Greece is a country with a rich and diverse cultural heritage, influenced by its ancient history, its Orthodox Christian faith, its geographical location and its interactions with other nations and peoples. Greece is also a popular tourist destination, attracting millions of visitors every year who come to enjoy its natural beauty, historical monuments, gastronomy, nightlife and hospitality. However, as a visitor, it is important to be aware of some aspects of the local culture and religion that may differ from your own, and to respect them as much as possible. Here are some tips on how to do so and what to avoid.
Religion in Greece
The majority of Greeks (about 90%) belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, which is the official state religion and has a significant role in the society, politics and education of the country. The Orthodox Church traces its origins to the early Christian communities established by the apostles of Jesus in the eastern Mediterranean, and follows the Byzantine tradition of liturgy, theology, art and music. The Orthodox Church is organized into several autocephalous (self-governing) churches, each headed by a patriarch or an archbishop. The Church of Greece is one of them, and is headed by the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece.
The Orthodox faith is based on the belief in one God, who is revealed in three persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, is the savior of humanity, who was incarnated, crucified, resurrected and ascended into heaven. The Holy Spirit is the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and sanctifies the church and its members. The Orthodox Church also venerates the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God, as well as numerous saints who are considered as examples of holiness and intercessors for the faithful. The Orthodox Church celebrates seven sacraments: baptism, chrismation (confirmation), eucharist (communion), confession, marriage, ordination and unction (anointing of the sick).
The Orthodox Church follows a liturgical calendar that determines the dates of feasts, fasts and other religious events. The most important feast is Easter (Pascha), which commemorates the resurrection of Christ and is celebrated according to the Julian calendar, usually later than the Western Easter. Other major feasts include Christmas (December 25), Epiphany (January 6), Annunciation (March 25), Dormition of the Virgin Mary (August 15) and Transfiguration (August 6). The Orthodox Church also observes four main fasting periods: Great Lent (before Easter), Nativity Fast (before Christmas), Apostles’ Fast (before June 29) and Dormition Fast (before August 15). During these periods, Orthodox Christians abstain from meat, dairy products, eggs, fish, oil and wine on certain days.
The Orthodox Church has a rich artistic and architectural heritage, expressed in its icons, frescoes, mosaics, manuscripts, music and churches. Icons are stylized paintings of Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints or scenes from the Bible, which are considered as windows to heaven and aids for prayer. Frescoes are paintings on walls or ceilings of churches or monasteries, depicting religious themes or stories. Mosaics are images made of small pieces of colored glass or stone, usually found on floors or domes of churches. Manuscripts are handwritten texts of the Bible or other religious books,
often decorated with miniatures or calligraphy. Music is an integral part of the Orthodox liturgy, which is sung a cappella by choirs or cantors in various languages and styles. Churches are the places of worship for Orthodox Christians, usually built in a cross-shaped plan with a central dome symbolizing heaven. Churches are often adorned with icons, frescoes or mosaics inside, and have bells or towers outside.
There are also other religious groups in Greece besides the Orthodox Christians. These include Muslims (about 2%), who are mostly immigrants from Albania, Turkey or other countries; Catholics (less than 1%), who are mainly concentrated in some islands such as Syros or Tinos; Protestants (less than 1%), who belong to various denominations such as Evangelicals or Pentecostals; Jews (less than 1%), who have a long history in Greece but suffered greatly during the Holocaust; and other minorities such as Hellenic Pagans (who revive ancient Greek polytheism), Sikhs or Hindus.
Culture in Greece
Greece has a vibrant and diverse culture, influenced by its ancient and modern history, its geography and climate, its regional and ethnic diversity, and its interaction with other cultures. Greece is considered as the cradle of Western civilization, as it was the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, literature, drama, art, science and sports in ancient times. Greece is also the homeland of the Olympic Games, which were held every four years in honor of Zeus at Olympia from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD, and were revived in Athens in 1896. Greece has a rich literary and artistic tradition, with famous authors such as Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Euripides, Aeschylus and many others. Greece also has a distinctive musical and dance tradition, with various genres such as rebetiko, laiko, entehno, nisiotiko and zeibekiko. Greece is also known for its cuisine, which is based on the Mediterranean diet and includes dishes such as moussaka, souvlaki, tzatziki, dolmades, spanakopita and baklava.
Greeks are generally friendly and hospitable people, who value family, friendship, honor and hospitality. Greeks are proud of their national identity and their cultural heritage, but also respect diversity and tolerance. Greeks are often curious and inquisitive about foreigners, and may ask personal questions or invade your personal space. Greeks are also expressive and emotional, and may use gestures or physical contact to communicate. Greeks are often relaxed and flexible about time and schedules, and may be late for appointments or change plans at the last minute. Greeks are also social and outgoing, and enjoy spending time with friends or family at cafes, tavernas, bars or clubs.
Dos and Don’ts in Greece
When visiting Greece, it is advisable to follow some basic etiquette rules and avoid some common faux pas. Here are some dos and don’ts that will help you have a pleasant and respectful experience in Greece.
- Do dress modestly when visiting churches or monasteries. Men should wear long pants and shirts with sleeves; women should wear skirts or dresses below the knee and cover their shoulders and arms. Some places may provide wraps or scarves for visitors who are not dressed appropriately.
- Don’t show the palm of your hand to anyone. This gesture is called moutza and is considered very rude and insulting. It is equivalent to giving someone the finger in other cultures.
- Do cross yourself when passing by a church or an icon. This is a sign of respect for the Orthodox faith and tradition. You can also light a candle or make a donation if you wish.
- Don’t make the OK sign with your thumb and forefinger. This gesture is considered vulgar and offensive in Greece. It is equivalent to calling someone an asshole in other cultures.
- Do accept invitations to people’s houses or meals. This is a sign of hospitality and friendship. You should bring a small gift such as flowers or sweets for your hosts. You should also compliment their food and house.
- Don’t refuse food or drink that is offered to you. This is considered rude and ungrateful. You should at least taste everything that is served to you, even if you are not hungry or thirsty.
- Do tip when you receive good service at restaurants, cafes, bars or hotels. Tipping is not mandatory but it is customary and appreciated. You can tip between 5% to 10% of your bill depending on your satisfaction.
- Don’t touch or point at objects or people with your feet. This is considered disrespectful and impolite. Feet are regarded as dirty and lowly in Greek culture.
- Do learn some basic Greek words and phrases. This will show your interest and respect for the language and culture of Greece. You can start with greetings such as kalimera (good morning), kalispera (good evening), yassas (hello) or efharisto (thank you).
- Don’t assume that all Greeks are the same. Greece is a diverse country with different regions, islands, dialects, customs and traditions. You should be open-minded and respectful of the differences that you may encounter.
In conclusion, Greece is a wonderful country to visit, with a rich culture and religion that deserve respect and appreciation. By following these tips on how to behave in Greece, you will have a more enjoyable and memorable experience.