When thinking of visiting Greece, most people think of summer– summer in the islands or in the mountains or even in the Greek famous cities, like the capital, Athens, or Thessaloniki, or Patra.
But few get to experience the country and its hospitable people in the unique beauty of spring, folklore, mysticism, and spirituality that is Greece during Easter!
In Greece, Easter is perhaps the most important religious holiday of the year, even greater than Christmas! Preparations and customs related to Easter start long before the Holy Week before Easter Sunday- in fact, preparations take forty whole days, the Sarakosti or 40-Day Lent, in a gradual ever-enhancing process of self-cleansing and spirituality coupled with fun, good food, and community cohesion.
These forty days always take place on the cusp of Winter giving into Spring, so the more Easter nears, the more the land becomes warm, fragrant, colorful, and just saturated with the joy of rebirth.
Depending on how observant of traditions Greeks are, they may fast during the entire forty-day period (fasting becomes gradually stricter, as week by week, you are expected to give up consuming certain foods, starting with meat, then eggs and dairy, then oil, and then cooking anything at all beyond boiling it) or they may engage in the most important days of fasting and customary rituals that take place in the last week before Easter Sunday, the Holy Week or Great/Grand Week.
If you plan to visit Greece during Easter, you want to be there at least from Palm Sunday, and enjoy the entire scope of all traditions. Make sure that you visit with a Greek family to be even better inducted into the logic and the rituals, as a lot of them are meant to be done within the household!
Easter in Greece- Holy Week
Each day of the Holy Week has its own customs. Depending on where you choose to spend it, some areas (especially islands and villages) observe them more prominently than others. There are also regional customs to look for, so keep in mind this is what is done throughout Greece- you can and will discover little gems hidden away in various regions that add to the local flavor!
Palm Sunday is the official beginning of the Holy Week, and until Easter Sunday, it is the only day when a joyous feeling permeates the day: Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ triumphant arrival into Jerusalem, where people set their clothes and palm tree leaves on the street for him to pass over.
The church mass includes a reenactment of this event, with palm tree leaves strewn all over the floor of the church, and church goers are given palm trees and crosses woven out of palm trees to take home. It is a very joyous mass, and depending on the region, the reenactment can be very detailed and extravagant.
The food eaten on Palm Sunday is fish, oil, and wine. You are not allowed other kinds of meat, dairy products, or eggs. Despite that, Palm Sunday feast is opulent and extremely tasty, with the king of the table being deep fried cod in fluffy butter and accompanied by a garlic creamy dip and a range of different elaborate salads.
Holy Monday is the first day of grim omens. It is the day when “the withering of the fig tree” is commemorated, as an omen for the bad days that are coming. It is also a commemoration of Joseph from the Bible, who was sold by his brothers out of jealousy for being the most loved and virtuous. Joseph went through several adventures in Egypt where he was sold as a slave, until he rose through the ranks thanks to his gift of telling the meaning of dreams, and saved Egypt from famine. Now a free man and full of riches as the Pharaoh’s favorite, Joseph is reunited with his penitent brothers. This commemoration is done as an analogy to Jesus Christ, and preparation of endurance of the bad until the good arrives.
In villages mostly, you will see people painting flowerpots red and yards white, in preparation of the Easter colors. Holy Monday is a remembrance to endure and be virtuous, so blessings will come to you.
Holy Tuesday is when the church commemorates the parable of the Ten Virgins: They were all waiting for the newlywed groom to arrive and holding lamps. Five of them had foreseen they may need refills and kept extra oil, while the other five did not. Indeed, the groom was very late, and they all were tired and sleepy. When suddenly the heralds yelled that the groom was arriving, the five virgins with the extra oil refilled their lamps and lit them. The other five didn’t have enough so their lamps remained extinguished, and thus they couldn’t enter into the festivities. The morale here is to keep in mind that being virtuous is a marathon, and energy and commitment should last that long.
During Holy Tuesday, the house is thoroughly cleaned, and observers are supposed to also clean their souls, by seeking to settle grudges and differences, in preparation for Easter.
