Traditional Culture: Religion
The Greek Orthodox Church plays a pivotal role in Greek communities by sustaining religious traditions. It also provides opportunities for children or for adults entering the church from other communities to learn the language through Greek school and to absorb the culture through participation in church-sponsored activities.
Many of the arts associated with the Greek Orthodox Church were developed during the Byzantine period. Whether expressed through iconography, architecture, chanting, vestments, or ritual, beauty in the expression of the divine is an important aspect of Orthodox religion.
Byzantine iconography suggests the existence of a timeless supernatural realm through a synthesis of abstract and naturalistic styles. Orthodox Christians believe that the icon is a vehicle of divine power and grace, through which the represented becomes present. Tradition fixed many features in the depiction of the saints and holy family so that the relationship between the prototype and recurring images would not be lost. Nevertheless, there are historical and regional variations in style and details. Greek families display small, portable icons in the home. In churches, icons adorn the walls, proskynetarion (stand that holds the day’s icon), iconostasio (screen separating the chancel from the nave), and other surfaces.
The Greek Orthodox Church uses many traditional arts formally and informally. For instance, the vestments worn by priests, altar boys, cantors, and other participants in the Liturgy are formally prescribed, yet sometimes dependent upon the needlework skills of community women. For Palm Sunday, Orthodox parishioners make crosses or figures from palm fronds. The priest distributes the crosses to the congregation at the end of the Liturgy, and parishioners place them on family icons for good luck throughout the year.
Tarpon Springs’ Epiphany celebration is the largest and most widely known in the U.S. Epiphany commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan and the divine revelation of the Holy Trinity. For centuries, Greek priests have blessed boats and the sea on Epiphany—an essential event for sea-faring communities since boats traditionally would not sail in the unhallowed sea between Christmas and Epiphany. Residents join thousands of visitors at an array of events commencing with a Liturgy in St. Nicholas Cathedral. Afterwards, altar boys swinging censers streaming fragrant incense lead a procession to Spring Bayou, followed by church officials bearing banners or jeweled crosses, children in colorful costumes, dance troupes, city officials, divers, and a young woman bearing a white dove. Thousands watch the priest bless the waters, then the young woman releases the dove as the priest casts a white cross into the waters.
The dive is the highlight of Epiphany. Since 1920, young men have braved the chilly January waters in hopes of capturing the coveted cross to ensure a year of blessings. About 50 youths dive from a semi-circle of dinghies. When a young man finds the cross, he shoots up through the water, triumphantly holding it above his head. He is greeted with cheers of delight, then carried on his friends’ shoulders back to St. Nicholas to be blessed. The youths parade singing hymns, then proceed to the glendi, a celebration with food, dancing and music.
As befits the most important day in the Greek Orthodox calendar, Easter traditions are extensive. Prior to Easter, women prepare special baked goods and dye boiled eggs red. Easter observances include special Liturgies each day of Holy Week. After the Holy Thursday Liturgy, many sing haunting mirologia (laments) far into the night. On Holy Friday the kouvouklion, representing the tomb of Christ, is decorated and carried in procession around the church, followed by hundreds of mourners. The resurrection is celebrated with a late Saturday night Liturgy during which the lights are extinguished, and the priest brings out a single candle whose flame is passed to those of the worshippers. Guarding the flame, the parishioners return home to break the strict Lenten fast with magiritsa soup. Easter Day is celebrated with a feast of roast lamb and other dishes avoided during the strict Lenten fast.
Not all Easter traditions are officially sanctioned. Until recently, Tarpon Springs preserved the custom of igniting firecrackers or strong home-made fireworks during the Easter period. Based on the Bible’s admonition to make a joyful noise, this practice occurs throughout Greece but is fiercely observed in the Dodecanese islands. Also, during the weeks before Easter, some families fatten lambs or goats in their yards. When the animals are butchered, ritual practices include the orientation of the lamb’s head to the east, cutting a cross-shaped incision in the throat, and using a fresh sponge soaked with lamb’s blood to make the sign of the cross over the doorways. The cross refers to the sign that protected Jewish households during their persecution by the Egyptians before Passover.