Posts Tagged ‘Greece’

January Saints: St. Basil (330-379)

December 30, 2009

Vasilis means royal and is a very common name in Greece. The English equivalent is Basil, perhaps the most famous one being Basil Fawlty, and many Greeks by this name sometimes call themselves Bill or Billy in English. The female form is Vasiliki and the nickname is often Vasso.

The saint behind this name is Agios Vasilios (St. Basileus) and he was one of the Three Hierarchs, or Church Fathers, of Christianity. The main church of Skiathos is named after them and here you will find many icons of St. Basil, St. Gregory and St. John. St. Basil is also “Ai-Vasilis” or Father Christmas to the Greeks and this is why Greek children traditionally get their presents on New Years Eve, as St. Basil is celebrated on January 1 (his death day).

St. Basil came from Cappadocia (today’s Turkey) and was born to a wealthy, Christian family where several members were saints. For example, his grandfather had died a martyr’s death, his grandmother was St. Macrina, the patron of widows, and four of his siblings were later canonised.

As his family was rich, young St. Basil was very well educated and he studied law and rhetoric in both Constantinople and Athens. His class-mate and best friend was St. Gregory, another of the Three Hierarchs, and they remained close for their whole lives. At one point, their fellow student was Julian the Apostate who obviously was not too impressed with the new religion; when he came to power he persecuted and killed many Christians, amongst others St. Reginos of Skopelos, who was executed for refusing to return to the old gods.

When St. Basil was 27 he was baptised and decided to stop being a lawyer. Instead, he went on a life-altering journey to the Middle East where he tried to live an ascetic life, which unfortunately ended up ruining his health. The strict diet damaged his liver so badly that he died before reaching 50. Meeting and living with the monks and hermits in Palestine and Egypt made a deep impression on St. Basil and when he returned home, he founded a monastery near the Black Sea.  Although he did agree with the austere life a monk must lead, St. Basil also believed that this, in excess, could border on self-obsession and come dangerously close to hubris, and therefore stated that hard work and studies were just as important and that a monk should find a balance between the two. This inspired and altered monastic life to such a degree, that St. Basil today is considered the father of communal monasticism.

At the age of 40 St. Basil became a bishop and quite a difficult one too. Here we come to one of the more interesting aspects of his personality: whilst fellow saints such as St. Nicholas and St. Spyridon were described as mild-mannered and humble, St. Basil could be very temperamental and argumentative. He especially disliked priests who acquired personal property and civil servants who did not do their job properly. As he had been a lawyer, he was very well versed in the order of things and knew how to present his case against corrupt judges and their unfair trials and he also disapproved of church officials using pompous language to seem holier than thou. This, of course, made him unpopular with the powers that ruled and the Emperor banished him several times, with little success, one might add, as St. Basil was popular with the people.

On the other hand, St. Basil was very generous and gave away much of his fortune to the poor. He was the first one to found a public hospital and a poorhouse and he used to organise soup-kitchens when famine struck. One of his main missions in life was to convert thieves and prostitutes and he would often defend those that had been treated unfairly by the authorities.

In Greece Vasilopita, Basil’s pie, is baked for the New Year. It is a symbol of St. Basil’s acts of charity towards the poor in times of food shortages and a coin is always hidden in it. The pie is cut in several pieces: one for St. Basil, one of Christ, one for the house and one for each family member. Whoever gets the coin gets fortune for the coming year. It is also St. Basil’s many good deeds that have made him the Orthodox Father Christmas, rather than St. Nicholas. St. Basil is also the patron saint of hospital workers as well as the protector of teachers.

In icons, St. Basil is depicted as a thin, dark haired man as he died quite young. He has a long, two-pointed beard and he wears a Bishop’s robe and carries the Holy Scriptures in one hand. On Skiathos, there are two churches dedicated to him: on in Kastro and the other is the Church of the Three Hierarchs, the main church in town.

The herb Basil is named so not because of the saint, but rather because of its etymology (royal). Legend has it that St. Helen found the Holy Cross because Basil grew on the spot and so, Basil represents Christ the King. Orthodox priests often sprinkle Holy Water with Basil leaves and it is perhaps no coincidence that this has become a symbol of love and faith as opposed to the pagan, ancient Greek belief that it was a symbol of hate.

