Greece – Culture & People

The Greek language has existed for about 3,000 years, and is the oldest written language of Europe. The Greek that is spoken today has developed from ancient Greek, and is called ‘demotic’ Greek.

Many English words have Greek roots, for example, ‘biology’ comes from bios (life) and logos (word). Even the word ‘alphabet’ comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta. The word ‘bible’ comes from the Greek biblia, meaning ‘books’, and the original language of the Gospels was Greek. Did you know that many other English words have roots in the Greek language?


Public education is free, and children must attend school from the age of six to 15. Six years of primary school is followed by three years at the gymnasium, and an optional three years at the lyceum.

About 98 per cent of Greeks belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, and most are baptized and married by an Orthodox priest. Priests have long beards, and they wear black robes and black hats. They often play an important part in village life. When Greeks go into a Greek Orthodox church, they usually cross themselves, light a candle and kiss an icon (a religious painting) of Jesus, Mary or a saint. The congregation usually stands during the service.

The most important event in the religious year is not Christmas, but Easter, when great celebrations take place throughout the country. On the evening before Easter Sunday, people gather in the church and at midnight, everyone lights candles and says, “Christ is risen.” The next day, families roast lamb on spits and have a festive meal.

Most Greeks are named after saints. They usually celebrate their Saint’s Day, or Name Day, rather than their birthday. For example, on Saint George’s Day, everyone called George will be visited by friends and family and given presents. Villages often have a patron saint, and on the Saint’s Day all the inhabitants celebrate with feasting, music and dancing. The Name Day for Saint Basil (Vassilis in Greek) is on January 1, and is a day of celebration for everyone. Presents are exchanged and a special cake is baked.

Greece – Food and Drink

Greeks normally eat a very light breakfast, and have a large, late lunch at 2pm to 2pm.Traditional Greek food uses olive oil, and does not include large amounts of meat. Many dishes are made from vegetables, such as tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes and spinach. Fish, octopus and squid (calamari) are also very popular. Meat, especially lamb is eaten on festive days, and kebabs (souvlakia) are sold to eat on the street, or in cafes. Some Greek dishes, such as moussaka, have become popular outside Greece.Also,Greek yogurt, fetta cheese, Greek olives and taramasalata are sold in many supermarkets outside Greece.

Normally, a glass of wine accompanies a Greek meal and there are many sorts of wine made in the country. The best-known is retsina, a white wine that is flavoured with pine resin.Another famous alcoholic drink is ouzo, a spirit that tastes of aniseed. Greeks drink strong, dark coffee, which is served in small cups.In villages, the cafeneio – or coffee shop – is an important place for socializing, and people often eat out at tavernas.

People in Greece are known for being hospitable, even to people they do not know.When a guest comes into a house, he or she is traditionally offered a spoon of fruit preserve on a saucer, and a glass of cool water. This may be followed by coffee, liqueurs or cakes.

Greece – The Arts

Greeks still perform plays and read the writings of ancient Greek writers. Nikos Kazantzakis wrote Zorba the Greek, which was made into a film. Two Greek poets have won the Nobel Prize – George Seferis (in 1963) and Odysseus Elytis (in 1979).

Folk arts can be found all over Greece, and many old traditions have kept going. Greek pottery is often based on designs that were made in ancient Greece, and woodcarvers make decorations for churches that are very like Byzantine carvings from hundreds of years ago.

Embroidery, jewellery and leather goods are produced all over Greece, and are normally of very fine quality.

The National Anthem of Greece is part of the Hymn to Liberty, written by the poet Dionyssios Solomos in 1823. Here is a translation by Rudyard Kipling.

“We know thee of old
Oh divinely restored,
By the light of thine eyes
And the light of thy sword.
From the graves of our slain
Shall the valour prevail
As we greet thee again,
Hail, Liberty! Oh, Hail!

Greek music is a mix of East and West.The most famous style of popular music is bouzouki, which is named after the main musical instrument in the bouzouki band.People dance to this sort of music at weddings and at festivals, and at some nightclubs.There are different styles of dancing n different areas of Greece, but many dances involve people linking arms in a circle.The most popular modern Greek composers include Mikis Theodorakis, Manos Hadzidakis and Vangelis.

Every year, Greece has many festivals for music, drama and dance. The summer Athens Festival has a varied program, which includes modern jazz, performances by classical orchestras, ballet and folk dancing.Many performances are held in the ancient Theatre of Herod Atticus, just underneath the Acropolis.