Official feasts used to be an important part of the human community. People would gather together to remember something sacred, express their faith and hope for the future, and / or just be together formally, recognizing each other as being part of a shared community. Few things express a desire for shared companionship and social intimacy more than dining together. Sadly, the gathering together for feasting is increasingly a relic of the past – at least here in the West.
It need not be so! Today we will remember the ancient feasts.
The Feast Day of St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki
This feast is a Christian religious celebration of St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki, a Greek Christian martyr from the 4th century A.D., whose subsequent veneration was significant and fascinating for centuries after, during both the Byzantine Empire and the Middle Ages..
Who is St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki?
Saint Demetrius, or Demetrios, of Thessalonica (Greek: Ἅγιος Δημήτριος τῆς Θεσσαλονίκης, Hágios Dēmḗtrios tēs Thessaloníkēs), also known as the Holy Great-Martyr Demetrius the Myroblyte, meaning ‘the Myrrh-Gusher’ or ‘Myrrh-Streamer’; 3rd century – 306), was a Greek Christian martyr of the early 4th century AD.
During the Middle Ages, he came to be revered as one of the most important Orthodox military saints, often paired with Saint George of Lydda. His feast day is 26 October for Eastern Orthodox Christians, which falls on 8 November [NS, “new style”] for those following the old calendar. In the Roman Catholic Church he is most commonly called “Demetrius of Sermium” and his memorial is 9 April in the 2004 Roman Martyrology and 8 October in the martryology of the Extraordinary Form.
Most historical scholars follow the hypothesis put forward by Bollandist Hippolyte Delehaye (1859–1941), that his veneration was transferred from Sirmium when Thessaloniki replaced it as the main military base in the area in 441/442 AD. His very large church in Thessaloniki, the Hagios Demetrios, dates from the mid-5th century. Thessaloniki remained a centre of his veneration, and he is the patron saint of the city.
After the growth of his veneration as saint, the city of Thessaloniki suffered repeated attacks and sieges from the Slavic peoples who moved into the Balkans, and Demetrius was credited with many miraculous interventions to defend the city. Hence later traditions about Demetrius regard him as a soldier in the Roman army, and he came to be regarded as an important military martyr.
Demetrius was also venerated as patron of agriculture, peasants and shepherds in the Greek countryside during the Middle Ages. According to historian Hans Kloft, he had inherited this role from the pagan goddess Demeter. After the demise of the Eleusinian Mysteries, Demeter’s cult, in the 4th century, the Greek rural population had gradually transferred her rites and roles onto the Christian saint Demetrius.
Unsurprisingly, he was extremely popular in the Middle Ages. Disputes between Bohemond I of Antioch and Alexios I Komnenos appear to have resulted in Demetrius being appropriated as patron saint of crusading.
Most scholars still believe that for four centuries after his death, Demetrius had no physical relics, and in their place an unusual empty shrine called the “ciborium” was built inside Hagios Demetrios. What were purported to be his remains subsequently appeared in Thessaloniki, but the local archbishop John, who compiled the first book of the Miracles ca. 610, was publicly dismissive of their authenticity. The relics were assumed to be genuine after they started emitting a liquid and strong-scented myrrh. This gave Demeterius the epithet Myroblyte.
In the Russian Orthodox Church, the Saturday before the Feast of Saint Demetrius is a memorial day commemorating the soldiers who fell in the Battle of Kulikovo (1380), under the leadership of Demetrius of the Don. This day is known as Demetrius Saturday.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Romanian Orthodox Church revere Demetrius on 26 October (Димитровден [Dimitrovden] in Bulgarian); meanwhile the Serbian Orthodox Church and Macedonian Orthodox Church (Ohrid) and the Coptic Church have a feast on 8 November (called Митровдан [Mitrovdan] in Serbian and Митровден [Mitrovden] in Macedonian).
What do you eat for The Feast of St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki?
