This year marks the 191st anniversary of Greece asserting their independence against the Ottoman Empire, and Greeks of the diaspora all over the world will again join our brothers, sisters and friends in celebrating this momentous day. On 25 March almost two centuries ago, at the beginning of the Greek Revolution, Germanos of Patras raised the Greek flag at the Peloponnese monastery of Aghias Lavras, declaring ‘Freedom or death!’ (Eleftheria i thanatos!)
Since then, this day has been celebrated with pride. In Australia, particularly, marches will take place mainly in our capital cities on Sunday 25 March, with Greek Australians of all generations becoming involved in the festivities.
Some in the Greek Australian community, however, fear that our celebration of this day is dying out as the number of first generation Greeks falls. It is necessary to focus on the youngest generation of Greek Australians to see what their understanding of the day is, how it is recognized among them, and how this has changed since the generation before them.
The historical background of the Greek revolution that led to independence from the powerful Ottoman Empire is important to remember. Around 400 years of occupation ended after Greeks living under foreign rule began to become wealthier and, thus, more powerful as a result of spreading industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries.
This, added to ideas spreading all over Europe as a result of the Enlightenment and the French revolution, which gave many Greeks the courage to start fighting back, both militarily and otherwise. Literacy was increasing, and the new wealth of Greek merchants funded specifically Greek schools, which educated a new generation of Greeks who were less tolerant of Ottoman occupation. One group within these newer generations formed the secret Society of Friends (Filiki Eteria) in 1814 which staged a revolt in 1821 in the Peloponnese. Aid came from Britain and France, whose populations, and in particular Romantic painters such as Lord Byron – who died fighting on the side of the Greeks- rose up against the Ottomans. After more than six years, Greece emerged victorious, and by 1829, had finally rid herself of all occupying forces. The modern Greek state was established.
Many Greek Australians, both young and old, have listened to and told this story many times in the decades since mass migration from Greece began. But how has this changed since the first wave of migrants arrived in Australia, and how do younger Greeks relate to this day in 2012?
The vast network of Greek language schools in Australia, still a strong force in the community, can be thanked for much of the passing down of traditions to younger generations. But we must not discount parents, whether originally from Greece or Australia, in continuing the education of young Greek-Australians about this important day.
Andrea Garivaldis, Principal of Melbourne’s Zenon Education Centre, says that first generation Greek migrants brought the original ideas and traditions to Australia, which involved marches, music and meetings often in Greek church halls. She focuses on the change in languages spoken in Greek-Australian households in informing how Greek schools have educated about the importance of March 25: “In the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s the approach to teaching about Greek Independence Day was through teaching Greek history…Greek students were mostly first and second generation and the Greek language was largely spoken at home.”
This has changed in more recent years. Dr Helen Kalaboukas, Principal at Melbourne’s Ariston Greek School, says that between the second and third generation of Greeks, the methods used to teach about March 25 have changed significantly.
She says: ‘Today we have to teach Greek as a foreign language and given the shortage of time we can include only the fundamentals of Greek history.’
Constantine Roubos, Principal of Pythagoras Greek School in Melbourne, was raised in Australia and now teaches newer generations of Greek-Australians, was taught about the day in Greek school himself, where performances of poems, songs and plays would be part of the general celebrations. He has also been involved in the parade since 1976, where students march from Swanston St to the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne every year. Watching films at Greek cinemas was also a part of his education about the day. He says: “I still have fond memories of the movie Theodoros Kolokotronis. I even remember asking my parents after the movie why he was imprisoned by his own countrymen and why the Greeks descended into civil war during the revolution”.
Indeed, parents, whether born in Greece or Australia, have been acrucial factor in the way young Greek-Australian children learn about the independence of Greece.
Voula Kapoulas is part of a declining group of parents who still educate their children about the day, and encourage their involvement in celebrations.
Voula, too, was involved in the march to the Shrine of Remembrance as a child with those from her Greek school. She has noticed a difference now in the extent to which children are engaged in the celebration of 25 March. She says: “I don’t believe they understand how important this day is to the older generation…because they’re not brought up in Greece to see the importance of this day”.
Despite this, Voula has made the effort to teach her children about the meaning and importance of the day, as well as enrolling them in a Greek school that celebrates the day with dance, poems and song.
“Celebrations such as these are common in Greek schools around Australia. Children at Pythagoras Greek School are totally ‘immersed in the history of the celebrations,” Constantine Roubos explains. From Prep to Year 12, students delve into Greek history, politics and the major events of the revolution. Greek films are shown, children recite poems, sing the Greek National Anthem and talk about the event. Children are also encouraged to attend the parade with their families.
Children at Zenon Education Centre and the Ariston Greek Schools are involved in similar celebrations, which include wearing the Greek colours, singing the Greek national anthem and dancing. Parents are also involved and Andrea Garivaldis notes that parents of new students at Zenon specifically ask whether the yearly march is involved in school activities, thus showing the continuing importance and pride felt in the history of Greece in the minds of even second and third generation Greek Australians.
But Dr Helen Kalaboukas does mention the declining interest, noting that in more recent years, only a third of students are encouraged by their parents to march on the day. She believes that parents are the most important messengers of the history of Greece, and that the vital traditions will only continue if they take steps to keep them alive.
Andrea Garivaldis mentions how the observation of March 25 has changed, noting that whereas the specifically Greek history was focused on in the past, nowadays children focus on the day as “a significant event that marks who they are and a signal of what the future of Greek presence will be in this part of the world”. This shows that now that Greeks have become more assimilated into Australian society, their perspective on the day has changed to include their identity as both Greek and Australian.
Still, Constantine Roubos notes that even now, as third and fourth generation Greek-Australians grow to reach adulthood, their patriotism also grows.
This is a facet of March 25 that has not died, despite the dilution of the day’s importance in the lives of contemporary Greek Australians, and it will undoubtedly only get stronger as more Greeks arrive on Australian shores.