Known as Greece’s ‘little Easter’ the 15th of August, or dekapentavgoustos, when families flock from all over the world to celebrate the festival of the Panagia - or Virgin Mary - with their loved ones, is a magical occasion throughout Greece but even more so here in Crete, Greece’s friendliest island. From feasting and dancing in the streets, to food festivals and picturesque religious celebrations here are 15 reasons to join in.
To live "Easter in summer¨
Crete’s biggest celebration is at Easter when Christ’s tomb is carried around the villages on Good Friday and then everyone rushes to the church at midnight on Saturday to light their candles at the holy light, before celebrating Christ’s resurrection with barbecued lamb on Sunday.
If you can’t make it to Greece at this magical and moving time, however, the 15th August celebrations for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary are very similar, only with blazing sunshine and clear blue skies guaranteed.
#2 | To eat amazing food
After several weeks of fasting, the 15th August is a riot of food and flavours with meat at the top of the menu. In the west of Crete, near Chania, villagers prepare rooster or chicken slow-cooked and served with gamopilafo, the delicious blend of rice, chicken broth and stakovoutyro butter that’s traditionally served to newly wed couples. In the Rethymnon area lamb is the preferred meat, usually prepared antikristo: cut into four pieces, salted and then cooked around an open fire on large wooden skewers so that the meat roasts in its own fat.
Other succulent specialties to look out for at this festive time of year include spicy homemade sausages, pasta with fresh anthotyro sheep’s cheese and rice-and-herb- stuffed zucchini flowers.
#3 | To mingle with pilgrims
According to custom, many Orthodox Christians begin fasting on the 31st July in preparations for performing their tama on the 15th August when they pray to the Panagia for good health for themselves and their families. If you’re near any of the churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary at this time you’ll see these pilgrims walking to their destined monastery - sometimes they cover great distances, sleeping out under the stars and sharing food with their fellow pilgrims.
One of the most important of these so called ‘pilgrimage churches’ is Panagia Harakiani near the seaside resort of Bali, 38 kilometres from Rethymnon. Panagia Harakiani, which belongs to the neighbouring Attali monastery, is renowned for its miraculous icon which is said to have been found here under a rock (charaki) by a local shepherd.
Thousands of faithful flock on foot to follow the dekapentaristes here: camping outside the monastery for 15 days before the festival of the Panagia - also known as The Dormition of the Theotokos.
#4 | To celebrate all month long
Although the main festivals are held on the 15th, the whole month of August is known as ‘the month of the Panagia’. With festivals and spectacular religious events related to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary held all month long, this is a wonderful time to discover Crete.
#5 | To visit a living shrine
Although the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is a magnificent event in all of the churches dedicated to the Panagia, there are certain churches and monasteries where the celebrations are particularly renowned.
One of Crete’s best known sites of worship, the 12th century church of Panagia Kera in the traditional village of Kritsa, is a short drive from Abaton Island. This stone-built church’s main celebration is on the 8th September, but Panagia Kera still attracts immense crowds on the 15th August, who come here to worship whilst admiring some of the finest Byzantine frescos on Crete. Alternatively, make a beeline for Panagia Kalyviani, a nunnery on the fertile Messara Plain near the main town of Moires, which is famed for its 14th century Zoodochos Pigi chapel in which an icon of the annunciation was found in 1873.
The nunnery’s generous-hearted inmates are also renowned for building a nursing home and an orphanage, and carrying out countless other good works in the local community.
#6 | To learn ‘the 500 names’
Born out of their deep love for the Virgin Mary, Greeks have evolved some 500 words, or theotokonymia, to designate the mother of Jesus: some are taken from hymns and others are derived from the location of a particular Panagia. Perhaps the most unusual is Panagia Fidousa or Fidiotissa, meaning Our Lady of the Snakes. The name derives from a church on the island of Kefalonia where every year in August small fidi (snakes) appear in the church of Markopoulos. It’s said that if the snakes fail to appear, the island is sure to suffer an earthquake or some other natural disaster.
#7 | To enjoy the heady scent of basil
Basil might be something that you scatter on top of pizza in many parts of the world, but here in Crete this green and fragrant plant whose name derives from vasiliko, meaning ‘king’, can be found in every church during important religious festivals.