On Holy Wednesday, the commemoration of Jesus’ anointing by a sinful woman is done, and his teaching that she invested all she had in her penitence and care, and thus became absolved of her sins. On criticism of her by Jesus’ students that she spent too much money on expensive myrrh to wash Jesus’ feet with, instead of donating it to the poor, Jesus foretells his death, saying that he won’t be among them for much longer, while the poor will.
During Holy Wednesday, tradition had it that the flour with which the Easter sweet bread will be made is taken to the church during the Sacrament of the Holy Unction. In even earlier times, the leaven of the year was created on this day and blessed by the priest.
Great and Holy Thursday
On this day, the Divine Drama begins. During church mass, and up until Resurrection Sunday, reenactments take place.
On Holy Thursday, the arrest of Jesus, his trial and Crucifixion are reenacted in the Church. In many regions, there is a procession with a big icon of Christ on a large cross. The entire sequence of events is read out from all four gospels in the New Testament in segments of three, in a lengthy evening mass called “the 12 gospels mass”.
After mass is done, the church remains open, and the Epitaph is brought out. Traditionally young girls (but now anyone can) stay during the night and adorn the Epitaph with flowers and ribbons. The beauty of the Epitaph, which is supposed to be completely covered in flowers, is often an unsaid competition between different churches and parishes. The faithful traditionally produce works of art!
At home, it is the day where eggs are dyed crimson and red, in symbolism of Jesus’ blood dripping from the cross and the Easter sweetbread is made.
Doing chores of any other sort in the house is strictly forbidden, as observers are in grief and mourning.
Great and Holy Friday
Early in the morning of Holy Friday (also known as Ash Friday) the process of taking Jesus off the cross and placing him in the decorated Epitaph is reenacted.
During the entire day, the church bells ring slowly, in mourning. Playing loud music is forbidden, and flags are all flying at half-mast in public buildings. During this day, cooking at all is forbidden, and fasting is the strictest- no meat, no dairy, no eggs, no oil.
During the evening, is the mass of the Epitaph, where the mourning of Jesus’ death by his disciples and his students and mother is reenacted. The Epitaph is brought out in a great procession, like a proper funeral, and the faithful follow it holding lit candles made of pure beeswax. They sing very specific, gorgeously melodious hymns and mourning songs handed down from the Byzantine times at every crossroads.
In many areas (including the cities) if there are churches relatively close together, their Epitaphs meet in a designated area for a big commemoration of the dead and other prayers for the dead and their resurrection.
Often, after the procession returns to the church, the Epitaph stays at the door of the church for the faithful to pass under it, to receive blessings. They often also take some of the flowers, which are considered sacred, to place in an auspicious place in the house.
Great and Holy Saturday (Resurrection Saturday)
Early in the morning, there takes place “the small Resurrection”. It is the first part of the triumphant reenactment, commemorating when the female students of Christ went to his tomb to apply myrrh to his body but found the tomb empty, and an angel announcing his Resurrection to them. They then rush to his disciples to tell the news, but it is still very much told in secret, and doubt shrouds their news.
Early in the morning, the church is decorated in triumphant whites and reds. In the Epitaph there is an image of Jesus having Risen from the dead. During this mass, depending on the region, there are various reenactments, all of them triumphant. Fasting can be broken if people receive Communion during this mass. If not, they will need to wait until the evening.
While the bells don’t knell anymore, there is still quiet as technically, very few are aware that Christ has Risen. Preparations for the Resurrection night feast are furiously made so that there will be time to rest and be ready for the nighttime Resurrection Mass.
People gather as early as 10 in the evening (though many show up around 11:30, in anticipation of midnight), dressed well and carrying white candles or other colorful decorated votive candles called lambades(i.e. the Resurrection Candle, or the Candle of Easter). For youngsters, the godmother or godfather is supposed to buy this candle for them. Adults get it on their own.