To anyone called Vasilis, Vasiliki, Basil etc. chronia polla and a Happy New Year to everyone else!

More about saints on


Christmas – a Dangerous Time of Joy

December 19, 2009

We all know that Easter is the most important religious holiday of the year in Greece but Christmas is, of course, also celebrated. Anyone that has lived in the country for a while will recognise the lighted boats and Christmas trees, the blinking balconies that make whole neighbourhoods look like a UFO has just landed, and the young children singing Christmas Carols from door to door.

Like most of the customs in the western world, Christmas has a well-documented pagan origin and perhaps the best known one is the Roman solstice festivities, celebrated on December 25.  Another ancient remnant is the superstition concerning the Kallikánzari, evil looking little demons that emerge from the depths of the earth on Christmas Day and remain here for 12 days. Tradition has it that they try to break into people’s houses through the chimneys and if they succeed, they do everything they can to pester the inhabitants: they urinate on the food, extinguish the fire, steal things and turn the milk sour. Tip: when the fire crackles it is a sign of them approaching! To this day, many Greeks keep their fires going all through the holidays to keep the goblins away and they will sprinkle the rooms of the house with Holy Water every morning. Tradition has it that the Kallikánzari are ancient soldiers that were killed in battle but never laid to rest and so, they have turned into a kind of vampires or zombies. They finally disappear on the 6th of January when the Greeks celebrate the Baptism of Christ (Theofánia) by throwing crosses in the water.

During the Christmas holidays children run around in little groups and knock on doors and enter cafes and shops eagerly asking “na poúme, na poúme” (shall we sing?) and if the answer is yes, they race through a few verses as quickly as possible (after all, time is money), accompanied by hurriedly played triangles, to get rewarded with a few coins. These Greek carols are called Kálanda, from the Latin Calandae, the first days of the month, and are about the birth of Christ, well-wishes for the coming year etc. Sometimes the children carry small wooden boats, which again stems from the ancient world. In ancient Greece, children would go from house to houses during these days, singing very similar songs and the boat represented the arrival of the god Dionysus.

For the Orthodox that want to take Holy Communion on Christmas Day a long fast precedes the 25th but afterwards they make up for it by consuming all sorts of delicacies: turkey or pork, sweet cakes and Christópsomo (Christ Bread). Because St. Basil is Father Christmas in Greece, children are not supposed to get any presents until New Year’s Day (St. Basil’s Day) but these days the “rules” are normally bent.

Kalá Christoúgenna to everyone!

The Benaki Museum

December 14, 2009

If you have a few days to spend in Athens, a must is the Benaki Museum! The building is neo-classical and was originally a private home, belonging to the very prominent Benaki family. They were wealthy Greeks of the Diaspora in Egypt but also owned property in Greece. Adonis Benakis (1873-1954) was the one to start collecting various artifacts, mainly Islamic art at first and later ancient Greek and Byzantine and eventually this would turn into one of the largest private collections in the world. His sister, Penelope Delta (1874-1941) was the first author of children’s books in Modern Greek and therefore deserves a mention.

The Benaki Museum now houses over 50.000 artifacts and the visitor can literally walk through Greek history, starting with pre-historic objects and ending with 19th century costumes, artworks and items. The museum is a short walking distance from Syntagma square: just walk along Vasilissa Sofias avenue and you will soon see it on your left hand side. It also has a wonderful restaurant on the roof terrace!

Here follows a few photographs with captions of what you can see in the museum. (The reference points can be found in our book A History of Skiathos.)

Ancient mummy portraits from Egypt. These portraits are said to have inspired later icon painting.

Byzantine icons. Here a very unusual motif: The Virgin breast feeding baby Jesus.

A private Greek home during Ottoman Rule.

Traditional costumes from Skopelos (left) and Skiathos.

Lord Byron's actual weapons and mobile work desk. He played an important part in the Struggle for Independence and died in Greece.

Official court dresses from the second king of Greece, George I's, rule. It was his wife, Queen Olga, who supposedly ran into the Evagelistria Monastery, which at the time was forbidden for women. Legend has it that she got her punishment though!

