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            November 2004


National Geographic publishes around the world, so who better to point you to the most unusual, unique, and sometimes irreverent cultural traditions in their countries than the editors of our international editions? Each month a real insider reveals five favorites in this series.
GG_Name
GG_EditorWho runs the show: Maria Atmatzidou, Editor in Chief
 
Name of the game: National Geographic Greece
 
When it all started: October 1998
 
Where it all happens: Athens
 
Who makes it happen: Eight staff members plus the editor
 
What goes out: About 45,000 copies a month
 
What keeps everyone going: "Aside from drinking cups and cups of coffee, we're all really good friends. That makes us a great team and keeps us going. With the long hours, sometimes we see each other more than we see our families."
 
Best office perk: "Every two or three weeks, we pick a trendy ethnic restaurant for lunch and talk about life outside of work."
 
Favorite end-of-the-workweek activity: "I'm a family person, so I enjoy venturing outside of Athens on day trips with my husband and two kids."
 
What's great about Greeks: "We're good at looking at the bright side of life. I don't know if it's because of the weather or if that's just our character. Maybe it's both."
 
What's great about Greece: "It's a beautiful country with a diverse landscape and a tremendous Olympic spirit. You'll love it, even if you're not Greek."

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Cultural Bests
You'll love the sense of ritual and celebration in the editor's five favorite Greek traditions.

1. Easter in Ólimbos
"The traditional village of Ólimbos is located high in the mountains on the island of Kárpathos. It was founded in the ninth century, and residents have preserved many of their old customs, including women's costumes and jewelry, the use of traditional farm implements, and their dialect.

"The way residents celebrate Easter dates back to the Byzantine period, and the Tuesday following Easter  is unique to Greece. All the villagers gather outside the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin to participate in the icon procession. Led by locals carrying icons, the procession makes its way to the several small chapels outside the village. The traditional belief is that, in addition to showing respect for the church and the deceased, following the procession will ensure a good harvest and bring good luck. The procession ends at the village cemetery, where the icons are erected on the cemetery's low outer wall. The priest then reads prayers at all the graves while women pass around sweets that symbolize forgiveness. Before the icons are carried back to the village, an auction determines which one of the villagers will have the honor of placing them back on their stands in the church. Then the entire village—residents and visitors—joins in a feast of dancing and eating held in the church courtyard."

2. Climbing Meteora
"Carved into the Rock of the Holy Spirit at Meteora in the Thessaly region, the Church of Ayios Yeoryios (St. George) attracts the Greek Orthodox faithful from the nearby village of Kástraki on April 23, the saint's feast day. Since the only way to reach the church is by climbing up the rocks, the pilgrims scale them with the aid of a rope. Many climb up barefoot. Clutched in their hands are colorful scarves, which they then leave at a shrine inside a cave. These kerchiefs will be left there for a year and retrieved on the next feast day of St. George by pilgrims who visit the cave to leave new scarves. The feast ends at the village where people hold hands and dance in circles to traditional music.

"This custom is probably rooted in the Ottoman occupation of Greece from 1453 to 1829. There are various versions about how it originated, but according to one, the Christian wife of a Turkish guard climbed to the cave to pray for her husband, who had disappeared for several days. The woman clutched a scarf as a tama, or offering. Her prayers were answered, and her husband returned safely. The saint whose spirit was said to dwell in the cave was dubbed Mandilas after mandili, the Greek word for scarf or kerchief."

3. Carnival in Náousa
"Ancient folk traditions have survived in the rural Carnivals, especially in northern Greece, where in February masqueraders dressed in animal hides and wearing items that jingle whip everyone up into a frenzy of song. Aside from the disguises, many Carnival traditions are a throwback to pre-Dionysian cults that worshipped native fertility deities.

"In Náousa boules, or masqueraders, put on wedding gowns and hide their faces behind masks. They then weave through the village with kilted men called yianitsari and create an enormous ruckus with their shouts, songs, and dances."

4. Carnival on Skyros
"The ancient custom of the yeros, or elder, is still practiced during Carnival on the island of Skyros. Physically fit young men portray the elders in shepherd's costumes made up of a kapoto or cape, shoes known as trohadia, and a stavroravdi, the Greek word for the walking stick used to help them climb up to the Monastery of St. George. Their faces are covered with masks made from goat hide, and they wear a belt with 50 or 60 large bells around their waists. The elders perform a special dance with steps passed down from one generation to the next. The steps are very important because they control the sound made by the bells. A korela, a man dressed as a bride, usually dances around the elders, singing love songs or songs that praise the elders' vigor and the beauty of life."

5. Flour Fights at Galaxidi
"Carnival celebration doesn't end on the last Sunday of the Carnival season. In Galaxidi, a village with a strong maritime tradition on the Gulf of Corinth, the party goes on. After the Carnival parade, residents and visitors of all ages jam the streets on Kathari Deftera, the first day of Orthodox Lent, and engage in a peculiar war: a flour fight. The goal is to cover as many people as possible in as much flour as possible. Since the flour is tinted, everyone and everything in town are a whirl of colors.

"All over town people enjoy dancing, drinking wine, and eating Greek mezedes, similar to Spanish tapas, in the cafés and tavernas. Some people jump in the sea to wash themselves off. It's a time to enjoy friendships and welcome springtime, which picks its palette from this ritual."

Photographs by Mark Cosslett, GETTY IMAGES (left), Grant Saint, GETTY IMAGES (center), and Michael Pasdzior, GETTY IMAGES  (right)
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