Mass begins in the church, which is very dimly lit, just enough so people can see where to go. It is extremely dark to symbolize the darkness of death. Then the priest comes out holding lit candles with the Holy Flame- fire that is supposed to have been miraculously lit within the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem, and flown into Greece on the same day. Instead of swarming forward to light the candles, it is the flame the gets passed through like concentric waves in a lake, as people light each other’s candles while singing “Come Receive the Light”. This is a wonderful process of cohesion and mysticism, and if you are there, you feel one with people you have never met, and never will again!
Once this is done, people walk out of the church with the lit candles, where the priests read out the gospel on a dais and finally yell in triumph that “Christ has Risen!” and the bells ring incessantly while fireworks of all types drown out the sound. This is done several times, and mass is dismissed.
The more devoted stay on for another mass that starts immediately after and holds until around 4 am, but the rest return home, keeping the candles lit. This is very important because carrying the Holy Light home is considered a special, sacred blessing.
It is with this candlelight that the feast of Resurrection is had among the family, with the traditional mageiritsa (a soup made of herbs, lettuce, and lamb intestines) and the first red eggs are cracked: Each person chooses one, and they crack them against each other saying “Christ has Risen” and responding “In Truth He has Risen!”. Whoever has the egg that cracks, ‘loses’ and his/her egg is the one eaten.
Easter Sunday (the Great Passover, Pascha)
Easter Sunday is the day where outdoors and indoors feasting begins early. Whole lambs on a spit are set up in yards to slowly roast over red-hot coals for hours and hours until the early afternoon, while dancing and signing and eating of the Easter sweetbread, the Easter cookies, and a whole range of opulent foods and sweets takes place.
This is an occasion where entire kins meet from across Greece, or huge circles of friends congregate. It’s not unusual for groups to be more than twenty or thirty people at a time. Passersby are invited in as guests and old friends, and there is a general air of hospitability and partying throughout the day.
The fragrances of spring mix with that of food cooking and meat roasting, as well as with the singing and laughing and music from everywhere.
Needless to say, this leaves everyone in a stupor of having drunk and eaten too much by the evening, so they go to sleep to repeat it the next day, as Monday is called “Easter Monday” and the partying continues!
Special Easter Customs around Greece
Now you know the baseline for all the celebrations of the Greek Orthodox Easter, here are some regional customs you don’t want to miss!
Tinos and Hydra islands: Epitaph in the sea
In several islands, but definitely in the islands of Tinos and Hydra, the Epitaph is carried out into the sea by the pallbearers who stand in the water to their chest, no matter how cold the sea is! This is to bless and commemorate all the dead sailors that the islanders have in their families.
Santorini (Thera): The light of Pyrgos
On Holy Friday, the old medieval castle city of Pyrgos Kallistis gets lit up. People place tin cans with flammable liquids and light them on the edges of all balconies, side streets, roofs, churches, and the castle itself, making the entire village alight and visible in the night in a spectacular manner.
Kozani: Resurrection Saturday at the cemeteries
In Kozani, in the region of Macedonia, the midnight mass of Resurrection Saturday takes place in the cemeteries. People gather around the tombs of their loved ones for the mass, hold the Holy Light candles over the graves, and sing “Christ has Risen” there, leaving a red egg on the tomb, as a promise that resurrection will come for all in the Second Coming. It’s a unique experience, with the cemeteries decorated in candle lights and flowers, and joy mixing with bittersweet longing.
Corfu: Throwing and smashing pots
The custom is called Botides, and on Resurrection Saturday, at exactly 11 am, at the Venetian historical center of Corfu’s Chora, the dwellers throw huge ceramic pots from their balconies, smashing them below with great noise and laughter. This is done to banish evil spirits and death.
Chania, Crete: The burning of Judas
In Chania town, at midnight on Resurrection Saturday, a great, larger than life idol of Judas is paraded out and burned just as the priest chants the “Christ has Risen” hymn.
Chios: The fireworks rocket battle
In the village of Vrontados, in Chios island, two small parishes are at war during the night of Resurrection Saturday. From the roofs of their churches, they fire volleys of impressive, homemade fireworks, filling the night sky with ribbons of light. This is called the Rocket War, and the winner of the war is whoever strikes the opposing church’s bell with the fireworks rocket. Of course, annually, each of the opponents claims victory the next day!