Easter in Greece, called “Pascha” is the holiday that traditionally starts on Clean Monday (or Ash Monday) and its beginning is signaled by “Sarakosti”; the forty days of fasting to spiritually prepare for Greek Orthodox Easter. The lent ends at midnight on Holy Saturday and during its period the body is cleansed and the spirit is tried as discipline in preparation for the acceptance of the resurrection of Christ.
It is the strictest fasting period of the orthodox calendar, and in Greece respected, and followed by many. Those that choose not to fast for the full forty days can choose to do so only during the Holy Week.
Every place that serves food or snacks advertises lenten “nistisima” dishes. The Greek Orthodox fast involves avoiding the consumption of any ‘red blood’ produce – therefore, no meat, eggs or dairy. No fish is allowed either, except for seafood from supposedly ‘bloodless’ creatures. The fast gets stricter with not even vegetable oil allowed on Wednesday and Good Friday.
The first 5 Fridays of the Lent is the “Heretismoi”, the salutations to “Panagia” Virgin Mary. The Church and the people salute the Virgin Mary by singing the “Akathistos Hymnos” (standing hymn). Everybody is standing when they sing this hymn and hence got that name.
The Holy week is deeply contemplative. It is controversial, but the saddest days in the Christian calendar are lightened with the happiest preparations. On Maundy Thursday, the tsourekia are prepared (rich, eggy, and slightly sweet Easter bread that is baked in big fat braids). The scent of butter and mahlepi – the crushed pits of wild cherries with their exotic, slightly dusty scent – fills every house and traditional bakery! The tang of hot vinegar fills the air too; this is the day we dye eggs deep lustrous red, symbolic of the blood of Christ, and vinegar helps the dye set.
Good Friday is a day like no other – unmistakably somber as it dawns to church bells sounding one single, mournful toll at regular intervals as the Church mourns the death and burial of Christ. Public services are closed all day, and shops are generally closed until the early afternoon so that everyone has the opportunity to stop by the church. Housewives usually do not do any housework on that day avoiding even cooking. Moreover, many people drink vinegar on that day in resemblance to the vinegar given to Jesus on the cross.
All day the faithful come to pay their respects at the Epitaphios – the symbolic funeral bier of Christ – which has been covered completely with flowers that the unmarried young ladies have collected from various gardens around the island. Come evening, on Astypalea island, there will be a procession of the icons and the coffin of Jesus Christ around the streets of the villages. Streets close around the main churches of the island, namely Lady Portaitissa, Grand Lady (Megali Panayia) in Chora, St. Nicolas at Pera Yialos and St. Dimitrios in Maltezana village, and they fill with people following the processions, candles alight.
People come out on their balconies with candles too as the procession passes below. The procession is accompanied by the singing of the Trisagion, typically in a melodic form used at funerals and the mood is solemn. The procession of the different parishes of St. Nicolas, Lady Portaitissa and Grand Lady join together and converge to the main Platia of Chora, where they are raised by hand or on poles like a canopy and the faithful pass under it, symbolically entering into the grave with Christ. The Epitaphios is then brought directly to the sanctuary, where it remains on the Holy Table until Ascension Thursday. The joy of the resurrection is just a little more than 24 hours away.
Remember to have candles with you (brown for Friday, white or a decorated or plain white one for Saturday) and enjoy it with all your heart! For those wondering what the word Epitáphios actually means, it is composite, from the Greek ἐπί, epí, "on" or "upon", and τάφος, táphos, "grave" or "tomb".
Holy Saturday is all madness. It’s the last minute for shopping, and there’s lots of it. In addition to the chocolate eggs and bunnies that accompany Easter everywhere, we need lambades to take the holy flame of the resurrection home from the church. These are special candles that come in an astonishing variety – decorated with everything from fairy princesses to logos from football teams. Godparents give them to the children they have baptized, along with a generous gift. And don’t forget to pick up a whole lamb or a goat to roast on the spit for Sunday lunch. It’s quite a shopping list.
Back home, we make magiritsa – a soup of lamb innards and bountiful fresh herbs, bound with an egg-lemon liaison. It sounds a little wild, but the herbs and lemon do a lot for it. We’ll break the fast with this delicious soup after we come home from the church.
Allow plenty of time to get dressed. You’d maybe think a religious holiday would call for modest attire, but you’d be wrong. The dress code is all-out glamorous for those who will be going out to the clubs and bars later on!
This most important of services is a long one. But truly, what with the magiritsa making and dressing for church, most of us only manage to get there barely a half hour before midnight. The church cannot begin to hold us all; the courtyard and the surrounding streets fill up. A loudspeaker clues us in to the proceedings. We each have a candle, and one of the eggs we dyed on Thursday. Anticipation rises.
And now the bells start to ring loud and fast. The priest and cantors sing, and we along with them- the most joyous song of the year:
“Χριστός ανέστη εκ νεκρών, θανάτω θάνατον πατήσας, και τοις εν τοις μνήμασι ζωήν χαρισάμενος.”
(Christos Anesti ek nekron, thanato thanaton patisas, kai tis en tis mnimasi zoin harisamenos = Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs, granting life.)
The holy flame is shared from candle to candle, spreading throughout the crowd. Fireworks fill the skies – lots of them. You can hear them from all parts of the town. We all greet each other with a kiss on each cheek and a wish of “Christos Anesti” (“Christ is Risen”), with the answer “Alithos Anesti” (“Truly He is risen”). Tip: leave your camera filming at the balcony of Kallichoron Art Boutique Hotel and you will have the best recording of the impressive fireworks!
We crack our eggs together; the red shell, symbolizing the blood of Christ, falls away. And even in this solemn, commemorative act there is celebration – it’s also a contest to see who has the hardest egg.
Planning Your Greek Easter Vacation
When planning your vacation to Greece during Easter, keep in mind the country celebrates two separate holidays, western Easter and the Greek Orthodox Easter.
The Greek Orthodox calendar is different than the Gregorian calendar, which is most commonly used in Western countries and the United States; as a result, Greek Easter is most likely to fall on a different day.
- A Season of Anticipation: The Glorious Build Up to Greek Easter, Amber Charmei, April 2018
- Epitaphios: Traditions of Holy Friday, Stella Tsolakidou, May 2013
- The meaning of Sarakosti in Greece by CretePost.gr, April 2018
- Greek Easter Greetings: Say Happy Easter in Greece by Detraci Regula, March 2018