as an example of how to live a holy life. They are the intermediates between God and the Orthodox Christians. As a result, many Greeks pray to these Saints, celebrate their existence, and name their children after them. 

The Orthodox Church celebrates a Saint almost every day of the year, and these days, are the name days. For example, my name is Anna. Saint Anna is the mother of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is celebrated on the 25th of July. On this day, the Greeks celebrate not only her but instead everyone named Anna. My Name day is on the 25th of July.

A note on Saints

The Orthodox religion states that Saints are people chosen by God. However, this is a religious definition. A more scientific explanation is slightly less holy. 

When the Christion Religion spread throughout Europe, the Greeks believed in their own local Gods. Getting the Greeks to join the church was difficult. You can not just take someone’s God and replace him with your own. 

What happened was that many of the local Gods were accepted into the Christian religion as Saints. This way, the religion spread while the people could still honor their own God. This did not only occur in Greece but all over the world. It was one of the reasons that Christianity was able to spread so quickly.

How is Names day celebrated?

The celebration of Names day has been a part of Greek culture for centuries and is still as popular as ever. On names days, it is traditional for family and friends to get together and celebrate the Saint’s feast day with a festive meal. Greeks honor this special day by exchanging gifts and cards with their loved ones. The presents may be anything from a special cake to a bouquet of flowers. 

It is also a custom to give a small amount of money to the person whose name is being celebrated. This is done to symbolically thank the Saint for his, or her, protection and guidance throughout the year. 

Another popular tradition on Names Day in Greece is for the person whose name is being celebrated to make a wish for the year ahead. This can be anything from good luck to health to a successful career. The wish is then passed on to their friends and family, who will do their best to make it come true.

Name days are more important than birthdays

The way Names day is celebrated in Greece almost sounds like the Greeks have a second birthday. However, for them, this day is actually more important than celebrating the day they were born.

Until the Second World War, many Greeks did not know how old they were. Neither did they know their date of birth. Birthdays have only been celebrated in Greece in the last century. Before this, a birthday was considered an unimportant, even selfish, day for the Orthodox church. Your name, however, was of great importance. 

It was considered a privilege to carry a Saint’s name, and the Greeks had to honor their name throughout life. Every Greek Anna was expected to become as righteous and virtuous as Saint Anna. An Orthodox name sets the path you should follow to lead a holy life. Celebrating Names day is therefore a way to honor a person’s connection to the church and his religious life. 

Influence on naming traditions?

The tradition of Names day in Greece is closely related to the way the Greeks name their newborns. Unlike other countries, in Greece, it is not common to use more modern names. Instead, a boy is named after his grandfather and a girl after her grandmother. Names stay traditional, and therefore the tradition of Name days remains popular.

However, it could also be the other way around. Maybe it is the tradition celebration of Names day, keeping the traditional way of naming in Greece alive. A modern name in Greece results in just one day of presents and celebration. Something no child wants when the rest of the Greeks have two! As a result, the most modern names in Greece are short for traditional names but still refer to one of the many Saints of the Orthodox church.

Do you have a Greek Name day?

There are over 150.000 English words that originate from the Ancient Greek language. And with names, Greek origin is common as well. Gus comes from Konstantinos, Kelly from Angeliki, and Bill from Vasilis. Chances are your name has a Greek counterpart, meaning you can start celebrating the Names day tradition. Check this website to see on which day your name is honored in Greece!

How to congratulate a Greek on Names day?

Do you know some Greeks and want to surprise them on their Names day? Congratulating someone in Greek is actually pretty easy. The Greeks use xronia polla on almost every occasion. On, for example, birthdays, Easter, New Year, and names day, this Greek wish is used. Xronia means years, and polla means many. Many years!

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Giorgos or Giorgia

Giorgos, or George in English, is the most common Greek name, with 10 percent of Greek men carrying this name. The name is a combination of Gi, the earth, and Ergo, work. Giorgos simply means farmer. The fact that many Georges work behind a desk today, shows the importance of the Greek traditions. Giorgos is celebrated on the 23th of April.

