Easter in Greece is the most celebrated and significant holiday on the calendar and within the Greek Orthodox Church. The preparations for Easter are just as important as the festivities and many of the old-established customs and traditions are still passed down from generation to generation, keeping family ties as strong as ever in today’s modern society.
Although the days, (Holy week) leading up to Easter are deemed very sorrowful and sad in respect for the crucifixion, the celebrations that follow on Easter Sunday are colorful and lively with sumptuous feasts, drinking and dancing. Holy week is also a time for fasting and the Greek diet excludes meat, fish, (but not seafood), eggs, oil and dairy products. This fasting has actually begins seven weeks before Easter Sunday on “Clean Monday”.
Holy Thursday marks a busy day for the women at home; distinctive aromas of freshly baked sweet Easter bread, “Tsoureki” and tasty biscuits, “Koulourakia” linger in kitchens throughout Greece, and women and children dye dozens of boiled eggs vivid red or an array of bright colors.
The ruby red eggs symbolize the blood of Christ and also the renewal of life.
Holy Thursday is also a time for private and special prayers; it is a start of a two day traditional mourning, when most people of all ages go to church to light brown candles and to silently pray next to a symbolic representation of the crucifixion. Church services are held in the evening and many of the older women will even hold a night- time vigil.
An aura of great sadness falls over Greek communities on Holy Friday as the steady death toll rings out all over the country. It is a day of deep mourning with flags at half-mast and a somber atmosphere prevails in many homes. During the afternoon church services, there is a re-enactment of the crucifixion where the figure of Christ is removed from the cross and placed in a shrine that has been decorated with flowers by women and children.
Later in the evening, a subdued congregation follows the shrine, (representing Christ’s tomb) in a silent candlelit funeral procession as it is carried through the streets. The crowded procession stops on every corner in the neighborhood, while a priest announces that they are all mourning the death of Christ. On returning to church, everyone who attended the service receives a carnation or rose to take home.
Holy Saturday is a day of last minute preparations for Easter Sunday’s celebrations. For example, the traditional Easter soup, Mayiritsa (which signifies that the forty day of fasting is finally over) is prepared from lamb offal ready to eat after the midnight church service. Special long decorated candles instead of the brown ones are used to celebrate Christ’s resurrection and all over the country anticipation mounts.
Late in the evening, crowds of people descend on the church for the most celebrated service in Greece. Then, just before midnight, the lights in the church are extinguished and the bells start to ring out the announcement that Christ has risen. Finally, a priest passes a single eternal flame from his candle to pass round the congregation and the dark sky overhead is lit up with fireworks. “Christos Anesti” – Christ has risen can be heard all around.
It is a tradition in Greece to carefully carry the eternal flame home to make a cross with black smoke over the top of the door, which is said to bless the house. After everyone has returned home, it is time for the Mayiritas soup and the red boiled eggs. However, first, each person has to see who has the strongest egg by smashing it together with their opponents.
After the previous evening’s excitement and early morning meal, surprisingly, nearly everyone is up early on Easter Sunday. In most cases from the bright of dawn, grills are fired up and the traditional lamb or goat along with “Kokoretsi”, (seasoned lamb offal) is already turning slowly on the spit. Tables are prepared for a great feast and the aroma of roast meat wafts over the countryside and from the rooftops in the city. Loud Greek music drifts through the air and high-spirited Greeks are ready for eating, drinking, singing and dancing all afternoon at their family Easter celebration.