Easter has forever been one of my favorite holidays. Making colorful Easter baskets filled with chocolates and goodies, a day of hunting for more delicious morsels hidden amidst beautiful blooming flowers, and big family lunches featuring huge honey baked hams and lavish, freshly made cakes. Combine this with women in long summer moo moo’s and the traditional over-the-top church going hat and you’ve got a party. In my mind these are the customs that have made Easter one of the most eagerly anticipated holidays of the year. However, these delightful traditions are not what come to mind for most of the rest of the world when the word Easter is brought up. Like many of the largely celebrated Christian holidays in America, Easter has become more of a marketing scheme and day of fun and goodies than one of religious activities. In fact, many children growing up in America who celebrate Easter have no idea of its origin or religious significance. For these youngsters Easter celebrates the arrival of the Easter Bunny and his chocolate gifts, not the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The true story behind Easter was only recently explained to me after I learned that not everyone celebrated Easter the same way America did. While I had some idea of Easter’s Christian origin, the biblical story behind the holy day was very much a mystery to me. So was the fact that the Easter Bunny and his magical baskets of wonders was not universally accepted nor believed in. Here in Greece, a country whose dominant religion is Greek Orthodox, a body of several churches that stem from the larger communion of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Easter and the forty days leading up to it are the holiest days of the year, Easter being the most important holiday of the year. I was surprised to learn that Easter surpassed Christmas in religious importance, although it does make sense for while one celebrates the birth of Jesus, the other celebrates the death and moment in which God himself actually proves his existence with the resurrection of Jesus.
The Greeks celebrate Easter lavishly with traditional candle lighting ceremonies, large family gatherings full of food and drink, fireworks, and age old church sermons that are preached throughout the night of Easter Saturday. It’s quite the celebration to witness, let alone be part of, and every family, religious or not, partakes somehow either with their own family or with their entire local community.
Before Easter begins, those who observe and practice the Greek Orthodox faith begin a food fast forty days prior to the actual Easter celebration, which lasts for three days starting on Easter Friday and ending on Easter Sunday. This period is known as Lent (Sarakosti) and begins on Kathara Deftera (Clean Monday). During Lent followers of the Orthodox faith abstain from consuming any food items that come from an animal with blood in its veins. In short, one will not eat meat, fish, cheese, milk, or eggs. On top of this you are not meant to eat anything that’s been cooked in oil or consume anything extravagant such as chocolate or wine. Many people, due to the large amount of restrictions regarding Lent, choose not to follow the fast fully and instead choose one item to abstain from for the duration of the time, such as chocolate, alcohol, or meat. Others may decide to practice a full or partial fast only during the week before Easter instead of the traditional full forty days.
The week before Easter, Megali Evdomada (Holy Week or big week) begins from Palm Sunday and ends on Easter Sunday itself. Palm Sunday, the day which marks Jesus’s arrival and entry into Jerusalem, is a large church celebration accompanied by a feast that follows the rules of the Lenten fast. It is celebrated by church goers walking around their church following a procession of palm fronds that are later folded into a cross on the church’s main alter. On each and every night during Holy Week there are well attended church services which act to commemorate the revival of Jesus’s last week before his crucifixion. During this period people spend much of their time cleaning their homes and neighborhoods in preparation for the coming feast on Easter Sunday. In Greece schools are closed during this week and a feeling of celebration and eager anticipation for the coming Sunday can be felt in the air. Wild flowers bloom from the cracks in the pavement and throughout the meadows and fields, marking the arrival of Spring, while children can be seen playing soccer and tag in the streets. While not everyone may celebrate Easter as an Orthodox Christian, the universal week off for all students, and the warmer longer days stretched out by the summer sun, brings a feeling of happiness and ease to almost everyone’s lives.