Yiannis or Yianna

Yiannis means gracious, or more specifically, God is gracious. His English counterpart is John and derives from Saint John. In the northwest of the Greek mainland, there is a city devoted to this saint, Ioannina, or Yannena. Saint John is celebrated in Greece on the 7th of January.

Dimitris or Dimitra

Dimitris means born from mother earth and refers to the goddess Demeter, the ancient Greek goddess of the harvest. She was the protector of trees, plants, and grains. During Roman times, she evolved into Saint Dimitria, the saint of agriculture. Today the name Dimitris still means devoted to Demeter. October 26th is the day she is celebrated.

Nikolas or Nikoletta

The name Nikolas has something to do with a popular modern brand we all know, Nike. Both the name and the brand derive from the Greek word Niki, which means victory. The ending of the name, Laos mean people, so conqueror of people. Nikolas is associated with the Greek god Nike, as well as Saint Nikolas, the protector of schoolchildren and travelers. Saint Nikolas is still celebrated today. As Santa Claus in the U.S, or Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, he brings presents to children from all over the world.

In Greece, however, Saint Nikolas is not the present-giving Saint all children love. He is honored on the 6th of December, but only the Greek Nikolasses and Nikoletta’s get presents during this day.

Konstantinos or Konstantina

The name Konstantinos derives from the Latin word Constantia, which means constant, stable, or loyal. The English version is Constantine, Kostas, or Gus. The name originates from Constantine the Great. He was a Roman Emperor of Greek descendent in the 4th century, who founded Constantinople.

Konstantinos is honored on the 21st May together with Saint Eleni, the mother of the Great Constantine. The name is one of the most popular names in Greece. Many emperors, kings, and modern politicians have carried this name.

Vassilis or Vissiliki

Vassilis in Greek means king. The name comes from Agios Vasileios, a Saint who lived in the 4th century AD and is known for his generosity to the poor. Saint Vassilis is the Greek Santa Claus. For the Orthodox Greeks, Saint Nicolas is not the Saint who brings presents during Christmas. Instead, on New Years’ day, Saint Vassilis brings gifts to the Greek children.

Vassilis also has a New Years’ cake and tradition named after him, the Vassilopita. Every year, the Greeks bake this simple cake with a coin hidden inside. According to tradition, the pie is cut into equal pieces, one for each member of the family. The pieces are then handed out from oldest to youngest. Whoever gets the hidden coin, will have good luck, health, and happiness for the year to come.

Christos or Christina

Christos and Christina derive from Jesus Christ. However, in ancient Greek, Christos meant useful. The meaning later changed to righteous, virtuous and the anointed. Like Jesus Christ himself, Christos and Christina are celebrated on Christmas. Their English counterparts are Christine, Christopher, or Chris.

Maria

While the previous male names have a female counterpart, the most common Greek female names do not translate into male. Maria is the first, deriving from the Virgin Mary. Since the Orthodox church is very important in Greece, almost 10 percent of Greek women are called Maria. Her names-day is on the 15th of August, a day of celebration for the whole country. Funny is that Mary’s birthday, on the 8th of September, is also celebrated in the country, but does not count as the name day of the Greek Maria’s.

Eleni

The name Eleni means light, or sun ray. Her name derives from the famous Helen of Troy. Helen was known as the most beautiful woman in ancient Greece. This daughter of Zeus, caused the Troyan war when she left her husband to move to Troy, for love. The war, as well as Helen, have been the subject of many tv-shows and movies. Her names-day is on the 21st of May.

Katerina

Katerina derives from the Greek word Katharós, which means clean, clear or pure. Although this word can be used for both female (h thallasa einai kathari, the sea is clear) and male (o skilos einai katharos, the dog is clean) objects, the name only occurs in as female. The English counterpart is Catherine or even Katie. All Greek Katerina’s are celebrated on the 25th of November.

