May 2, 2023

Greek Customs and Folk Traditions Associated With the Feast of Saint Athanasios the Great

"Ai-Thanasis" is especially beloved among Greek Orthodox Christians. In the villages and towns, where there are parish churches dedicated to him, his winter feast (January 18) is celebrated in them. This is when people named Thanasi, Thanos and Athanasia celebrate their name day. However, for the May 2nd celebration, this is when chapels or cemetery churches that bear his name celebrate.

The people use the etymology of his name (Athanasia = Immortality) and for this reason have dedicated several cemetery churches to his memory, to banish death. The expression is also common in several regions of Greece: "He is ready for Ai-Thanasis," that is, he is about to die.

The paretymology of his name is due to some funeral customs or acts of longevity of the people. In Eastern Thrace, for example, on his feast day, in January, they slaughtered a rooster "for their health," while on the May 2nd festival in many places in his cemetery churches the Divine Liturgy is held and they share kollyva (combining his memory with the memory of the dead).

Elsewhere, the May 2nd celebration takes place in the spirit of May Day (May 1 - a European festival of ancient origins marking the beginning of summer), with Christians going out into the countryside. But besides the vegetation, they pay attention to other elements of nature and even address them, such as the rivers in Western Macedonia, or the sea in the Ionian Islands. Apart from the fact that the chapels are open on this day, the Christians decorate them with flowers, while returning to their homes they also hang the "May Wreath", which is a wreath made of the flowers of spring.

On the island of Symi, the custom of "Koukouma" takes place. On the eve of May 2nd, 25 girls gather, who go and take from 7 cisterns of unspoken water in the "koukoumari" (container), and returning home they throw their rings inside, to guess the groom's name the next day (this is all done in silence, hence the name "unspoken water"). They make a pie in the evening to be eaten the next day. After the Divine Liturgy they all gather in the bigger house with the accompaniment of instruments. They even say various couplets such as:

"Ai-Thanasis, our master, come to our neighborhood,
to give us a blessing and our good bridegrooms."

"Ai-Thanasis, my master, marble founder,
near you I made love and I come and prove it."

After they have all eaten together, the divination ceremony takes place called "Klidonas", when a little girl whose parents are both alive, taking out the rings from the "koukoumari" one by one, says a Saint's name: St. Thanasis, St. George, St. Basil, etc. The name she says is supposed to be the baptismal name of every girl's future husband.

On January 18, the Church of Saint Athanasios in Soufli celebrates. Following the tradition in the villages of Kornofolia and Dadia, a Kourbania is performed - the slaughter of an animal in honor of the Saint - and is offered to the villagers and those present for good fortune.

In Strimi of Rhodope, at the site of the cultural Women's Association in the village, a Kourbania is also held, followed by a feast with musical instruments and traditional dances with the participation of villagers and visitors.

In Tsakoni of Kastoria they sacrifice a calf, offering the sacrifice for the health of the inhabitants.

In Velvedo of Kozani, the whole village traditionally eats village sausages together.

In Kalampaki of Drama, everyone eats together in a communal gathering after the Divine Liturgy.

In Voio of Kozani, bonfires are lit on the eve and people are treated to sausages.

In Aitoloakarnania they distribute sweet breads as a symbol of the Saint's power against the heretics, while in Didymoteicho the oldest women kiss all the relatives while seated at large tables.

The Custom of the Kourbania

In Drama and other regions of Greece, the residents are reviving the traditional custom of the "Kourbania", on the day of the feast of Saint Athanasios.

It is a tradition that has not been forgotten 100 years now, as it dates back to 1922 and goes back to the inhabitants of Krionero in eastern Thrace. The refugees from the unforgettable homelands who settled in Kalampaki of Drama, but also in other critical areas of eastern Macedonia, never forgot what connected them to their ancestral homes, customs, traditions, festivals and songs, celebrations and feasts, which do not leave the mind to forget and the memories to fade with the passage of time.

According to popular tradition, every year, at the dawn of the feast of Saint Athanasios, God sent a deer to the courtyard of the church of the Krionerites, which, after resting, was "sacrificed" with the blessing of the priest early in the morning of the feast by the "Kourbanatzides", who cooked it and then distributed it to all the residents. This food was called kourbania, which in the Turkish language (kurban etmek = sacrifice) has the meaning of sacrifice and offering.

One year when there was a lot of snow, the deer was late in coming and the "sacrificers" alarmed by the delay, hastened the sacrifice without letting it rest, as custom required. Since then the deer has not been seen again, perhaps because, as the Krionerites believed, God was angry with them for not observing the rules of sacrifice. From then on, a bull or a cow was used instead of the deer.

"Kourbania is a community of people", points out the president of the Cultural Association of Kalambaki, Athanasia Theodoridou, speaking to the Athenian-Macedonian News Agency. "In this society of people, everyone offered and everyone received, and it is exactly the same to this day. When we go out into the village, we go from house to house to all the inhabitants, rich or poor, and each one gives from his surplus or deficit. When the time comes for the bell to ring to distribute the kourbania, then whoever offered is entitled to receive. This is a society of people and this is the most timeless message", she stresses.
Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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