Corfu History – Saint Spyridon Day

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If you have frequented the blissful little island of Corfu then you will most likely have noticed there is a large number of people with the name either Spyridon (Spiros) or Spyridoula.

Well there’s a reason behind this and I’m about to tell you why.

Today, December 12th, the Greek Orthodox Church commemorates and honours Saint Spyridon, The patron Saint of Corfu and protector of the island. This means big celebrations all round.

As you may know already know, Greeks don’t just have birthdays; they also celebrate their name days with parties, offering sweets and receiving gifts.

Almost every Corfiot family has at least one member called either Spyridon (Spyros) or Spyridoula (Loula). The Greeks certainly know how to celebrate in style and as you can imagine today is one of the bigger celebrations on the island.

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So this brings me to the question of; Who is St Spyridon?

St Spyridon was a shepherd born 270 AD in Askeia, Cyprus. When his wife died, he entered a monastery and, later in life, became Bishop of Trimythous. He died peacefully of old age in 348 AD. In his life he is said to have performed many miracles.

It is said that he converted a pagan philosopher into a Christian and, according to legend, he performed a miracle in the process. While talking with this man, he took hold of a potshard to make a point that one thing can be three things at the same time (like The Holy Trinity can be Father, Son and the Holy Ghost). As he held the potshard, it is said that it burst into a flame, with water dripping down his hand. It is said that all that was left from the shard of pottery in his hand was dust (while others say he held a brick). It is because of the specific account that St Spyridon is regarded the patron saint of potters (as well as Corfu).

This story is just one of many; some of them date from when the saint was still alive and others began whole centuries after his death.

For example, when the Arabs took Cyprus (648 AD), St Spyridon’s remains were disinterred with the purpose of taking the sacred bones to Constantinople. However, to their surprise, the Cypriots saw that the relic was intact, and a scent of basil emanated from the grave. They took this as a sign of St Spyridon’s sanctity. The relic was taken to Constantinople and when the Turks took the city in 1453, a Corfiot monk called Kaloheraitis took the relic to Corfu and that is where it is still held today, in St Spyridon church.

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The Corfiots adore their saint, and that is no surprise, seeing that he has saved their island and its people many times. For example, when a plague swept through the village of Marathias in the 1600s, it is believed that St Spyridon was sighted there and performed a miracle to drive out the plague. There is a big mark like a cross on the ancient walls of the Old Venetian Fortress and, legend has it, that the plague made this mark out of spite for being made to leave the island. The locals know where this mark is and point it out to tourists, although nowadays it’s not as clearly visible.

This miracle is commemorated on Palm Sunday. The church procession stops in Corfu Town on high ground, faces the south towards Marathias and sends a blessing as a thank you to the Saint.

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Another legend about St Spyridon…

During the second siege of Corfu by the Turkish fleet in 1716, rumors spread among the Turks that St Spyridon had manifested as a monk holding a lit torch threatening them, something that only increased their panic. When the Venetian fleet that defended Corfu finally overcame them, rumors spread that St Spyridon had played a part in saving the island.

On another occasion, St Spyridon is said to have saved the island from famine. How? He created a storm that made three boats filled to the brim with a cargo of wheat change course and come to Corfu. The precious cargo saved the people of Corfu from starvation and everyone knew it was a miracle because the men on board reported they saw a monk in a vision speaking in a booming voice, urging them to drop anchor at Corfu. This miracle is commemorated annually, again around Easter, this one on Holy Saturday or ‘Big Saturday’ as it’s also known. This day is the most greatly sought after day for a Corfu holiday because of now famous the pot-breaking custom that follows the procession.

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The following event claims to have happened centuries after the death of St Spyridon, only increasing the power of the Saint in Corfiot people’s eyes.

A man was working on the top of the steeple of St Spyridon church once… He lost his balance and fell to the ground, which if you have visited the church will know is quite a long way down, but stood back up, unscathed. People believe he was protected by the Saint.

The Corfiots think of St Spyridon as a living being who walks among them, listening to their troubles, protecting them, providing for them. This is why many jump at the chance to own a tiny piece of his velvet slippers. Periodically, the church replaces the slippers placed at the saint’s feet and the fabric of the old ones are fragmented and offered to the people as a ‘fylakto’ – i.e. a protective charm. It’s the tiniest bit of red velvet inside a paper envelope with a drawing of St Spyridon on the outside.

So now you know the legend behind the famous Saint. Whether you have friends or family with the name Spiros or Spyridoula or even visit the island every year and it holds a special place in your heart, then today is the day to say XRONIA POLLA!!

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