EASTER IN GREECE
During Greek Easter is a wonderful time to visit Greece and experience all the customs and traditions that the Greeks celebrate today that has changed very little in hundreds of years!
Easter in Greece is the biggest holiday of the year and is even more important than Christmas, with week long celebrations and traditions. The Greek Orthodox Church plays a large role in the Greek Easter ‘Paska’ or ‘ Pascha’ celebrations. Greek Orthodox Easter usually falls one week after the Western (Protestant, Catholic) Easter, while approximately once every four years it falls on the same date.
Greek Easter Traditions
There are many traditions in Greece revolving around Easter and the week leading up to Easter plays a major role in these. This week is known as Holy Week or ‘Megali Evdomada’(literally meaning the Big Week). Throughout Holy Week the churches hold services at least once a day. Traditionally the people fast and no meat, oil or dairy products are eaten until midnight on Easter Saturday, after the symbolic Ressurection.
Holy Monday (Megali Deftera)
The first day of Holy Week. People go to church and kiss the icon of Christ.
Holy Tuesday (Megali Triti)
A day of mourning. The women bake Easter biscuits “koulouraki’ with oil and eggs, to be eaten after the fast is over on Saturday.
Holy Wednesday (Megali Tetarti)
A special church service for worshippers to be blessed with oil. All household chores must be finished today.
Holy Thursday (Megali Pempti)
Communion services in church start early morning today and churchgoers bow before Christ on the Cross. The women dye eggs red to symbolise the blood of Christ, and bake Easter bread – Tsoureki. These will be placed on the Easter table to be eaten after Saturday.
Holy Friday (Megali Paraskevi)
On Good Friday or Holy Friday, this is a very holy day in the orthodox faith. It is a day of mourning and the church bells will ring slow and steady through the day. People will be flocking to the church at all times of the day for prayers. It is a day of no work (or cooking).In the evening, a procession will leave the church, headed by the priest and his close followers, going round the neighbourhood streets to eventually return to the church. All the neighbourhood will be out, lining the streets to watch as the procession passes by. Some will follow behind, once it has passed to return to the church. In some communities, at the head of the procession, the church leaders will be carrying a bier on their shoulders, which will be decorated with many flowers and in the centre will be a symbolic icon of Christ. This procession represents the path Jesus’ followers took, removing his body off the cross and taking it to the grave. The people gathered along the streets are lamenting the death of Christ. This procession is called Epitafios.
Holy Saturday (Megalo Savvato)
The eternal flame is brought to Greece and passed on to the priests to take the flame back to their churches, where a main candle in the church is lit with this flame. On this day, people will be preparing the celebrational meal, they will cook any foods that can be prepared a day ahead and will also prepare and cook in the early evening.
Just before midnight, everyone, including children will head to their local church. There will be so many people there that they will just gather outside of the church, often with speakers to be able to hear the priest inside. Everyone will bring along with them a thin white candle – or you will find many street sellers around with an array of decorated Greek Easter candles for sale. Just before midnight, all the lights will be put out with just the eternal flame flickering.
After midnight, the priest calls out, Christos Anesti, which means Christ is Risen. He will then take the flame and light the candles of those closest to him with the eternal flame. These people will then pass the flame on to others and so on, until it has reached all the people gathered outside, and everyone’s candle is alight. People will greet each other with Christos Anesti and reply with Alithos Anesti – Truly He is Risen.
The crowds will then return to their homes, protecting their flames so that they don’t go out until they reach their homes. It is a wonderful sight, to see the dark night, lit up by thousands of flames moving slowly down the streets, disbursing different ways to their homes. Once they arrive home, it is a custom to create a cross on the front door of their homes, made with the smoke of the flame. It is believed that their home will then be blessed for that year. As midnight ends the period of lent, the Greeks will go home and traditionally sit down to a bowl of Mayiritsa – a Greek Easter soup that is always eaten on this evening. This soup will have been prepared earlier in the evening and kept warm whilst at the church ready to eat on their return, along with tsoureki bread and the red cooked eggs.
