Greek family values are so strong that elements of tradition and culture transcend many generations. A young Greek man with a family in the U.S. may still honor and respect the wishes of a great-great Greek grandparent whom he has never met. Of course, this is a generalization, and some of these traditions are changing and becoming diluted as families become more "Americanized." However, core values remain the same generation after generation. First-generation, Greek-American Dr. Peter Zafirides shares, "As Greeks, we have an immense amount of pride in maintaining all of the traditions as best we can. Respect for each other, our heritage and education are priorities." Learn more about the family values, religion, and cultural practices in Greece.
The Greek culture is centered around family; the family name, connection, and roles within the family are valued and upheld.
Respect for the Family Name
The family unit is the foundation for Greek society and life. A family is to provide emotional and economic support to an individual, and family relationships are close-knit. Social life for most Greeks includes their relatives, and extended family also plays a strong role in a person's life.
In Greek culture, the actions of the family members are seen as reflecting on the rest of the family. Therefore, acting with honor is important to Greeks. Dr. Zafirides says there is "importance of maintaining respect for our family name within the Greek community." This means speaking with praise about one's family's achievements, disputing any criticism of family members, and any insult toward a person can be interpreted as slandering the whole family.
The Family School
The family is actually considered to be a child's first school. Schooling starts the day the child is born but does not necessarily end at the age of legal adulthood. Rather, families remain close and offer input and advice to children long after they are married and raising their own families. Zafirides adds that, "Education is critical within the values of a Greek family. From an early age, I remember being told about the importance of education and how it provided freedom, respect, and autonomy. Although the goal of education was to ensure your success as an individual, there is a great emphasis on family. Not just the immediate family unit, but also an emphasis that family includes multiple generations living in harmony with each other."
Family structure in Greece reflects the importance of family in Greek society. Households in Greece today still consist of several generations. Children often live with their parents until they get married. The birth of the first child is a very important event; the child is showered with attention and cajoled to eat. It used to be that Greece was a male-dominated society; public life was reserved for men and the home was reserved for women. However, the status of women has advanced greatly. Women are now represented in business sectors and at all levels of government. Women are also able to inherit property equal to that of men.
Though a more social stratification existed in ancient Greece, current social status is marked by a high degree of mobility and depends on various factors such as occupation and education. Higher education is highly valued; thousands of students compete every year for a small number of university spots.
Engagement and Marriage
Generally, Greeks are expected to marry other Greeks. Dr. Zafirides shares, "Although this has changed over the years, marrying someone Greek is generally preferred by the family. I do believe though, given the realities of contemporary American life, Greek families still hold hope that their children will be happy in their marriages, whether it's agreed upon or not."
It is still customary in Greece to get engaged before marriage, and for the man to ask for the woman's hand from her father and close family. During this time, the bride and groom are given gifts. The couple exchanges wedding rings that are worn on the left hand, and after the wedding, the rings are worn on the right hand. The engagement period may last for years.
A few days before the wedding ceremony, a Krevati is held. This means the bride and her single attendants gather around the couple's future marriage bed to put on fresh bedding and decorations, throw gifts, money, and small children onto the bed. This symbolizes prosperity and fertility for the couple. Greeks truly value marriage and wish to see the marriages of family members succeed. Zafirides shares that he is thrilled to have found a lovely wife, Sophia, who just happens to be Greek as well.
Dr. Zafirides also explains how religion is interwoven into daily Greek living. "Religion is a very influential part of the Greek culture. This is understandable as Greece has one specific religion, namely the Greek Orthodox faith." Zafirides views the Greek church as one of the elements holding the traditional culture together for American Greeks. The church is a place where Greeks get together regularly and discuss their shared values and beliefs. He states, "I would have to believe that for most Greek-Americans today, our orthodox religion is an important part of our overall identity and link to our heritage."
The majority of Greeks follow the Christian faith. Muslims, Jewish, and Roman Catholics are other religious groups that are also represented in Greek society.
Festivities and Cultural Practices
Greece shares some holidays with the rest of the world, yet the country also has some of its own ways of celebrating them. No matter the celebration, Greek family values, national pride, and hospitality are evident.