November saints: Kounistra

November 1, 2009

The Virgin Mary is the patron saint of Skiathos, and the icon representing her power as patron of the island is called Kounistra. The name has been a source of debate for hundreds of years but the most imaginative one is that it means “the Swinging” as it supposedly was found swinging in a tree by the hermit Symeon in 1650. The old monk had seen a shining light coming from the forest he lived next to and after months of praying and fasting he finally found its source. It was the Kounistra icon, an image of the Virgin as a young girl. Too old and weak to climb the tree, Symeon spent the night praying by the tree and at the break of dawn he hurried to Kastro to tell the locals the news. This was during the Ottoman occupation and Kastro at the time was inhabited both by Greeks and Turks and they all went to the tree to witness the miracle. Some may wonder why the Turks went as they were Moslem but then we forget that Christ and the Virgin are both recognized as holy by the Koran; in the holy scripture of Islam Mary is referred to as Myriam Ana. Apart from that, the Turks would have been just as curious as the Greeks to see the icon in the tree. The honour of climbing up the tree and retrieving the icon was given to the main priest, one Ioannis Pappas (lit. John Priest) and it was then carried back to Kastro in a holy procession. Ever since then, the Kounistra icon protects Skiathos.

Kounistra has been credited with a myriad of miracles, mostly to do with health, but what is even more fascinating is the fact that there are whispers of acts of punishment and anger by Her. When an iconographer wanted to restore the icon he met the Virgin in a dream, where She threatened to kill him if he laid a finger on Her. A local tried to cut down the tree She had been found in and died instantly. When a group of friends disrespected John the Baptist by having a party by his church in the 1920’s they were all killed by lightning. The lightning story is actually true and visitors can see the shrine dedicated in the victims’ honour but whether or not they were killed in an act of holy vengeance can, of course, be discussed. One version of the story even tells us that the Kounistra icon was found by the bodies!


The Kounistra icon carried in a holy procession.

Kounistra is today housed in the main church of the Three Hierarchs in Skiathos town, along with an icon depicting the Retrieval. Thousands of tamata, votive offerings made by people in the hope of miracles, surround the icon and a part of the tree rests against the shrine. A copy of the icon is also kept in the Kounistra monastery that was built some years after the icon was found. The first abbot of this monastery was old Symeon himself but after it was closed in the 19th century the icon was moved to town. Today, the beautiful monastery is open for visitors and it is well worth going to.

The Virgin Mary of Kounistra is celebrated on November 21. The day before, the icon is carried in a procession from Skiathos town to the monastery and then a wake is held all night. The next day it is brought back and some say that the icon is much heavier to carry back, as the Virgin is sad to leave her home.

To read more, you can buy the book: A History of Skiathos

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Winter is here!

October 29, 2009

The island is quiet, the sky is gray and every now again the wind picks up and it starts to rain. You walk up Papadiamanti Street and it is next to empty and so is the Old Harbour. In other words, it is fantastic!

During summer, the perhaps most frequently asked question from holidaymakers is “What’s it like here in the winter” and if the above description is not enough, this might give you a better idea!


Papadiamanti Street in winter.

Truth be told, Skiathos in winter is not for everyone! Many find it boring and choose to go away for some time. Others choose to stay and moan non stop. But for the rest of us, this is the time when Skiathos is at its best: you can go for long walks, spe

nd endless afternoons in the little taverns and cafes, meet up with friends, watch DVD’s, read, write, paint or whatever it is that makes you happy.

This might also be the time to start taking Greek lessons. For more info, please look up

Yesterday was a National Holiday, in Greece known as Ochi day, No day. When Mussolini asked the Greek general Metaxa to be allowed to use Greece for military purposes during the Second World War the latter denied his request. Greece was subsequently occupied by the Italians and then the Germans and suffered greatly. Hundreds of thousands of civilians starved to death or were executed but nevertheless, the fact that the country resisted has given cause to feel proud.


Local children parade in traditional costumes.

Skiathos suffered greatly during the war and there are many stories about heroism, public executions as well as betrayal. More about that some other time.

On Skiathos, October 28 is celebrated with parades on the harbour. Flower wreaths are put on the memorial listing those that fell and ther ceremony is attended by the church and the military. Unfortunately it was cold and overcast this year but people still made it to the harbour.

Kalo Chimona to everyone!