Sophia

Sophia in Greek means wisdom, and derives from Saint Sophia. She appears in the Bible as the female personification of wisdom. Sophia is not only a popular name in Greece. She is in the top-five of female names in the U.S. as well. However, she is celebrated only Greece on the 17th of September.

Angeliki

Angeliki comes from the Greek word Angelos. In ancient Greek, this meant messenger, but in modern Greek it translates into angle-like. Angeliki’s name is celebrated in Greece on November 8th. According to the Greek Orthodox church, this is when the assembly of the Archangels occurred. Her English counterparts are Angela, Angelina, or even Kelly.

Does your name mean something in your language? Or curious about the meaning of other Greek names? Leave a comment below! 

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Cooking with Yiayia : Kotopita

Greek pitas, or pies, come in various shapes and tastes. From a quick snack that fits in your hands, to an oven dish that feeds the whole family. As a sweet dessert or a savory lunch. The most famous Greek pitas are Spanakopita, spinach pie, and Tiropita, cheese pie. But the tastiest is Kotopita.

What is Kotopita?

Kota in Greek means chicken. Kotopita is nothing more than a Greek pie, stuffed with chicken. The pie is made with a phyllo dough that gives this pita a crunchy outside. While the chicken filling is creamy, due to the milk, cheese, and eggs that are added. Onions, olive oil, cumin, pepper, and salt give this pie the perfect taste.

Why is Kotopita not well-known?

Entering a traditional Greek bakery in search of a savory snack, you will always find Tiropita and Spanakopita. But where is the chicken pie?

The process of making Kotopita is more complicated and time-consuming compared to the famous pitas. Besides, the ingredients are more expensive and more difficult to store. But what I learned from Yiayia, is to never be afraid of spending time on good food. The result is worth it.

Yiayia’s secrets

  • The first secret to grandma’s Kotopita is, of course, her homemade traditional phyllo dough, Check out her recipe and prepare the dough before starting the Kotopita
  • Yiayia’s Kotopita is simple. The main ingredient is chicken, and everything else is there to add flavor and texture to it. Many other recipes add bechamel and vegetables to create a more complex taste. But for a good chicken pie, all you need is a good chicken.
  • Although Yiayia uses more butter and oil in her phyllo dough, she does the opposite in the kotopita’s filling. The chicken in this pita is dry but tasteful. Perfect with her crispy and buttery phyllo.

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Ingredients

For a large pie of 40 centimeters in diameter.
If you own a smaller oven dish, I would recommend still using a whole chicken because the bones really add to the taste of the pie. If you have too much, you can store part of the chicken meat in the freezer. Continue the recipe with the amount of chicken you need for one pie.

  • Phyllo dough
  • Chicken filling
    Olive oil
    1 whole chicken, about 1.5 kg (3.3 pounds)
    3 big red onions
    300 grams of salted hard cheese
    1 glass of milk
    1 tablespoon of pepper
    1 teaspoon of cumin
    Salt for taste (around 1 – 2 tablespoons, depending on the cheese and your preference)
    3 eggs
    Sunflower oil (to sprinkle on top of the pie)

Tools

  • pan
  • oven dish
  • bowl
  • baking paper

Preparation

Before you can start with the Kotopita, you have to prepare your phyllo and the chicken. You can do this the night before, or just before preparing the pita. Just know that both these things are time-consuming and with long hours of waiting in between.

You will have to put the whole chicken in a large pan and cover it with water. Add about a tablespoon of salt and put to a boil. The chicken needs to boil for 30 to 40 minutes (60 if it is frozen). When the chicken is ready, take it out of the water and let it cool down. Don’t throw away the chicken broth, you can use this to make a tasty homemade chicken soup.

When the chicken has cooled down, you will first have to remove the skin. Then it is time to take it apart and collect the meat in small pieces. Cut bigger parts with scissors or a knife. You don’t want big pieces in your chicken pie.

Yiayia’s Kotopita

Time needed: 1 hour and 45 minutes.

45 minutes cooking time and 1 hour in the oven

  1. Fry the onions

    Cut the red onions into big pieces. Add a generous amount of olive oil to a heated pan on a high fire. Cook the onions till they are soft.

