Today is a big day in the Mediterranean. In the Greek East, August 15 commemorates the Dormition (i.e. “falling asleep” or death) of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary). Most Greeks refer to the holiday simply as Παναγίας (pa-na-YEE-as), meaning “of the all holy one,” which is one of the names by which the Virgin Mary is known in the Greek-speaking world. Theotokos or “God bearer” is more common in liturgical settings as opposed to common parlance.
In Italy the holiday is referred to as Ferragosto, which in the Catholic tradition refers to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (i.e. her bodily assumption into heaven), which is a little different than the Greek version. Still, they are parallel holidays, celebrated in both Greece and Italy (as well as other countries) with great fanfare and festivities spread out over multiple days. On Lesbos (especially in the town of Agiassos), the August 15 πανηγύρι (pan-ee-GEE-ree) or festival is one of the largest in all of Greece with some great live music and dancing.
As in Italy and the Catholic West, the Eastern Orthodox countries developed a complex Mary cult or Mariolatry. They would argue that Mary is venerated, rather than worshipped (an important distinction for both Catholics and Orthodox), though in practice, this distinction was probably lost on the largely illiterate masses. Clearly, the adoration of the Virgin Mary is an example of the syncretism that helped Christianity spread. In Mary, we see elements of the ancient mother goddesses as well as Athena, Artemis, and even Aphrodite.
In a rather bizarre epilogue to the Dormition myth (which parallels certain elements in the Gospels), three days after her death the Virgin Mary rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, dropping her belt as she drifted upward. The holy belt was caught by Saint Thomas. It was said to possess miraculous properties, and pieces of it are believed to have survived today as holy relics. The belt actually has its own feastday, which falls on August 31. I always used to chuckle whenever I passed the Church of the Holy Belt in Athens.
To all named Mary, Panayioti or Panayiota, Χρόνια Πολλά!
The image of the Dormition is part of an early 14th-century mosaic situated in the Chora Church/Kariye Camii in Istanbul.