If you happen to live in a city outside of Greece that has a large population of Greek diaspora, you may have noticed big parades of men proudly wearing skirts and carrying the Greek flag every March 25th (or some day close to it).
That’s because the 25th of March is a major holiday for Greeks world-wide. The parade part and the guys wearing skirts (which, ahem, are actually called foustanellas) is in recognition of Greek Independence Day. During the various celebrations, you may hear Greeks yelling out “ΖΗΤΩ Η ΕΛΛΑΣ!” (ZEE-toh E el-LAS) which essentially means “Long live Greece!” Just like the 4th of July, or any other country’s day to recognize independence from some occupying force, the 25th of March is a pretty big deal. It signals the beginning of the end of the roughly 400 year occupation of Greece by the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey). Let’s just say it wasn’t a good time for Greeks.
The outfits worn by men during these parades are actually recreations of the clothing worn by the Greek soldiers at the time. The skirt part is traditionally pleated and if done with real authenticity, will have about 400 pleats, one for each year of the occupation. The style allowed men more mobility while climbing around the Greek countryside. You may think of beaches along Greece’s stunning shorelines, but move just a little inland and you get equally stunning mountain ranges.
The date is not the actual day that freedom was gained, but the declaration that it was time to fight, the same as the 4th of July here in the U.S. Just like the American revolutionary war, freedom in Greece was hard fought for and didn’t come without its severe and cruel losses, and things weren’t all nice and tidy afterwards, either. In fact, unlike the relationship between the U.S. and England, things between Greece and Turkey are still hostile due to frequent acts of aggression by the Turkish military and government.
The date is no coincidence, either. The 25th of March is also the day Orthodox Christians (which Greeks predominantly are) celebrate the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. If you do your math, you’ll see that this date is nine months before December 25th, which you’ll likely remember is Christmas Day, the day that the birth of Christ is celebrated. So on the 25th of March, we have a feast day to honor when the Archangel Gabriel gave the Virgin Mary the news that she was chosen to be the mother of Christ. Given the significance of the date, it was chosen for the official declaration of independence as a means of inspiration to all.
Today’s Greeks celebrate with parades full of men and women clothed in the traditional outfits, folk dances, kids practicing their Greek by reading poems about the revolution, and with a meal of fried cod called bakaliaros. Greek Independence Day always occurs during Great Lent, so many Greeks are fasting from most animal products. Fish is allowed for this special occasion and it has become just as looked forward to as turkey is on Thanksgiving. One of the key side dishes is a dip called skordalia (skor-thahl-YAH) made from a hefty dose of fresh garlic, a heftier dose of olive oil, and either bread or potatoes. To say that it is yummy is a massive understatement, especially for those of us who love all things garlic. Recipe will be coming soon, I promise! (Update: get the skordalia recipe here! See, I keep my promises–most of the time!)
So on this and every March 25th, give a rousing call of “ΖΗΤΩ!” (ZEE-toh), to congratulate the country that invented democracy in its victory over occupation, and also recognize the day that marks the beginnings of Christianity. And if you have that skordalia, have some breath mints on hand!