  2. Add the chicken

    When the onions are soft, it is time to add the chicken. Stir regularly but don’t be afraid to overcook it. The pieces should get brown. In the meantime, you can grind the cheese for the next step.

  3. Add cheese and milk

    When the chicken is brown, it is time to add the cheese and a glass of milk. Add slowly and keep stirring regularly. Leave to cook until the chicken mixture is dry.

  4. Add the spices

    Start with a rich amount of pepper and cumin. Mix everything together and taste the filling. You’re looking for a taste that seems slightly too salty. Add salt till you feel like you have reached this. Don’t be afraid of making it too salty, the taste of salt will disappear in the complete pie. If you don’t taste the salt, you have to add a bit more

  5. Let it cool down

    When the mixture has the proper taste, it is time to turn off the stove and let the mixture cool down for 10 to 15 minutes. The reason for this is that you are about to add eggs, and you don’t want them to solidify immediately. The eggs should remain uncooked until you put the pie in the oven.
    Use the waiting time to put the bottom layer of phyllo dough in your oven dish. Use baking paper to prevent it from sticking to the bottom.

  6. Finish the chicken filling

    Break the eggs in a bowl and hit them with a fork. Mix them into the cooled-down chicken filling. Add the chicken filling on top of the bottom layer of phyllo. Add the top layer of dough and tuck it in on the bottom.

  7. Finish the pita

    Carefully slice the top layer of the pie into smaller pieces. You want some part of the dough to be open, so the oven can cook the individual layers, while at the same time you do not want a pie that falls apart. This requires some practice.

  8. Cook in the oven and enjoy!

    Sprinkle sunflower oil over the pita and place it in the oven. The pie should be cooked at 180 degrees (350 F) for an hour. Keep checking in between if the phyllo does not get too dark or stays too light and adjust the temperature according to what you see.pie of traditional greek phyllo dough before it enters the oven

Tips:

  • When working with baking paper to prevent a pie from sticking to your oven dish, Yiayia has a tip. If you wrinkle the paper before use, it is much easier to shape into your dish. Before use, make a ball of the paper in your hand and squeeze. When you open it, it is much more user friendly!
  • You might feel like it is much easier to use chicken breasts for this recipe. Although this will save you time and dirty hands, it also reduces the taste of the pie. If you really don’t use a whole chicken, it is better to choose legs instead of breasts. But best is to follow the recipe.
  • I usually use the ingredients for the 40 cm pies, but make two smaller ones out of them. When making the phyllo, I create 4 packages, of which I store two in the freezer, and use two immediately for the pie. I boil the chicken and use half of the meat to make the filling and again store the other half in the freezer. This way, I save a lot of time making the second pie.

How to cook like a Greek yiayia, grandmother?

I finally attended cooking classes with yiayia, my boyfriend’s grandmother. Her generation of Greek women cooks the most delicious meals. Tasty and seasonal, with local products gathered from friends and family who live close by. And one of the goals I had set for this year was to learn how to cook like her. 

Entering yiayia’s kitchen is not easy

My yiayia is from a time in which women did not have a paid job. Instead, her work has always been to care for the family and the household. Cooking, cleaning, and being there for her children. That is what she has done all her life. Now, she is 80 years old and did not retire yet, nor will she in the coming years. As long as she is able to, she will keep her job as the perfect mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. And the way to express her love to her family is by cooking. 

Yiayia’s food is the tastiest I have ever eaten. There is no mousaka, piroski, or kotopita like hers. I want to learn how to cook like her, but it is not easy to make a Greek grandmother allow you, her guest, into the kitchen. Greek women of this generation want to make the family happy with their food. They will cook all day, get tired, and complain, but they will never allow you to help them. 