The real celebration begins on Big Thursday. On this day women crowd their kitchens and begin to bake the traditional Greek sweet Easter bread known as Tsoureki and sweet cheese filled tartlets called Kalitsounia. Children spend the day dying hard boiled eggs red which will be used for a traditional Easter game throughout the Easter weekend. These red eggs represent the blood of Christ and since ancient times have symbolized a renewal of life and carried the message of victory over death for Christ has been reborn. People also believe that these eggs ward off evil spirits, much like the Greek evil eye, and the eggs are placed on altars and next to effigies in churches and in their homes. Farmers even mark the backs of the heads of small lambs with a red dot in order to protect the lambs’ souls from evil during the Easter celebrations. This tradition of dying eggs is one that I recognized from my own Easter celebrations, although the meaning behind it was never so religious nor superstitious. However, it was fun, as well as fascinating, to see how certain customs that have been adopted and echoed throughout other cultures’ celebrations of the same holiday, in a way anchoring us all back to the original celebration and story behind Easter itself. On the night of Big Thursday there is a very important sermon given in all the churches after which some of the older Greek women, who have been observing the faith for their entire lives, spend the entire night sitting in the church in a symbolic and traditional mourning of Christ and his upcoming death.
The next day marks the holiest day of the year for those who follow the Greek Orthodox faith, Big Friday. On Big Friday almost every business is closed; for this day is a day of mourning in anticipation of Christ’s crucifixtion, and no work for Christ has died, or will that night. This is the only day of the whole year in which the divine liturgy is not read by the priests in Orthodox churches. Flags can be seen flying at half mast throughout Greece and church bells toll slowly and mournfully all day. The sound of the ancient bells can be heard echoing through the streets and mountains. The sound, although slightly tiring by the end of the day, is actually quite beautiful. The toll of each bell sounds slightly different and plays at a slightly different octave forming an orchestra of chiming slow church bells throughout the day. On this day only the simplest and blandest of things are eaten and women can be seen walking to their nearby church holding bouquets of flowers which are used to decorate the Epitaphio or symbolic bier of Christ. At 9pm On the night of Big Friday, the lamentation service is held; which celebrates and commemorates the day that Christ was crucified. At exactly nine o’clock, a coffin, or bier, that bears the image of Christ and is decorated with the flowers brought to the church by the local women, is slowly paraded through the streets and around the town. Everyone in the congregation and from the local community follows behind the coffin while the most devout members of the church walk next to it, singing hymns lamenting the death of Christ. Everyone else follows behind the great Epitaph in mournful silence, almost as if in a trance. Traditionally the congregation, while carrying lit candles, would walk from the church to the cemetery and back. However, nowadays it is quite common for the group to walk in a large circle around the church and throughout the village before returning to the church for the night’s final sermon. After this service families gather at home for a simple meal of traditionally grilled octopus, calamari, and bloodless seafood like shrimp. While heading towards one of these family meals Geeky Greeky and I passed by one of these solemn procession of churchgoers walking behind a brightly decorated coffin. The crowd was dressed in everything from t-shirts and jeans to festive, glittering dresses paired with impressively high stilettos. Small children hung on to the hands of their older siblings while mothers supported the arms of elderly grandmothers. The softly sung hymns accompanied by the mournful tolling of nearby church bells set the mood for the congregation, although a feeling of excitement could still be felt humming in the air. Yes this is a holiday of mourning and remembrance but it was still a holiday all the same. A chance for coming together with loved ones that haven’t been seen in a while. A chance for children to take a break from school and play in the streets with their friends. A chance to stay up to all hours drinking with friends late into the night. That joyous feeling could not be erased from the procession before us no matter how solemn it was meant to be.
