There are many different Greek festivals that take place on different occasions throughout the year and are immediately linked with different traditions. Some of these festivals have a religious base, linked to the Orthodox calendar and some others have a cultural nature. No matter which category a certain festivity might fall into, the only sure thing is that these celebrations are one of a kind and whoever joins, either by accident or on purpose, always has a memorable time.
Thousands of different Greek festivals are happening every year, and many occur during the same period (e.g. Carnival, Easter). The astonishing thing is that each city or island celebrates with different ways, unique to the others. The below list is my top ten picks among these festivities, each one special in each own way. In Greece, tradition is still alive. Let’s see why:
Where: Tirnavos (Thessaly region)
When: Carnival – Clean (Ash) Monday (February)
Carnivals occur in many different cities throughout Greece during the 3 weeks of “Apokries” (usually February). The carnival in Tirnavos attracts thousands of visitors each year. It has a history of more than 100 years and during its course it faced various attacks from the government, as it was considered… inappropriate! The reason for this censorship is the “Mpourani”, a tradition linked to fertility and the beginning of spring, occurring every Clean Monday each year (the last day of the carnival). Mpourani is a folk Greek festival, reviving an ancient Dionysian ritual, essentially the celebration of the phallus, symbolizing reproduction and fertility.
A parade takes place in which various groups participate, ending in the yard of the small church Prophet Elias. When they reach the church, food and “tsipouro” (a local pomace brandy) is laid on the tables in phallus –shaped bottles. Then the preparation of Mpourani (a vegetarian soup with spinach and vinegar) starts. When the soup is ready, it is served to the insiders as an initiation ceremony and then the singing and dancing can start, along with bawdy humour. Men are usually holding wooden or clay phallus as sceptres, and even the bread prepared for the occasion has a phallus shape!
In the past, only men were participating in this festivity, but women and children could be there as spectators. Nowadays, Mpourani is a big celebration where everybody participates and is having fun equally. One of the must-see Greek festivals (as long as you’re not prudish!).
9. Saint George’s celebration
Where: Asi Gonia (Chania)
When: 23rd of Apri
Asi Gonia is a mountainous small village in Chania, Crete, which on the 23rd of April every year bursts with life. This is the day of Saint George. Many Greek festivals take place on the day. But in Asi Gonia, there’s a different Saint George, St. George the Galatas (translated as milkman), who is the patron of the shepherds.
This day, all shepherds of the region gather in the homonym church along with their sheep, which they flock there! The church is nearby the village’s main square and the spectacle of hundreds of sheep filling the square is unique.
The animals, adorned with their most melodic bells, called “leria”, are corralled outside the church and are milked one by one. Then the flock is blessed by the priest. Some of the milk is distributed to residents in bottles and some is boiled and offered to attendees by local girls wearing Cretan traditional costumes. Nobody knows exactly when this Greek festival started, but locals claim that it is older than the village itself! An approximate number of the total sheep in the area is around 25,000 – and no shepherd could even think not to attend this festivity! If you happen to be in Chania around this period, then a visit in Asi Gonia on the 23rd of April is a must. Even if you find this custom “strange”, at least you’ll go home with several bottles of fresh milk!
8. Ifestia festival
When: mid / end September (varies each year)
Every year around mid of September Santorini is having its “Ifestia” or “Volcano Festival”. The festival lasts for one whole day and consists of a series of various artistic events, leading up to the main attraction: the re-enactment representation of the Minoan eruption. This eruption took place around 1600 BC and it was so powerful that it sunk three-quarters of the island and formed the renowned Caldera and the smaller islands in the middle.
During this event, the municipality organises a figurative volcano explosion with fireworks, trying to recreate the former eruption as realistically as possible. Everything happens in the smaller islands of Kammeni & Thirasia in the middle, so wherever you might be on the Caldera the “eruption” will be visible. Many people choose to rent boats and see the spectacle from the sea. Definitely one of the most unique Greek festivals.
7. Flour war
When: Carnival – Clean (Ash) Monday (February)
Galaxidi is a coastal village, only two hours’ drive from Athens and famous throughout Greece for its “flour war” every year on Clean Monday, the last day of the carnival. This custom is believed to have started in 1801 when the locals defied the Ottomans. After their win, they celebrated the forbidden carnival and danced on the streets with their faces painted in ash.
But what is nowadays the flour war exactly? Well, imagine it being like the Indian “festival of colours”, just in Greece instead of India. During the afternoon tourists and locals all together march to the harbour. They usually split into a war zone and a neutral zone (for the spectators) and once the cow bells start ringing, the “battle” begins: All the participants throw coloured flour bombs (baking flour tinted with food colouring) to each other until they run out of supplies.
Once the flour war is finished, everybody comes together and dance until late at night, with the whole city covered in green, blue and red flour! The best part: All the flour is provided free of charge to all the participants from the municipality! If India is a bit too far, then Galaxidi is a great alternative if you like Greek festivals and want to get dirty during the Clean Monday!
6. Saint Dionysios celebration
Where: Zakynthos (Zante)
When: 23rd-26th of August
All the major festivals in Zakynthos have a religious base. The two biggest are both celebrating the Saint Patron of Zakynthos, Saint Dionysios. Among these two, the most well-known is the one on the 24th of August, which celebrates the memory of the transportation of the Saint’s Holy Relic from the island of Strofadia to Zakynthos in 1717.
Preparations start many days before the celebration to assure that everything will be perfect on the day. The highlight of the celebration that lasts 3 days is the grand procession through the town accompanied by traditional music and the fireworks display on the first night. This festivity always brings out the best in traditional Zakynthos food & dancing, attracting thousands of people.