In the past year, I have been continuously asking yiayia to let me help her in the kitchen or at least allow me to be there when she cooks. Until now, I did not get further than receiving recipes from her. However, a Greek grandmother’s instructions do not include all the information you need to cook. Yiayia would tell me to use a bit of salt and add a lot of flour, but with this information, I never recreated the taste of her dishes. I had to see it, and luckily the previous days, I was finally allowed to enter yiayia’s kitchen. 

Cooking starts early

We were going to make kotopita, a pie stuffed with a chicken from the village, inside a crispy homemade filo dough. Yiayia’s most tasty recipe and I immediately understood why. It takes yiayia two days to cook this dish! On the first morning, she makes the filo, which she then puts in the freezer till the evening. When the filo is ready to be moved into the fridge, it is time to prepare the chicken. And on day two, everything is combined into the most delicious pita or pie.

To cook with yiayia, I had to get up early in the morning. Greece is hot in the summer, and Greek life is adjusted to the temperatures. Early in the morning, it is time for work, followed by the time to swim. In the afternoon, the family eats lunch together and goes for a nap after that. And in the evening, there is again time for swimming, chores, and socializing. Yiayia knows this schedule well, and cooking in the morning can start as early as six o’clock, so, my alarm woke me up at 5.30.

When I entered yiayia’s kitchen at 6, she told me we had to hurry because there was a lot to do. Well, she had to hurry, because, for me, she put a chair in the kitchen to observe her cooking. That was not my plan! Refusing to sit, she soon understood that an extra pair of hands might come in handy when making filo dough. And I finally started learning how to cook like a Greek grandmother.

When yiayia says ligo, a little, she means a lot

The first thing I learned from yiayia is that when she says to put a little of something, she usually means you have to put a lot. Ligo alati, salt, is about a handful. Ligo olive oil in Greece apparently means to add about 7 or 8 spoons. However, when she says add ligo xidi, vinegar, a little is actually what she means.

I understood immediately why my attempts of recreating yiayia’s food with only her recipe did not turn out great. Her ligo can mean anything, from a little bit, till a lot for me. She did not learn to cook from a recipe, but instead looked at her mother when she was young. Who probably also told her to put a little of everything.

Everything has a unique technique

Using a rolling pin, cutting vegetables, or knitting dough, everything in yiayia’s kitchen has a particular way of doing it. Some recipes require medium-sized pieces of onions, and others require slightly smaller ones. There is dough that you open with your fingers open, and dough that you open with your fingers closed. There is a special technique for everything and only yiayia knows when to use which.

Yiayia’s food always has a story

The ingredients of a good home-cooked Greek meal always have a story. Especially in summer, no meal is cooked using only things from the supermarket. Peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers always come from either the family or a friend. But even meat is often something from close by. 

Yiayia knows many farmers. If she wants a goat, for example, she will call a friend, and the next day a man will ring the doorbell with a package, containing her goat. For chicken and lamb, yiayia calls a different person, but always the meat comes from close and is fresh. Something we should all try to do.

Cooking is combined with other jobs

As I mentioned earlier, cooking Greek food like a grandmother, is not done within an hour. When working with dough, you need time for the yeast to work, and with mousaka, you slowly bake layer after layer in the oven. 

Cooking is a continuous alternation between hard work and waiting, but Greek grandmothers are not familiar with the definition of waiting for something. When yiayia and I finished knitting the dough for the filo, she said it was time to go to the market, do laundry, and clean the house. I found out this translates into waiting half an hour to three hours to open the filo.

Cooking means hard work

For yiayia, a good recipe requires effort, especially when working with homemade dough. When a Greek (grand)mother cooks, she gets tired, sweats, and trains her muscles. And that is what it should be according to her. Yiayia even told me to be careful when helping her, afraid it would be too hard for me. “Tell me if you’re tired, I will take over!”

It is impressive to see an 80-year-old woman still work hard, knitting a big piece of dough for 20 minutes. When I tried, my muscles pained quickly, but for yiayia, it is a normal daily job. She showed me how strong a Greek housewife is, and how hard her work at home used to be. 

I admire her even more after spending time in her kitchen.

Yiayia’s recipes (more coming soon!)

