Pentecost in Greece happens fifty days after Greek Easter Sunday and marks the day the Holy Spirit appeared to the apostles in Jerusalem during Shavuot, according to the Bible.
Most of the country takes the Pentecost holiday as an opportunity for a three-day getaway weekend, so you'll likely encounter many Greek families on vacations themselves during your trip. However, Greek Orthodox churches across the country celebrate the Pentecost holiday with three-day religious festivals devoted to feasting and honoring the birth of the church.
If you are heading for an island vacation during Pentecost, you'll have the unique opportunity to join some of these religious celebrations, even if you're not religious yourself. In fact, while some people look at Pentecost as a kind of second Easter, the holiday for the church is truly a party—from start to finish.
Tongues of Fire: The Story of Pentecost
While you don't have to be religious to attend celebrations of Pentecost in Greece, it's important to know a little about the reason for the holiday.
In the biblical story of Pentecost, 50 days after the Resurrection (or seven Sundays in the church calendar), the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and the church of Jerusalem during the Jewish feast of Shavuot, a celebration of the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. Jews traveled great distances to the Temple in Jerusalem to observe this festival—so there were people from all over the ancient world, speaking different languages and dialects, gathered together.
As the apostles mingled with this crowd, the gospel stories relate that the Holy Spirit descended on them as tongues of fire, enabling them to preach to the assembled crowds, speaking to each person in a language he or she could understand. It's likely that the tradition of "speaking in tongues," practiced by some Christian churches, arose from this story.
The word Pentecost comes from the Greek word pentekostos, which means the fiftieth day. It is considered the birthday of the Christian church for two reasons: the descent of the Holy Spirit completed the Holy Trinity, which forms the basis of Christian theology, and it was the first time that the apostles began to spread their faith beyond their small group of Jerusalem followers.
Celebrating the Birthday of the Church: What to Do
Festivities for Pentecost begin on the Friday or Saturday before the holiday, which is also known as Trinity Sunday, while public celebrations, which tend to be local and church-related, are held on Saturday. The largest churches in a given area will often hold the biggest and most colorful festivals.
There are no festive foods that are specific to the Pentecost holiday, but feasting and overindulgence is the order of the festival. As one of the Greek Orthodox Church's "great feasts," it's a period in which religious fasting is not only discouraged, it's forbidden. If you attend a church service, you may be offered koliva. It's a dish of boiled wheat or wheat berries, spread in flat baskets and decorated with sugar and nuts. Usually served at funeral services and memorials for the dead, it is also passed around through the congregation at the end of Pentecost services.
Additionally, the sweets and dishes that Greeks reserve for special occasions are available in abundance. Some you may be offered include kourabiethes, a melt-in-the-mouth shortbread rolled in powdered sugar and cinnamon, and loukoumades or Greek honey balls, which are small, sweet doughnuts.
Closures and Sales: Practical Matters
Outside of religious observations, Greeks don't typically celebrate Pentecost with other events. Instead, families take short trips to the coast or island destinations. As a result, most shops will be closed on Sunday in Athens and Greece's largest cities, but on the Greek islands and in resort areas, they're more like to be open because so many Greeks visit them during the holiday break.
Additionally, the Monday following Pentecost—known as Agiou Pneumatos or Holy Spirit Day—is also a legal holiday in Greece and, as with Monday holidays throughout the western world today, it has become a time for shopping the sales. Schools and many businesses are closed, but shops, restaurants, and cafes are open for business.
Planning for Pentecost
The Orthodox Churches of Greece and Eastern Europe use the Julian calendar, which is slightly different from the Gregorian calendar used in the west. In practice, Greek Pentecost occurs about a week after it's celebrated in western churches. These Pentecost dates will help you plan your trip:
- 2019: Sunday, June 16th
- 2020: Sunday, June 7th
- 2021: Sunday, June 20th
- 2022: Sunday, June 12th
- 2023: Sunday, June 4th
If you are traveling, it's a good idea to check local transportation and ferry schedules. While ferry schedules may be expanded to accommodate Pentecost travelers, local and urban transportation—like the Athens Metro and local bus services—will run their Sunday schedules throughout the holiday weekend, including Monday.