Considered to be the most important holiday on the Greek calendar and one of the richest in folklore, the celebration of Orthodox Easter (Pascha) is extraordinary throughout Greece. While there are many local customs associated with Easter, there are several observed by all, which herald the rebirth of nature and spirit, and constitute a vibrant aspect of Greek folk culture that is rich in meaning and symbolism.
falls either one or five weeks after its celebration by Western Christianity; however, occasionally the two observances coincide. Preparations for Easter come to a climax toward the end of Holy Week
between Palm and Easter Sunday. On Holy Thursday, the traditional braided sweet-bread, tsoureki, is baked, and a basketful of eggs are dyed red. Since antiquity, eggs have symbolised the renewal of life, while red symbolises life: and the message of red Easter eggs is victory over death.
Holy Friday is the most sacred day of the Holy Week and the culmination of the Passion of Christ, with the deposition from the cross and Christ’s burial.
Because it is a day of mourning, housework and all chores in general are discouraged; moreover, it is the strictest fast day of the year, when even the use of olive-oil is avoided. Women and children attend church to decorate the Epitaph (Bier of Christ) with flowers picked from their gardens, and in the evening the Procession of the Epitaph takes place.
On Holy Saturday, the traditional mayiritsa soup is prepared for the family supper following the midnight resurrection service, which breaks the fast. Shortly before midnight, people gather in church holding white candles which they light with the “Holy Light” distributed by the priest every year that has been carried from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. When the priest chants “Christ is Risen” (Christos Anesti), people exchange wishes and the so-called “Kiss of Love”, chanting and heralding the joyful message of Christ’s Resurrection:
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Afterwards, they carry the Holy Light home and with its smoke they draw the sign of the cross above their front door, leaving it there throughout the year as a symbol of blessing and good fortune. Then they all gather around the table for the supper, crack red eggs and wish one another Christos Anesti.
On Sunday morning, mainly in the countryside, lamb is prepared on the spit and people eat and dance usually until late at night. It is also customary for the next 40 days for people to greet others with “Christos Anesti” to which they response is “Alithos Anesti” (“Truly He is Risen!”).
- Why do we celebrate Eastern Easter on a different date?
Easter is linked to the Jewish Passover by much of its symbolism, as well as by its position in the calendar, originally a feast commemorating the liberation of the Israelites, the crossing of the Red Sea and the Passover from slavery to freedom. During this celebration, the Jewish people ate lamb, bitter herbs as a reminder of slavery’s harshness and unleavened bread as a symbol of the hasty exodus from Egypt. Christian Easter marks the passage from the bondage of sin to the freedom offered by Christ.
During the early years Christianity, Jewish and Christian Easters coincided, but following the Ecumenical Council of 325 A.D., it became clear that Christian Easter was not to coincide with the Jewish Passover, as Gospels stipulate that Christ died either after the Jewish Passover or on the same day.
After the East-West Schism of 1054 A.D., the two Churches were separated from one another. Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian Calendar (1582 A.D.) as it was more accurate; Protestants followed after a period of time, but the Eastern Church remained reluctant, on account of the different calculations implied that would set Easter before the Jewish Passover, thus violating biblical accuracy. Greece adopted the Gregorian reform in 1923, but continues to observe Easter according to the Julian calendar, in line with all Eastern Orthodox churches.
In Eastern Christianity, the spiritual preparation for Easter begins with Great Lent, which starts on Clean Monday and lasts forty days. The number of days of fasting is chosen as a symbol of Christ’s Temptation. The Gospels speak of a time when Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the Judaean desert. He lived among wild beasts, and angels ministered to him; at the end of this period, Satan tempted him three times seeking to compromise his filial attitude toward God, but Jesus rebuffed these attacks.
Easter is by far the holiest of Greek holidays
, but it is also the most joyous, a celebration of spring, of rebirth in its literal as well as figurative sense. As Greeks leave the cities in droves to spend Easter in the countryside, food is central to all festivities.
The Easter table is a reflection of tradition combined with the seasonality of Greek cuisine; and while
ingredients, seasonings, and dishes might differ slightly from place to place, the one rule always followed is that nothing should be wasted. The most typical dishes are slowly roasted whole lambs on a spit; red easter eggs; braided sweet breads
(tsoureki); Easter soup (mayiritsa) and grilled tripe-roll (kokoretsi).
Visiting the Ionian island of Corfu
at Easter is ideal, as the town hosts
the most splendid and musical celebrations in the country, with the city’s philharmonics in full action. An Easter highlight takes place on the morning of Holy Saturday, when “botides”, i.e. ceramic pots full of water are dropped from windows onto the cobblestone streets.
In the Aegean island of Chios, another spectacular custom takes place, where residents of the village of Vrontados revive the tradition of “the rocket war.” After the Resurrection, Vrontados breaks into a pandemonium of fireworks lighting up the midnight sky.
In Central Greece, in Nafpaktos, on the evening of Good Friday, large crowds accompanying the epitaph pass through the town harbour where lighted torches have been placed on the fortress surrounding it.
At the centre of the Fortress’s entrance, the torches form a large cross that lights up the harbour, creating a scene of unforgettable beauty.
In Leonidio, in the Peloponnese, on the night of the Resurrection the sky is filled with hot-air balloons released by the faithful of each parish.