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Cooking with Yiayia : Greek Potato Piroshki

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Why do many Greek men have a beard?

While strolling around a Greek town or village, you might be surprised by an abundance of facial hair. And abroad, you are often able to recognize the Greeks by their beards as well. Although Greek men have a variety of facial hair, from mustaches to stubbles to full-grown beards, not often do you see a Greek cleanly shaved. Did you ever wonder why most Greek men have a beard?

It is genetics

Charles Darwin hypothesized that the process of sexual selection may have led to beards. Modern biologists agree that a beard shows sexual maturity and dominance for both animals and humans.

But according to this theory, it does not make sense that just us, Greek men, showed off our manliness by hair. And this is also a misconception. 

It is not true that one ethnic group is more “hairy” than another. All humans have more or less the same amount of hair follicles. But the size, length, and pigmentation differ. This creates the illusion that some people are hairier than others.

Throughout history, our genes adjusted and mutated due to the environment. As a consequence of gene mixing and climate effects, Greek men tend to have darker, thicker hair, which can be noticed as a richer beard. Especially compared to the much lighter northern European ones.

However, darker hairs are not an excuse for growing your beard. Of course, shaving machines and razors are available in Greece, but we tend not to use them as often. So, what are the reasons that Greek men let their beards grow?

Health benefits

Even though many people may associate a beard with poor hygiene, this is not true. A well-maintained beard can have several health benefits, including:

  • A beard protects the skin from UV rays. 
    This is especially important in a sunny county like Greece. After all, who needs sunscreen for the face?!
  • A bear keeps you warm. 
    Greece may be famous for the sun, but the majority of the county has cold winters. With temperatures below 5 degrees Celsius, a thick beard can act as nature’s scarf.
  • A beard protects you from allergies. 
    Greece’s landscape is full of flowers, plants, and trees. During springtime, many pollens fly around, and a beard forms an extra protective layer against them. No more sneezing for us!
  • A beard improves your psychology. 
    Numerous men feel more attractive when maintaining a beard. Furthermore, scientists have found that men with full beards are perceived as better at raising and protecting their children. 

The history of the Greek beard

For the ancient Greeks, beards were a sign of wisdom, manhood, and the pivotal moment from childhood into adulthood. Bearded men were highly appreciated in ancient Greek society. Socrates, Homer, Plato, and Pericles all had a beard, and even Greek gods were portrayed with a beard. In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles’ mother, Thetis, asks Zeus to swear by his beard, which makes his promise sacred and inviolable. The beard was an obsession in ancient Greek times.

During the era of Alexander the Great, the high status linked to a beard, was diminished. The great general was a big fan of the clean-shaven look. But he also believed that a beard could be used by opponents to grab on to during combat. He ordered all soldiers to fight without facial hair. 

However, the identification of the beard as a symbol of age and wisdom arose among intellectuals. The philosophers of this time usually refused to shave. And later on, the beard came back to Greece. The Romans distinguished themselves from the Greeks by being shaved.

In the Byzantine era, the beard was emphasized as a sign of masculinity. At this time, an important role in court governance was played by eunuchs. These men did not produce testosterone and could not grow beards. Therefore, the presence of a beard proved that the man in question was anatomically complete. For this reason, to this day, the masculine is called “βαρβάτος”, barbatus, bearded.

During the Late Middle Ages, a shaved look was again the norm in Western Europe. This trend was linked to the imposition of celibacy on the part of priests. A trimmed face contributed to declaring the sacrifice of their male reproductive power. Again the presence or absence of a beard separated the Greek from the Latin.

Tradition and religion

From the beginning of history, humans used clothes, accessories, and even their bodies to indicate their social and economic status. From ancient Egypt until today, a beard can have many meanings. The length, the style, or even the absence of it. The meaning and status of the beard changed multiple times throughout history and will continue to change.

In Christianity, art depicts Jesus and many biblical characters such as Moses and Abraham with a beard. Most Orthodox Saints are portrayed with beards as well, thus for the clergymen, facial hair was an “inviolable law”.

