Modern Greek Culture and traditions of Greece

The location of Greece on the crossroads of 3 continents has had a dramatic effect on the Greek civilisation and the culture of Greece. Using the Greek High School history books as an example, civilisation and culture began with the history of older civilisations like the Mesopotamian, the Middle East and Egypt and then moving on to incorporate Prehistoric Greece and Ancient Greek History.

As a result, the Greeks took many elements from all these ancient civilisations around them, adapting the ones that were close to their nature and way of life whilst the remaining elements served to further develop and move them forward, like the development of astronomy, sculpture and architecture.

Because of these developments a unique civilisation and culture was created which always had the human at its very centre. From these things sprung the renowned Greek philosophy, democracy the arts and sciences that is to be read in any major publication about ancient Greece.

It was these things that were created by the ancient Greeks which was offered to the rest of human kind. Still today the Greeks do what their ancestors did 3000 years ago, they hold on to traditional and cultural elements and affections both from the east and the west. The links with the East are still strong and the effect of Byzantine Greece  can be seen today in the Greek Orthodox religion, and modern Greek Music.

Greek Lifestyle and Cultural Habits

Greeks are expressive people. It is the kind of expressionism that manifests itself in ten people talking at once; two people in what seems like a loud quarrel who are really best friends discussing which cafe to go to; and women wearing clothes that are best suited for a Paris fashion show.

They are also caffeinated people. Greek coffee, which was called Turkish coffee until the 1974 Turkish incursion into Cyprus, is incredibly strong and serves as breakfast for most people over 40. For the younger generation, frappe (a cold, frothy blend of instant coffee and milk) is the drink of choice and also serves as breakfast. In offices throughout the country a frappe mixer sits in every kitchen so that the employees are properly caffeinated throughout the day.

The late-night Mediterranean style of living applies equally well in Greece as elsewhere. Restaurants don’t start filling up until 10 P.M. and dinner with friends is often followed by drinks until 2 or 3 in the morning. Even on Sunday nights you’ll find tavernas, small restaurants serving local food, packed until late. Clubs don’t start getting busy until around midnight and the more hard-core dance clubs begin around 2 A.M. and go until 9 or 10 in the morning.

Songs play an important role in Greek culture. Rebetika music is a type of music that is distinctly Greek yet no one knows quite where it came from. Its earliest forms could not have been sung before about 1850, but it was the refugees from Asia Minor in the 1920’s who popularized it. To this day, you will see young and old people alike singing or mouthing the words to these songs when they are played in restaurants, clubs, and cafes.

Greeks are social creatures. It is extremely rare to find someone alone in a bar or a restaurant. Greeks prefer the endless company of their family and friends whether it is for dinner, drinks, or their annual vacation.

Vacation in Greece means August. In this month what seems like every person in the entire country takes off for the islands. Ferries are packed, hotels and restaurants are bulging, and beaches become sardine cans. If you make the mistake of asking why Greeks don’t travel outside of Greece for vacation you’ll get a fairly standard response, “Because its too expensive, besides the best places on earth are in Greece, why leave a place with such nice beaches and weather?”

Style and good looks are extremely important for the younger generation. It is rare to find a woman who does not have the most fashionable makeup, hair, and clothes even to go out for a coffee. Men of the same generation will rarely be dressed in anything except jeans. Older generations normally dress cool and casual and in general you won’t feel out of place if you do as well. The recent emphasis on fashion seems indicative of a materialistic culture that is taking over Greece. A shockingly high number of women know everything possible about cars for one sole reason – if you drive an expensive car, you must have lots of money to spend on her as well.

There is a fair amount of competition between the two largest cities: Athens and Thessaloniki. Athenians will make fun of the way Thessalonikians speak – they tend to speak the letter “L” with a very heavy sound. But Thessalonikians will try to explain that Athenians have no life because they work too much. It is, of course, all in good fun.

Greeks, wherever they are from, are extremely hospitable. In rural areas don’t be surprised if you are invited over for coffee, dinner, or even to spend the night. Even if the people are poor they will never accept money, to them it is considered rude.

Greeks, whether in someone’s home or in a restaurant, eat Greek food. In the larger cities there are ethnic restaurants, but the vast majority of restaurants will serve only Greek food. In general Greeks dislike spicy food and rarely eat fast food. McDonald’s, Goody’s (the Greek version of McDonald’s), and a sandwich chain called Everest do good business, but there are still more people who eat at a traditional tavernas than fast food.

Smoking could be considered the national pastime. In virtually every place possible you’ll see someone smoking whether it is allowed or not. In fact, Greeks consume more cigarettes per capita than any other European country. Yet, the weekly fresh produce markets that are held in every city are the highlight of the week. Women with rolling shopping carts wheel their way through with what seems like enough food for a month. The tomatoes are as big as softballs, the watermelons too heavy to carry, and all of the produce is fresh from the farm.


