Most Greek-Americans understand ‘Tradition!’, the catchy song from Fiddler on the Roof, a musical story revealing the historic and tragic plight of Russian Jewry. Main character Tevye, ‘the Papa’, exuberantly sings ‘Tradition! Tradition!’ to celebrate his society’s time-honored culture.
Fiddler focuses on carved-in-stone customs – and how changes in customs become flatly rejected, then painfully accepted. The story brings Greek traditions to mind.
After 4,000 years, Hellenic history still enriches us with precious democracy, exquisite art, time-honored literature, esteemed language, distinguished history, courageous family narratives – the list is endless. ‘Paradosi’, Greek for ‘tradition,’ connects us with ancestors who gifted us with our unrivaled culture.
At this point some readers are saying: “Thanks a lot. I’ve already heard plenty about my heritage… since childhood.”
And I understand. Yet, our legacy is quite ancient and exceptionally extensive. Occasionally, I jump in again. Casually revisiting augments increases my knowledge, then energizes my perceptions of our ‘Greekness’ – a good thing.
We probably didn’t recognize the virtues of our Greek backgrounds when we were children. An old story: the kid at the next desk happily rushed off to a fun baseball game or much anticipated birthday party (you were invited too) after school, but you had to go to Greek school instead. You complained, but your parents everlastingly championed Greek school.
Eventual revelation: The Greek language is one of the most blessed traditions passed down to me by my family. No matter how imperfect my skills, this extraordinary gift allows me to communicate with family and countless acquaintances. Greek earns credit for my excelling in high school biology, and continues to serve me in unlocking a myriad of English words.
Lyrics from Fiddler invoke a scene from my family’s past. The verse, sung by Tevye’s daughters reveals: “And who does Mama teach to mend and tend and fix, preparing me to marry whoever Papa picks. The Daughter! The Daughter! Tradition!”
Circa 1912, my maternal grandfather, Papa of seven daughters, solely selected his eldest daughter’s husband – and the bridegroom agreed. My aunt first spoke to her prospective spouse, a day later, at her own engagement party. For centuries, this tradition was widely established in Greece and many societies, like Tevye’s Russia in Fiddler.
Gratefully, the match Pappou arranged for lovely, soft-spoken Athanasia became a happy marriage. Later, four of Pappou’s daughters immigrated to the U.S., and married four, good, Greek immigrant men. But Pappou, in Arcadian Tegea, lived too far from Chicago to screen bridegrooms. Times change, traditions evolve. Some disappear, possibly allowing more positive actions to occur.
Greeks are blessed with uncountable, millennia-old customs. Most make us feel better: sharing Vasilopita on New Year’s Day; wishing ‘Hronia Polla’ to a birthday/name day celebrant; reverently lighting a candle when entering a Greek Orthodox Church; preparing ‘koliva’ (boiled wheat) for loved ones’ memorial services; baking koulourakia and coloring red eggs at Easter; singing ‘Christos Anesti’ in a darkened, candle-lit church; enjoying spicy, Christmas melomakarona; spiritedly dancing to the stirring rhythms of the ‘Kalamatiano’.
Foods become traditions. Most Greek foods, many not preparation-simple (delectable diples come to mind), finally found a place of honor in the American pantheon of dining. Healthy, captivating, luscious Greek flavors and textures delight most palates. I’ve never met anyone outside our ethnicity who does not enjoy avgolemono, tyropita, loukoumades, or diples.
The Greek Orthodox wedding ceremony is an enduring, cherished tradition. Fifty, beautiful minutes symbolically emphasize the essence of ‘spending a lifetime together’ by crowning bride and groom as heads of their newly created family, and offering them sips of wine from a common cup. Assuredly, the couple’s parents’ joyful tears glisten when familiar chants accompany priest, groom, bride, and ‘best-person’ circling a church table, three-times, in the Dance of Isaiah.
Our marriage sacrament dates back 2000 years – to Christianity’s beginnings. When we Greeks marry in a Greek Orthodox rite, do we realize our ancestors married in a comparable ceremony? Our forebears, even pre-dating our great-great-great-great grandparents, stood side by side in front of a similar iconostasis, held glowing candles, and listened to the same chanted prayers we hear. Wearing ‘stephana’ crowns linked by a white ribbon, like us, they and their ‘koumbaro’ were led by a priest, three times, to “O Isaiah, dance with joy…”
We owe our existences to those many noble ancestors whose names we sadly don’t know. They passed on vital gifts – life, itself – and an unmatched Hellenic heritage. “Tradition! Tradition!”
Constance M. Constant is the author of two books about pioneer Greek immigrants in the U.S.: Austin Lunch, Greek American Recollections (Cosmos Publishing, 2005), and American Kid, Nazi-Occupied Greece through a Child’s Eyes (Year of the Book, 2016).