On Easter Sunday a gastronomic marathon takes place
A gastronomic marathon for “tough” competitors and food-party animals brings the 40-day period of fasting to an end. It all starts when people return home from the midnight Resurrection Mass and have the traditional “mayirítsa”, a delicious lemon meat soup made with lamb offal and flavoured with fresh lettuce and dill. Spiced bread, fresh cheese and traditional boiled red eggs complete the event. The eggs are used for a special game this time of year. One player hits the bottom of the other player’s egg with the top of his own. Whichever egg loses, i.e. gets broken, is eaten.
When Greeks talk about Easter they are referring to the whole holiday period, but it is on the actual day of Easter (Easter Sunday) that the partying takes place. At the crack of dawn a lamb or a goat, the superstar of the Easter meal, begins to roast on the barbecues of Greece, some of which are improvised affairs constructed over holes dug in the ground
In Central Greece they opt for lamb, whereas on the islands they prefer goat stuffed with spices, rice and chopped entrails. Some skill is required to cook some of the dishes and it is usually the experienced ones who will prepare the “kokoretsi”, a dish made with lamb’s entrails wrapped around a spit with its bowel, and the “spleenántero”, i.e. lamb’s bowel stuffed with its spleen. While the meat is cooking, housewives take fresh, unsalted cheese out of its cheesecloth and everyone starts nibbling away at finger food, salads and appetisers, such as the famous Greek dish “tzatziki”.
Now is the time for all the neighbours to prove themselves as accomplished amateur winemakers. Remember that “retsina”, although widely consumed in Greece, is not generally regarded as a particularly classy wine. But there is more to come to make your mouth water and give your eyes a feast when dessert is served: Easter plaited cookies and “tsouréki”, a kind of brioche with a red egg in the middle, are sure to enchant everybody with their sweet aroma. Delicious honey pies made of honey, eggs and mizithra cheese (a traditional, unpasteurized fresh cheese), and sweet cheese tartlets round off the gastronomic orgy.
Join us for music at full blast, folk dancing, red-egg games and an unforgettable food experience!
Easter Game with the Red Eggs
A Greek Easter tradition is the game tsougrisma (knocking together). Those who have played conkers will find that it’s very similar! Two players take a red egg each. One player holds their egg in a fist while the other player taps the end of their egg against the end of the other player’s egg. The egg which cracks is the loser. The winning egg goes on to play with other players / eggs. The last player to keep their egg intact is the winner.
Greek Easter around the Islands
Many Greek Islands have their own additional Greek Easter traditions. Some traditions even vary from village to village.
– In Crete children make an effigy of Judas which they burn on a huge bonfire outside the church after the Saturday midnight service.
– In Corfu the “Pot Throwing” custom takes place on Holy Saturday at 11am and the local people throw pots out of their windows, smashing them onto the streets below.
– Vrontados: here Easter is a BLAST!
Apart from being the Island of Aromas in the Northeastern Aegean, Chios is well known for the magnificent Easter festivities too. The scenic picture of ship owners’ mansions with exquisite flower garden designs, peaceful little ports with colourful boats, and picturesque windmills by the sea, dramatically changes after the Resurrection mass.
On the night of the Holy Saturday the villagers of Vrontados are ready to set the night on fire! A rocket war breaks out here, which dates back to the age of the Turkish occupation (15th-19th centuries) and turns this village into a virtual battlefield. The conflict is between the Panagoussians (which would be something like the “Madonnians”), i.e. the parishioners of Panayia in Erithiani(=Madonna in Erithiani), and the Aghiomarkoussians (Saintmarkians), i.e. the parishioners of Saint Mark, and both of theirsrockets aim at the dome and the emblem of the church of theirrivals.
The preparation for this bloodless “war” lasts for months and the improvised rockets, made of coal, sulphur and nitre, are put on wooden stands ready for the “gunners of Chios” to fire them. Teasing and challenging each other alternate with test shots until the sound of a horn signals “fire”, late at night. And although “warriors” take a break to let people attend the liturgy of the Ressurection, they release the storm of fire right after midnight. The spring night sky lights upas tongues of fire and golden orbits of rockets speed to their targets in bangs and thunders. The dark of the night fuses into the red of the cross-fire, and thousands of locals and visitors marvel at this fascinating and unique-in-the-world sky spectacle.
The following day, the beautiful village of Vrontados finds again its peaceful self. The sticks left from the launched rockets around each church will be counted, and the winner will be finally announced. But whoever that is, the villagers bury the hatchet until next year’s Easter Saturday. After all, love and friendship always conquer all!