Tradition is an important factor as well. The majority of the Greek heroes do not wear a cape, but they have beards. And who were the everyday heroes in Greece? The sailors, the captain, and the fishermen. They all maintain a beard.

Also, during mourning, we tend to grow our beards long. It is an Orthodox tradition, not to shave for at least forty days after a loved one passes away. However, during the 20th century, beards were not appreciated by the average domesticated Greek. They were a sign of dirty and rebellious youth, only to be worn by the hippies and the communist. 

The Greek beard today

Nowadays, the younger Greek men do maintain a beard for various reasons. As I mentioned earlier, we believe that we look more masculine and wise, which results in more confidence. 

But I consider convenience the most important reason! It is easier for most of us to grow our beard and trim it once per week or month than to develop a daily routine. We prefer to use those 10 minutes a day, to drink our coffee, talk with a loved one, or even take a nice afternoon nap.

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A Greek baby is a family project

Whoever believes that babies are just the offspring of their parents, has never been to Greece. In this country, having a child is a process that involves the whole Greek family. Even long before the child is conceived.

The whole family wants your child

I stopped counting the amount of times yiayia, mother, and sister mentioned it was time for me to contribute to the Greek family. It started one year into the relationship with my boyfriend and continues till today. In every conversation I have with them, the future baby is mentioned.

But not only the Greek women closest to me won’t stop pushing me to procreate. Uncles, friends, cousins, nona. Everyone in Greece seems to get impatient when it comes to my motherhood. Even a Greek two-year-old keeps asking me when my baby will arrive. Him, I can simply answer, saying that the stork didn’t arrive yet. But to the rest of the Greeks, it is difficult to explain.

The whole family will be there when your child is born

Let’s say I agree with the Greek family on having this much-wanted baby of theirs. Let’s say I am pregnant, and the family is pleased with that. This will not be the moment the Greeks will back off and let me have their soon-to-be new family member in peace. No. Involvement only gets worse from here.

My family-in-law has a whole plan ready for when I will have a child in the Netherlands. Mother will come over at least a month before I will give birth. Father and sister, including her two children and husband, will follow as I am about to give birth. Together they will ensure we will not be alone with the child. At least for the first year of his or her life.

Having my potential child in Greece will not make things less of a family project. Here, the people who will come to support me while giving birth will not be limited to the 6 closest family members. Instead, like with any other Greek baby, excluding the ones during COVID restrictions, the whole family will be there. Yiayia, pappous, aunts, uncles, and friends will all be at the hospital. Like a crowd at a concert, they will cheer when the baby enters the stage.

The whole family has to agree on the name of your child

When the baby is born, the discussion about the name will start. Naming a newborn is something valuable to the whole Greek family. You can not just pick the name you want your child to have. Instead, the family expects you to use the names of the child’s grandfathers and grandmothers. Wanting something different results in endless discussions and arguments.

My sister-in-law, for instance, wanted to break with Greek traditions and give her daughters more international names. But not naming them Ierini and Argiro, the names of their grandmothers, was perceived as a shame to the whole family. In the end, they agreed on Rene and Iro, still referring to the grandmother, in a slightly more modern way. Unfortunately for my sister-in-law, it was a compromise. She wasn’t able to name her children as she wanted if she liked to remain respected by the Greek family.

The whole family raises your child

Raising the child will continue the be a shared job, done by the whole family. Especially the grandmothers will fight over who gets to spend the most time with the child. It is rare for a Greek child to have a day without meeting at least one family member. And if something happens to the child, everyone will be there to help. While in other countries they say, ” it takes a village to raise a child”, the Greeks just need their families.

Feeding the child, picking it up from school, and taking care of it when it is sick, are all done by the entire family. When the child grows older and is about to go to university, the father and uncles will discuss what option would give the child the best future. And later, when the child grows up and needs a job, it is often a family member who will provide one.