As he is the patron saint of the city of Thessaloniki, this saint’s feast day celebration is most often celebrated by the people of that city. A feast day meal could reflect the local cuisine. One such example of local cuisine is below:
Bougatsa (Custard Pie with Phyllo AND Ground Cinnamon)
For the bougatsa
- 400–450 g phyllo dough (15 oz)
- 200 g butter, melted (7 oz)
- 200 g sugar (7 oz)
- 1 kg milk (35 oz)
- 120 g all-purpose flour (4.5 oz)
- 4 eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
For the topping
- ground cinnamon
- icing sugar
Make the Filling
In a large bowl, combine the sugar, eggs, and flour, whisking until the ingredients are well blended.
In a saucepan, combine the milk and vanilla extract and heat until boiling. Just before it reaches boiling point, pour one-third of this mixture into the flour mixture from Step 1 and stir well.
Reduce the heat. Incorporate the flour and milk mixture into the saucepan along with the remaining warm milk. Vigorously whisk until the mixture thickens, becoming velvety and smooth. Ensure the pan remains on the stove throughout the whisking process. This should typically take about 2-3 minutes.
Take the pan off the stove and give it an occasional stir to prevent the custard from developing a skin on top as you continue with the remaining steps of the bougatsa recipe.
Make the nougats pie
You’ll require a generously-sized baking tray, approximately 20×30 cm / 8×12 inch in dimensions. Using a pastry brush, generously coat the bottom and sides of the tray with butter.
Begin by unrolling the phyllo dough from its plastic sleeve. For the bougatsa recipe, you will require around 10 to 12 sheets of phyllo. Utilize approximately 5 to 6 sheets for the bottom layer of the bougatsa and another 4 to 5 sheets for the top.
To start, place the sheets one by one at the base of the tray, generously drizzling melted butter over each layer.
Pour in the custard from step 4, using a spatula to even out the surface.
Layer the bougatsa with 4-5 phyllo sheets, generously brushing each sheet with melted butter. If desired, trim any excess phyllo with a knife and roll the edges. Apply a generous amount of butter on top and use a sharp knife to score the bougatsa.
Cook and Serve
Place the bougatsa in a preheated oven at 160C / 320F and let it bake for 45 minutes until the phyllo becomes delightfully crisp and turns a beautiful golden brown.
Allow the bougatsa to cool for a short while before serving. Sprinkle it with a dusting of icing sugar and a hint of cinnamon.
What is a Prayer You Might Say for This Feast?
The feast and commemoration of Saint Demetrios is celebrated with the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom which is conducted on the morning of the feast and preceded by a Matins (Orthros) service. A Great Vespers is conducted on the evening before the day of the Feast.
Scripture readings for the feast are the following: At Vespers: Isaiah 63:15-64:5,8-9; Jeremiah 2:1-12; Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9. At the Matins: Luke 11:12-20. At the Divine Liturgy: II Timothy 2:1-10; John 15:17-16:2. (If the feast falls on a Sunday the Gospel readings may vary.)
Hymns of the Feast
Apolytikion (Third Tone)
The world has found in you a great champion in time of peril, as you emerged the victor in routing the barbarians. For as you brought to naught the boasts of Lyaios, imparting courage to Nestor in the stadium, in like manner, holy one, great Martyr Demetrios, invoke Christ God for us, that He may grant us His great mercy.
Kontakion (Second Tone)
God, who gave you invincible power and with care kept your city invulnerable, royally clothed the Church in purple with the streams of your blood, for you are her strength, O Demetrios.
When is this feast celebrated?
This feast day is 26 October for Eastern Orthodox Christians, which falls on 8 November [NS, “new style”] for those following the old calendar. In the Roman Catholic Church he is most commonly called “Demetrius of Sermium” and his memorial is 9 April in the 2004 Roman Martyrology and 8 October in the martryology of the Extraordinary Form.
If you celebrate, I hope you have a wonderful time!