Monday, 27 April 2009


If you walk past a Greek church and hear wailing and screaming, don’t worry, it’s probably only a baptism. Or it might be a priest crying over spilt investments. All will be explained.

About 97 - 98% of Greeks are Orthodox and everywhere you will find monasteries, churches and little chapels. Besides well known monasteries (amongst others Limonos in Kaloni, Taxiarchis in Mandamados, Agios Raphael in Thermi, Ypsolo in Eresos) and churches in town and villages (Panagia in Agiasos and Panagia Glikofiloessa in Petra) the Lesvorian landscape is scattered with hundreds of small churches, each dedicated to a single saint, and they aren’t all old, because new ones are always being built, often by private citizens wishing to express their devotion.

There are two reasons for building a church: because you want to make real a vow to a particular saint, or you just have to show off how rich you are. Having a Mercedes in front of your house goes only so far, so why not build a church in the back yard? Of course, some people are more modest and build their churches on the tops of a remote rocky mountain or a lonely beach difficult to reach.

Even monasteries are still being built. Take the monastery of Limonos close to Kaloni. There they are not satisfied with just one church. With donated money they intend to build a church for every saint, and believe me there are many. Already the monastery is surrounded by clusters of jolly little churches and chapels, some of them waiting to be completed.

I will not call the Greek pious, but the church and its representatives make a big part of Greek life. It starts with the birth. Within a year of being born a child is baptized and named (before its baptism it is called just ‘baby’). Only if it’s baptized can a child be registered by the municipality as an official citizen of Greece. A baby who has not been christened will have to travel on a passport only with the names of his parents.

So, nearly all Greeks are baptized and you could say it’s a real life ‘baptism of fire’. It’s a major festivity for family friends and neighbours, which means hell for the mother and an unpleasant hour or so for the infant.

The baptism process begins with the choice of a godparent. He or she has to watch over the godchild and spoil it on its birthdays. At Easter he/she has to give their godchild a candle and according to old tradition a pair of shoes.

Rules are strict. Godchildren of the same godparent aren’t allowed to marry each other and the actual children of a godparent can’t marry their parent’s godchildren either. So, a godchild is real family.

After the choice of a godparent the next challenge is choosing the church where the baptism ceremony takes place. Here on Lesvos there are hundreds of churches which offer the ceremony, but the local population generally prefers a baptism to take place in a big, high profile church. All members of the entire extended family are invited and sometimes the entire village. One of the key ideas is to show off how much money you can spend. As with weddings, the Taxiarchis Monastery in Mandamados is most people’s favourite choice.

The ceremony itself is full of rituals. The child is handed out to the godparent, who announces its name. Then in a series of prayers and blessings, one of the priests banishes the devil. Next, everyone proceeds to the font where one of the child’s grandmothers removes all its clothes. Oil provided by the godparent, is mixed with water and with it the priest anoints the baby. If the baby is not already terrified and yelling, it very soon will be, because the priest then seizes the naked cherub, lifts it high in the air for all to see, and then dunks it quickly, but three times, into the cool water of the font. Mostly it’s a drama, especially as mother isn’t allowed to do anything through the entire ceremony.

There’s more to come, and more reasons to be upset, as baby is then anointed for a second time, after which it has to suffer having three stands of its hair cut off, a chain with a little silver or golden cross placed around its neck, and being paraded around the font. Then grandmother dresses the child in its beautiful baptismal robes and, is at last returned to the anxious arms of waiting mother – but only after she has asked the priest to allow it, by kissing his hand.

There’s even more: for three days after the event the baby can’t be bathed and the first soiled diaper must be burned, and for the first three Sundays after the baptism, the child is expected to be taken to church, together with its baptism candle.

So whenever you pass a church where people linger in their Sunday best clothes and you hear a lot of screaming, do not warn the police because you think there is a killing: it’s a traditional baptismal ceremony, upsetting only mother and child.

Meanwhile in Athens, the national government is trying to cover up a scandal involving a famous religious institution the Mount Athos Vatopedi monastery’s swap of land, whereby it obtained prime real estate in exchange for plots of lower value, with, it’s alleged, ministerial connivance. The opposition PASOK party wants a full investigation, but the Speaker of the house of parliament says he has no power to demand it. So, it looks very much like the powers that be are trying to make sure no more politicians fall from grace, and the church just continues with business as usual which means real estate deals as well as baptisms, weddings and funerals, all of which seem equally lucrative – weddings and funerals costs several hundred euros, paid directly to the priest. So, believe me, if I were the Greek state I would never divorce the church. Such a rich and powerful business partner you will never find again.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

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