The Ancient elements of Greek music can be found in the music of the Greeks of the Black sea (Pontos), in the ancient sound of the goat skin bagpipes (Tsampounes) on many Greek islands , in the sounds of the flute of the Greek shepherds in northern Greece and in the sounds of the Cretan Lyra in Crete. All of these Byzantine and ancient elements come together with the Smyrneika. Smyrneika is the music that the Greeks of Asia Minor brought with them and is the most typical of Greek folk music. However, as in the past so as today, the Greeks love to mix things, with the consequence that Greek music has adapted and adopted the musical elements from the West including Latin rhythms and sounds, Italian music, Rock and Blues as well as rap and hip hop music.


In Greece, a priest can marry (although this is not allowed for monks and bishops). Furthermore, following a divorce, Greeks can remarry in church. As a nation, although the Greeks are religious they are not seriously devout or fundamentalist in their approach to religious matters. The huge majority of Greeks will go only occasionally to the church for a service. This may be for a marriage, funeral or baptism. Everyone will go to the church on Good Friday and Easter Saturday partly to listen and follow the Liturgy but mainly for the spectacular firework displays that are a traditional part of a Greek Easter.

Inside the church, the congregation will mostly consist of the older generation of especially women. Having said this, almost every Greek, young or old, will cross themselves when passing by a church and, in cases of danger and need, will cry out “help me Christ and Mary”. Yes, the faith is deep and strong for almost every Greek even if they don’t go to church often or don’t take communion every Sunday leaving such religious rituals to once or twice a year.

One of the main reasons for this is the Greek spirit of independence and freedom in the Greek culture, a spirit which lives within every Greek soul. Greeks have their strong faith to Christ and Mary but also don’t want to be bound by rules that have been dictated from several emperors, patriarchs and monks of the old Byzantium era.

Greek Traditions


There is a main period of feasting that covers the 40 days before Easter week , the Sarakosti (the name derives from the number 40, Saranta). This feast starts at the end of the four week Greek Carnival time (Apokries) which begins around the middle of March on Clear Monday (Kathari Deftera).

Clear Monday is the first Monday that follows the 4 weeks of Apokria. Even though the Greeks will not feast for the next 40 days, on this particular day, the Kathari Deftera, they will go to the countryside to celebrate with special feast food (Vegetables, Pickles, taramosalata, grilled octopus, lots of wine and the special flat bread made specially for this day (the Lagana).

A part of the tradition beloved by children is kite flying. As a child myself I used to make my own kite for that day using newspaper, string and straws. Today the children by plastic ready-made kites from the shops but the enjoyment and the tradition is still very much alive.


The Feast of Klydonas and the jumping over fire during St John’s celebration at the end of June is one of the traditions that has slowly disappeared in the modern Greek culture. The reason why this is so is not surprising. As the cities got bigger and more crowded there was no longer anywhere that one could safely pile up logs and make a fire in the neighbourhood streets. 40 years ago though this was an exciting event that could be experienced in nearly every neighbourhood. A quaint tradition that happened the day before this Feast of Klydonas was for young unmarried girls to try and fish out of a jar of water a ring or coin that had been previously placed there. The Jar would be placed on the roof of buildings and covered by a white cloth and, the next evening, all the neighbours would gather at the doorstep of a house for the opening of the jar with the (Amilito Nero) the silent water. The young girls would fish around in the jar without being able to see deep into its contents, then as one was picking out of the jar a ring or a coin, an older woman would recite poems from the popular Almanac Calendar. These poems were a kind of prophecy for the girls and would ensure that they would find their true love to marry in the near future. This ceremony was followed with the jumping over the fire that had been lit in the middle of the street.

The Greek Family

Family is a very important part of Greek life. Traditionally, children would grow up in a very tight household and only gain some semblance of freedom once married – a girl would move away and live with her husband’s family and a boy once married would be afforded the right to move next door. Even today it is very common for families to own one apartment building in which the grandparents live in one unit, the parents in another, and the children in a third.

Most Greeks still live with their parents until they are married. And since the age at which most Greeks get married is moving closer to 30 years old, you may be surprised at how many seemingly “grown-up” Greeks live at home. Living with one’s parents is an affect of culture but is also an economic reality in modern Greece. In the largest cities, it is simply economically impossible to live alone and taking roommates is a very foreign concept. Some students move away from home to attend university but usually move back once graduated.

Of course, family traditions are stronger in more rural areas and more likely to be broken in the larger cities. To this day there are still arranged marriages in the most remote and traditional villages, but it is a custom you would never hear of in a large city.

