Greeks all over the world celebrate the Dormition of the Virgin Mary today, which next to Easter, is the most sacred and most celebrated feast day of the Orthodox calendar.
In countries like Greece in the northern hemisphere, the occasion takes place in summer and as such a major holiday also traditionally signals the last mass exodus from cities for summer holidays before schools open.
Celebrations in Greece take place throughout the country adapting to the local cultural idiosyncrasies of each village and town, giving the feast day a unique character wherever a religious pilgrim or tourist might find themselves.
The largest numbers of pilgrims arrive on the island of Tinos, where a 1836 royal decree extends them to August 23. The island also commemorates the sinking of the battleship “Elli” by an Italian submarine on Dormition Day in 1940, while the ship stood by out of port for the celebrations.
In northern Greece, at the church of Panagia Soumela celebrations focus around sacred objects including the icon of the Virgin believed to be painted by Luke the Evangelist. Thousands of Pontian Greeks gather at Mt. Vermion to celebrate at the church, built to honor the imposing cliff-hugging Panagia Soumela monastery, a major pilgrimage site of the Greek Orthodox in Turkey.
In Paros, the Ekatontapyliani Church at the island’s capital, Parikia, with the legendary 99 visible gates and an invisible one, is said to be a pledge by St. Helen to the Virgin to help her find Christ’s cross as she stopped over on her way to Jerusalem. The original church was destroyed possibly by fire and rebuilt mid-6th century by emperor Justinian.
In Kozani, another monastery, that of Panagia in Mikrokastro, opens its gates to pilgrims honouring the Virgin through an icon dated to 1603, while in Siatista Christ’s mother is celebrated by the faithful who arrive at the area’s monastery on elaborately decorated horses, in an echo of brave fighters during the Ottoman Turkish occupation of Greece.
Meanwhile on the island of Kefalonnia, the age old mystery of ‘pilgrim’ snakes show up as expected on August 15 every year at the church cupola near Markopoulo village. Legend has it that they used to be nuns of an old monastery who begged the Virgin Mary to tranform them into snakes to avoid being captured by pirates.