Name Day Celebrations
Most Greeks are named after a religious saint. Those who have such a name are celebrated by the church on a given day of the year. On this "name day" of a person, friends and family visit without an invitation and offer wishes and small gifts. The hosts offer sweets and hors d'oeuvres to the visitors. In Greece, name days have actually become more important than birthdays.
The carnival in Greece is called "Apokries." This festival lasts for two weeks; it begins with a feast on Meatfare Sunday and ends with the first day of Lent, called Clean Monday. People wear costumes and attend parties at bars and in the streets. The Carnival is thought to originate from paganism, more specifically from old festivities that worshipped Dionysus, the god of wine and feast.
Clean Monday, or Lent Monday, is the first day of Lent, a 40-day period of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (charity). On Clean Monday families typically go for a picnic and fly kites.
Easter is the most important celebration in Greece, even more than Christmas. Women will often dye eggs red, and bake buns. On Good Friday, the Epitaphios, or tomb of Christ with its icon, is decorated with flowers and taken out of the church and carried around the village followed by a slow procession. The procession returns to the church where believers kiss the image of Christ.
Greek Independence Day
Greek Independence Day celebrates the declaration of war against the Ottoman empire on March 25, 1821. The Annunciation of the Virgin Mary is also celebrated on this day.
The Ohi Day
The Ohi Day on October 28th is when Greeks celebrate the day that dictator Metaxas refused to let the Italians invade during World War II. Most Greeks put up the Greek flag outside their homes and there is a parade to commemorate the day.
Food and Coffee
Food is as central to daily life for Greeks as it is for holidays; people love to gather to eat, drink and socialize. Food includes various tasty dishes. Staples in Greek cuisine include olives, grapes, and wheat. Many traditional dishes have become famous all over the world, such as the dessert baklava, and moussaka, a ground meat and eggplant dish. Lamb, goat, and pork are consumed as main dishes along with salads that have olives and feta cheese.
Greeks also love to gather for a chat over coffee. In Greece, it is quite common for people to go out for coffee after dinner and stay out for an hour or two just chatting and enjoying one another's company.
Philotimi means public honor and social responsibility by which Greeks are measured by society. It includes hospitality, which for Greeks is not only a privilege but also a duty. Visitors to homes often bring gifts of sweets and liquor to their hosts and hosts return the favor in kind. Gatherings involve eating, drinking, music, dancing, and lively discussion. The goal is to reach kefi, a collective sense of relaxation and happiness.
In 1821, Greece rose up after almost four centuries of colonial rule by the Ottoman Empire. Shortly after, Greece struggled with developing a concept of what it meant exactly to be Greek. The Greek state did develop its own modern educational system that helped shape the Greek national identity.
In 1822 the first Greek National Assembly advocated for free elementary education for all Greek citizens. The first schools had three common goals: to create a literate populace, expand the agricultural and commercial sectors of the country, and unite the Greeks around a national identity. The Greek Orthodox Christian religion continued to be integrated into the school curriculum and Greek history was taught from the ancient past to the present. The teaching of Greek history was viewed as something to help develop patriotism and national unity amongst the Greek people, and it did strengthen the Greek people's loyalty to the nation.
For most Greeks today, being Greek means speaking the language, being Greek Orthodox, inhabiting lands that have been inhabited by Greeks for centuries, and being a descendant of the ancient Greeks.
Greeks in America
Even though some believe Greek culture is becoming diluted and Americanized for Greek Americans, Zafirides believes it depends on the family and their commitment to traditional Greek values. "There is a very strong pride in being a Greek, even today." Zafirides reflects, "For individuals where the culture is important to them, there is always a strong community of Greeks to be found. As I sit and reflect about whether my sons will maintain the Greek traditions like my family or my wife's family did, I have no doubt they will have the opportunity to do so if it is important to them."
Greek Values Endure
Much of Greek family values and cultural values can be linked to the independence from the Ottoman empire in the 19th century, and the collaboration of the Greek people in educating their children and forming a shared identity. "As Greeks, we have an immense amount of pride in maintaining all of the traditions as best we can. Respect for each other, our heritage, and education are priorities," says Dr. Zafirides.