Greek families also have fairly defined roles. The father is seen as the head of the household and the women are expected to care for the house and family members. Yet as in most patriarchal families, it is quite often the woman who is making decisions behind the scene. Even in modern Greece you will see more men sitting in traditional cafes enjoying a leisurely coffee and more women carrying shopping bags and buying things at the market. The roles are not as strong as a generation ago, but they still exist.

Younger Greeks show more willingness to shed their social roles, but not completely. Trendy cafes are filled with equal numbers of young men and women, although by the fashionable flair and style the women present themselves, you get the impression that having a frappe is more of a mating ritual than an exploitation of a right not previously granted upon their mothers.

In the northern part of Greece there is actually a festival that is based on the traditional roles of men and women. Called Yinekokratia, perhaps best translated as Gynaecocracy, it is celebrated on January 8 of every year. Men are expected to stay at home and do housework while women spend the day in the cafes and other social places where the men usually gather.


The Marriage traditions in Greece vary slightly from place to place. In the islands you will find a more intensive and colourful tradition going on. In the Dodecanese, for example, the celebration starts a couple of days before when relatives and friends will go to the new house of the couple “to make the marriage bed”.

This is like the kitchen party found in some Western countries or similar to adding to the new couples dowry. However, instead of gifts for the house, money (and sometime serious money) inside envelopes is given. Usually the couple’s fathers will set the ball rolling by throwing money on the marriage bed as a gift to the new couple.

Depending on their financial status, the amounts of money the fathers throw can sometimes be very large indeed. This is followed by friends and relatives who will add to this their envelope with money, afterwards a baby will be placed on the bed in order to bring prosperity and fertility to the couple. On the day of the wedding, from early in the afternoon, the two houses of the bride and groom’s families will be very busy. At the bride’s house, the bride’s girlfriends will dress her and make her beautiful for the marriage ceremony, whilst at the house of the groom the main event of the preparations will be in full swing.

As his friends are dressing him and getting him ready, the gathering of friends and family of the groom sing the marital song. In the meanwhile visitors, friends and relatives have a great drinking party in the main lounge or on the veranda if it is good weather. The party is usually accompanied by live music played by local musicians. A half hour before the ceremony the gathering will go to the church.

Traditionally musicians will follow as well, playing wedding songs, and this can still be seen – especially on the islands of Greece. At the gate of the church, the groom will wait for the bride and when she comes the ceremony will continue with a small liturgy, the exchanging of vows and the dance of Hisais.

The Priest and the bride and groom must walk 3 times around the altar whilst the priest sings the Hisaie dance. The marriage ceremony is followed by a huge party usually held at a big restaurant with music and dancing. Traditionally, the best man or best woman of the bride and groom will be the Godfather or Godmother of the first child born to the couple.

Greek culture is full of festive customs, some of which are maintain to this day. Customs like the the Christmas tree, the breaking of the pomegranate during the new year’s eve, the decorated boat and the Vasilopita are familiar to many Greeks but in fact many of them don’t their symbolism. We will explain here where they came from and what they really mean.

Christmas customs

The Christmas tree

Strange as it may sound, the Christmas tree is a foreign custom that came to Greece from the early 19th century by the Greek king Otto. In Greek homes, however, it began to appear much more later. Until then, the traditionally decorated ship was what the Greeks decorated during the holidays. According to the Hellenic Folklore Research Center, Greeks, as a predominantly naval people, the Christmas boat was common in coastal areas. 

When the children sang the carols, they took it with them and the housewives filled it with cookies and other traditional sweets. The boat, however, although very beautiful and special, was identified with the separation of the sailors from their families and left a bittersweet feeling. Gradually, the tree, as a symbol of life, won and displaced the Greek ship which was gradually forgotten.

Christmas wreath

On Christmas Eve the front door of the houses is decorated with a wreath of fir with Christmas decorations. According to tradition, the wreath brings good luck to the occupants of the house. It is also customary in some villages to hang garlic braids outside the door of the houses.vOn which they nail carnations to chase away the evil eye that “hounds” the happiness of their home.

New year customs

The breaking of the pomergranate

With the new year coming, breaking the pomegranate is the first move many Greeks do in order “to make their home lucky”. But how did the pomegranate relate to this custom? This fruit has always symbolized euphoria and fertility. Therefore the reason to break it is to scatter the seeds and its good fortune in the family and the house. In fact, they used to give it to children for even more luck because of their innocence.  

Vasilopita ( the pie of St Vasilios )

According to tradition, st Vasilios from Caesarea found a trick to distribute money to the poor,  he hid coins in pies and offered them to them. This, in turn, explains the coin that Greeks still put in the pie and the one who finds it is the lucky one. Vasilopita it may be used as a dessert and enjoy it from New Year’s morning. In some parts of Greece and especially in Thessaly and Macedonia it is meat pie or cheese pie.