The whole family loves and supports your child

As a non-Greek who might, at one point, become a mother in a Greek family, the whole family involvement seems quite overwhelming. I want my child to grow up carrying the name I find suitable. I want to be in charge of how the child is raised and what he or she will learn about this world. Every Greek mother is overprotective towards her child or grandchild. While I have more of the Dutch laid-backness, which I would love my child to have. But is that possible when yiayia and aunts teach him or her to be scared instead of curious? When the whole family is involved in raising your child, it is difficult to stick to your own beliefs on how to do this.

On the other hand, Greek children get so much love, care, and attention when they grow up. They learn how to care for others and the importance of social connections in life. They always have someone to talk to. The family provides an extremely safe place from where they can discover the rest of the world.

Being a mother in Greece and having the help of everyone around you, does sound better than being on your own, having to rely on expensive daycare and schedules. Although the Greek families are overwhelming, they are there to make your life less challenging, and your child more loved. Which both result in you being a better parent.

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Traveling through Greece, you might have noticed all the old men, endlessly sipping coffee in front of a traditional kafeneío. These men seem to be a static part of the decor of every Greek village, but where are the women?

The timeline of women in Greece

The grandmothers

Let’s start with old times, the generation of our grandmothers. When they were young, it was taboo even to talk about a woman going out for coffee with her friends. The Greek women from this time were supposed to stay in, take care of the family, the house, and of course the cooking.

The Greeks used to have a saying, “η καλή νοικοκυρά είναιδούλα και κυρά”. Which can be translated into something like, a good housewife is a slave and a hostess. A wife was the possession of the man she was married to, only existing to support him and their family. She was allowed to go out for groceries, pick up the children, or go to dinner together with her husband. But not alone, not to meet her friends.

The reason behind this was not the masculine will to control women. It was their insecurity and sensitivity more than their authority. The Greek men were extremely jealous and afraid that other men might look at their wives.

My Greek grandmother had a husband like this, and she was the perfect housewife. One day she went shopping and found the most beautiful color of lipstick, which she bought to surprise her husband. However, when he came home from coffee that afternoon, they got into a fight. How could she wear that beautiful lipstick! All the men would look at her!

The mothers

Luckily, things changed during the generation of our parents. Women became more independent and no longer listened to the fears of their husbands. They started going out with friends and some of them got a money-earning job. However, this did not change much to the decor of the Greek village.

Although the Greek women started going out more, they would not endlessly sip coffee at a kafeneío every afternoon. Instead, they meet on town squares, at home, or simply go shopping. And even if a Greek woman goes for coffee with a friend, she will not do this at the same time as her husband. While the men go to work in the morning and sip their coffees in the afternoon, the women have a coffee when the men are at work and start their laundry and cooking when the afternoon begins.

We

Understanding what happened in our generation will explain why the villages are still full of men, and how this will change in the coming generations. After our mothers slowly started entering business life, today it is the most normal thing for a Greek woman to work as much as her husband. However, this does not place these women in the Greek kafeneíos, instead, they are now spending their days at the office. Probably you have noticed that most men, that are part of the village scenery, are older. All the young people, both male, and female are either working hard in the big cities or have left the country. There are no young women that can afford to sit in between the old men to show us, tourists, that the country is, in fact, full of emancipated women.

With the women of today’s generation working, it are often their parents who take care of the children, since daycare is not really a thing (yet) in Greece. And although taking care of kids becomes more and more a shared job between the grandparents, they stick to some of their traditions. Grandfathers still go for a coffee for a couple of afternoons a week, while the grandmothers take the mornings or evenings for themselves.

The future

I believe that in a couple of decades, the Greek towns and villages will look completely different. Maybe the Greeks that are currently away from Greece will come back to the country, and the kafeneíos will be full of families and playing children. But the other option is that the traditional Greek coffee places will slowly disappear, together with the generations that created them. It would be a shame because even though the many men make you wonder about the position of women in the Greek culture, they also show what life can be when you take it slow. I sincerely hope that kafeneíos will keep existing, not for the men, but as a place to escape the fast pace of the world we live in today.

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