During night time on these days, you will find many “panigyria” in the surrounding villages of the island where you can drink, dance and enjoy yourselves till the next morn
5. Rouketopolemos (Rocket war)
Where: Vrontados (Chios)
All Greeks normally celebrate Easter with fireworks, but the residents of Vrontados, a small town in Chios island, are definitely next level! The town has two churches located on the top of two opposite hills: Saint Mark and Panagia Erithiani. The midnight before Easter Sunday, supporters of these two “rival” church congregations gather near their churches. When the priest says “The Christ is risen” during the Evening Mass, tens of thousands of homemade rockets are thrown from the two sides! The objective is to hit the bell tower of the church on the opposite side with a rocket. As both sides always end up claiming victory, no church really wins.
The homemade rockets are actually wooden sticks, capped with gunpowder and fired from grooved cannons. The tradition goes back to the Ottoman era. It is said that originally, rouketopolemos was with actual canons, until the Ottoman Empire banned it on 1889. Since then, the locals replaced the canons with the DIY rockets, but the custom is still much alive. This festivity is one of the weirdest and most beautiful Greek festivals during Easter and definitely one not to be missed if you are considering Greece for your Easter holidays.
4. Traditional wedding reenactment
Where: Karia (Lefkada)
When: First weekend of August
The village of Karya holds every summer since 1979 a traditional Lefkadian wedding reenactment. This is a three-day festival with all the villagers voluntarily participating in the reenactment in any way they can. During the first day, one can see all the customs preceding the wedding: Preparations of the bride’s dowry, her house and wedding dress, along with all the essentials for the wedding ceremony and the feast afterwards.
The second day is the wedding and reception day. The couple, along with the priest and the best man are riding their horses and go to a traditional house where the ceremony representation takes place. After the wedding the dowry is loaded onto the horses and transported to the groom’s house. Afterwards the traditional celebration takes place on the main square of the village. On third and last day of this festivity there’s the “wedding pie” baking. This is a traditional oil pie, found only in Lefkada in weddings & festivals. At the end of the day another celebration takes place with live music and dancing.
This is one of the most beautiful Greek festivals, as the visitors get to experience all the customs of a traditional wedding throughout these 3 days. It is also very popular because of the period it is held, but although it might be a bit crowded, it surely worth it!
3. Easter celebrations
When: Holy Week (Easter)
It is not by accident that the numbers of tourists rise dramatically during Easter time in Corfu. If you have only one chance to visit the island, it’s best to choose Easter, as the celebrations last for the whole Holy Week! Starting Palm Sunday, the procession of Saint Spyridon takes place. There are 18 philharmonic bands on the island and all of them participate. Good Monday to Thursday there are also other festivities, different each day. On Good Friday, the Epitaph (representation of dead Jesus’ body) takes place, where processions from different churches come out and meet at various points while the Cathedral Epitaph is the most prestigious one, supported by 3 philharmonic orchestras.
But the highlight of the Holy Week (and what everybody is waiting) is the morning Resurrection on Saturday: At 11:00 sharp, the church bells announce the First Resurrection and ALL Corfiots get on their windows and balconies (specially decorated for the occasion), throwing clay pitchers, empty or with water inside. At the same time, canons are firing from the castle, making this an amazing moment lasting for a few minutes. Both locals and tourists enjoy this tradition, the roots of which are not entirely clear: Some say this comes from the Venetians and their New Year celebrations. Others claim that this is a much older, pagan custom, coming from the ancient Greeks. No matter what its origins are, it is a truly unique experience!
When: Around February
Starting in 1914 and becoming better each year, the carnival of Rethymno is a feast for everybody who enjoys life. The whole town wears its most colorful costumes and becomes one big party. Each year there’s a different theme for the carnival and all the dance groups and parades have this as a base for their creations.
The beginning of the carnival is signalled by a town crier, walking around the city and announcing the festivities that will take place. The carnival starts with a treasure hunt for children and is followed by numerous parties, dances and happenings. But this carnival is mainly for adults – who feel children at heart. Every kind of celebration will fill the street of the city for these 3 weeks. The treasure hunt is probably one of the most interesting ones, with thousands of people participating in different groups. 2017 was a milestone year for this event. It won the Guinness World Record for the biggest Treasure Hunt in the World!
The extravagant night parade is another not-to-miss festivity during the carnival. But the bigger and most important one is the great float parade: More than 15,000 people are participating in this parade, which is a spectacular event with the Venetian influence evident in the costumes and the floats. The carnival comes to its end with the burning of the effigy of the Carnival King. Hands down, one of the best Greek Festivals.
1. Ikariotiko panigiri
When: 15th of August
“Panigiri” is an old traditional village festival organised mainly during the summer months throughout Greece on different dates. Usually when each place’s patron saint is celebrated. But all Greeks admit that from all Greek festivals, the panigiria in Ikaria are the most vivid, lively, cheerful ones – with those on the 15th of August, dedicated to Virgin Mary, probably the most memorable.
These village festivals are a fundamental part of the Ikarian culture and it’s not rare to have more than 3 panigiria per week during summer. If you choose Ikaria for your summer vacations you will come across at least one of them. It is a huge social event where people get together. Dancing hand in hand Ikariotikos (the local traditional dance), feast and drink from the evening till the next morning. Everybody is welcome, locals and tourists alike. Thousands of people come to Ikaria from far and wide just to participate in this feast!
On the 15th of August alone, there are 9 different panigiria all over Ikaria. The most successful is considered the one that lasted the longer, attracted the most people and had the biggest enjoyment among the guests. From all the Greek festival, Ikariotiko panigiri will definitely steal your hearts. I know, because it stole mine.