The next day brings another day of Holy observances as everyone prepares for the night’s famous festivities. Holy Saturday is a night of noise, fire, and commotion as the Greek Orthodox followers celebrate the Resurrection of Christ himself. On this day an incredibly unique event takes place. A flame from the Holy Light at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is transferred to Greece by a military jet and brought to the Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in Athens. The Holy Flame is then distributed among waiting priests to be taken to their churches throughout Greece. Obviously, this tradition, while still practiced in areas such as Athens and major towns and cities, is not performed by every priest in Greece (how could it?), but those who can do, in fact, line up in front of the Archbishop to take the flame from the Holy Light. On Easter Saturday night everybody gathers at church for the most important service of all. This is perhaps the one night of the year where every church in Greece – from remote mountain-top locations to distant Aegean islands and city center monoliths – will open their doors and welcome their congregation to celebrate the Resurrection in a time-honored ritual in which the whole community takes part. At midnight on this day the highly anticipated candle ceremony takes place. The congregation each hold a candle; children carry special candles called a Lambatha which is usually decorated with flowers and ribbons. The Lambatha is traditionally given to the child by their Godparent during the lead up to Easter, together with a toy and perhaps some new clothes. When the clock strikes midnight the religious service draws to a close and the church is plunged into darkness, with only the single flame of the Holy Light to illuminate the night. At one minute after midnight the priest at the head of the church cries out, “Christos Anesti!” “Christ Is Risen!” and The Holy Light is passed out to the congregation, each person passing on the flame to the others around them. This represents the light of Jesus’ resurrection. At the same time, a huge bonfire containing an effigy of Judas, the betrayer of Christ, is set alight. This giant inferno is accompanied by the sounds of fireworks and small dynamites that are thrown by children and adults alike, celebrating the resurrection of Christ. When me and Geeky Greeky arrived at the local church however there was no such organization. Before and after the famous “Christos Anesti!” children and grown men could be seen throwing mini bombs at the bonfire that stood outside the church, waiting to be lit. The sound was incredible. Every five seconds a huge BOMB went off somewhere close to the huge crowd that stood around the outside of the church. Kids from ages 7 to 18 stood above the church on the balcony of a nearby abandoned building, throwing their store bought and homemade bombs at the feet of the crowd. It was truly a war zone with kids throwing these mini dynamites close enough to the watching observers that I was legitimately worried that we would be hit! Geeky Greeky’s horror stories of kids losing hands or getting severe burns from the powerful dynamites didn’t help either… After the initial shock of all the loud bangs and explosions, and collecting a little eternal flame with our own candle for ourselves, Geeky Greeky and I carefully made our way back to the car. This stressful journey took all our attention and wind-shielding abilities. Once in the car we carefully drove home where Geeky then held our flame to the top of the door frame and burned a small cross into the mantel, blessing our home for the long year to come. While driving home in the safety of the car we passed many people carefully holding their candle and walking home to their relative nests. The scene was hauntingly beautiful and the walk from the church to your house with your eyes transfixed on the flickering flame was meditative and peaceful. Once home families gather once again for a big feast of meat and cheese and all that was forbidden during the time of lent. This feast is meant to break the fast and celebrate the resurrection of Christ.
The following day is Easter Sunday. Unlike the rest of the Easter holiday there is no mourning or sadness on this day. Families and communities gather together and roast freshly killed lamb and goat on spits over an open fire. These outdoor family barbecues finalize the Easter celebration and are filled with merriment, drinking, and lawn games. The focus seems to be on traditional Greek food and drinking homemade wines and raki, the traditional Cretan liquor. On this day the red eggs that were dyed a few days prior are used to play the traditional game called Tsougrisma. During this game each person has one of the red hard boiled eggs and turns to the person sitting next to them. The two people smash their eggs together and whoever’s egg breaks loses while the winner is the one left holding the unbroken red egg. On Sunday me and Geeky Greeky drove up to his family’s village to meet the whole family for a huge sit down lunch complete with seemingly every meat under the sun. Huge platters of roasted lamb and goat sat next to heaping plates of potatoes and vegetables. The other traditional dish that is eaten on this day is a soup made of sheep innards and intestines, which I must say, was quite delicious despite its unique ingredients.
Greek Easter, although a far cry from the joyeuse ridiculousness that is American Easter, is a beautiful and uniquely celebrated event full of age old traditions and mouth-watering food. I am honored to not only have been able to experience the day itself in Greece but to have been invited to participate and celebrate with an incredibly welcoming and entertaining family that taught me all the special traditions first hand. If you find yourself in Greece during this special occasion I highly recommend seeking out a church to witness the event of the candle lighting ceremony and to try to find a local taverna that is roasting a lamb or two over the open flame. It will be an experience that I promise you will never forget.