Pentecost in Greece happens fifty days after Greek Easter Sunday. While for the Catholic Church and other Western Christian denominations it's a happy but relatively quiet, Sunday event, in Greek Orthodox churches it is a three-day religious celebration. It's also an excuse for plenty of secular festivities and a three-day holiday getaway for a lot of Greek families. If you are heading for an island vacation, during Pentecost, expect to meet lots of urban and mainland Greeks on holiday themselves.,
Some people look at Pentecost as a kind of second Easter. But while Easter, from a religious point of view is marked by several days of solemn worship followed by a celebration of Christ's resurrection on Easter Sunday, Pentecost is a party, from start to finish. It's not really essential to know all the background to why this is so, but even if you are not religious, it helps to know the story of Pentecost to understand why it is such a joyous occasion.
Tongues of Fire
In the biblical story, 50-days after the Resurrection (or seven Sundays in the church calendar), the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and the church of Jerusalem. It happened 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 - guess what - the fiftieth day. It is considered the birthday of the Christian church for two reasons. First, the descent of the Holy Spirit completed the Trinity - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit - the basis of Christian theology. Secondly, 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
Festivities for Pentecost begin on the Friday or Saturday before the day itself. The Sunday is also known as Trinity Sunday. Public celebrations, which tend to be local and church-related - local fairs, for example, 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 Pentecost but feasting and overindulgence is the order of the day. As one of the calendar's "great feasts", it's a period in which religious fasting is not only discouraged, it's actually forbidden. 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, small, sweet doughnuts.
If you attend a church service, you may be offered koliva. It's a dish of boiled wheat or wheat berries, spead 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.
In Athens and Greece's bigger cities, most shops will be closed on Sunday. On the Greek Islands and in resort areas they're more likely to be open because so many Greeks visit them for short holiday breaks. 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.
If you are traveling, it's a good idea to check local transportation and ferry schedules. Ferry schedules may be expanded to accommodate Pentecost travelers. But local, urban transportation - the Athens Metro and local bus services - run their Sunday schedules throughout the holiday weekend, including Monday.
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:
- 2017 - Sunday, June 4th
- 2018 - Sunday, May 27th
- 2019 - Sunday, June 16th
- 2020 - Sunday, June 7th
- 2021 - Sunday, June 20th
- 2022 - Sunday, June 12th
- 2023 - Sunday, June 4th