According to tradition St Helen, the mother of St Constantine the Great, set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 326AD in search of the True Cross of Christ and she found the place where the cross was hidden because of a basil plant growing nearby.
#8 | To take part in a panigiri
Whether it’s the smell of roasting meat, the taste of raki, the sound of Cretan music - and even the occasional gunshot - there’s nothing quite like a panigiri here in Crete.
Generally held to celebrate a saint’s name day, there are plenty of panigiri throughout the year but the celebrations for the Panagia, held on the 14th or 15th August, attract the biggest crowds - along with some of the best known Cretan musicians.
At the most popular festivals there’s usually a (small) entrance fee to cover the cost of your food. A set menu - usually meze followed by an oven-cooked meat dish and juicy chunks of water melon karpouzi for dessert - is served with plenty of raki or wine as musicians play on a central stage.
#9 | To live ‘the richest month of the year’
August in Crete is a time of ripening grapes, tables piled high with watermelon karpouzi, warm endless days, balmy seas and a festival nearly every day - it’s easy to see why Cretans say that the month of the Virgin Mary is ‘the richest time of the year’.
#10 | To discover local traditions
Centred on its beautiful Byzantine Panagia church - home to a miracle-working icon dating from the early 19th century - the mountain village of Mochos, 15 minutes drive from Abaton Island, is the perfect place to enjoy some of the local traditions in August.
Stroll cobbled streets to seek out tiny shops selling spices and olive oil, or sit at a kafeneion, order a raki and enjoy meze nibbles of hochlioi snails fried and doused in vinegar, and other local delights. If you’re lucky you might spot someone making trahana or xinochondros.
The world’s ‘oldest and healthiest food’ is made in Crete during the hot August months when cracked wheat and fermented milk are shaped into balls, dried in the sun, and then grated and stored in cloth bags. At certain times of the year you’ll find traditional local xinochondros pasta on the menu at Abaton’s award-winning Cretan Elemes restaurant.
#11 | To take part in a traditional food festival
Although panigiri are religious festivals, many regions also use the dekapentavgosto as a time to showcase some of their local culinary delights. Held in the village of Kantano near the seaside resort of Paleochora, the kalitsounia festival is a taste-packed celebration of the region’s traditional herb- or cheese-stuffed pies, whilst Tzermiadon’s potato festival at the end of August offers the chance to sample the humble speciality of this mountainous Lasithi village served in countless different ways.
One not to miss is the Shepherd’s festival in the traditional mountain village of Zoniana, an hour’s winding drive from Abaton Island Resort & Spa. During this lively, colourful festival you’ll meet the local shepherds and taste some of the cheeses – ranging from salty graviera to creamy, slightly sour xinomizithra – for which this region is famed.
#12 | To meet - and eat - like a local
Cretans take a lot of pride in their hospitality and filoxenia, or love of the stranger, is part of the local culture. After the 15th August mass – especially in the smaller villages - local women often prepare food which is served (for free) to everyone who attends the service.
#13 | To have a good excuse to explore
Abaton Island makes an ideal base for exploring during the month of the Panagia. Stunning churches within easy reach of Abaton Island Resort & Spa include Panagia Governiotissa, a delightful former monastery with colourful frescoes dating from the 16th century, and Panagia Kera one of the Lasithi region’s most beautiful religious edifices.
#14 | To see (and maybe join in with) those wonderful traditional dances
Ever since the Kourites, the mythical guardians of baby Zeus, danced and beat their shields to cover the sound of the infant crying, Cretans have expressed their emotions through song and dance.
Accompanied by the three-stringed lyra and the long-necked laouto, musicians sing rhyming couplets called mantinades, whilst nimble dancers pick out the intricate steps of pentozalis, syrtos and other popular dances.
It’s well worth learning one of two of those traditional dances if you want to join in the fun and dance until dawn!
#15 | To be in Crete at one of the happiest times of the year
The festival of the Assumption, when Cretan families flock from the cities - or from overseas – to be with their loved ones is a joyful time to be on the island. Don’t forget to wish everyone xronia polla! (may you be blessed with many years)!