Friday 10 April 2015

Celebrating Easter in Greece

Pascha, Easter is the most important day in the Greek calendar, celebrated with much more enthusiasm and excitement than Christmas. It's a festival which is not only religious, but a cultural event which brings communities together.

Holy Week is the apotheosis but Easter celebrations are much longer than just the week.

They begin with Apokries, which could be compared to Mardi Gras. This involves several weeks of partying, a tradition that may go back to the celebrations of Dionysus, where people dress up in  costume: it's a great time for kids, and I remember dressing up for various occasions when I was a child.

This is a photograph of my grandmother on my mother's side and all of her grandchildren celebrating Apokries.

After the last weekend of Apokries religious Greeks begin their fasting on Kathari Deutera, Clean Monday which is a day for spending time with friends and family, going to the countryside and flying kites. From Clean Monday up to the end of the week of Easter the devout will fast - no meat or fish, nothing with blood. The less devout will fast during Big Week.

Big Week, Easter Week, begins on Palm Sunday and there are church services commemorating the last week in the life of Jesus. The churches, and there are hundreds in Greece, are decorated beautifully, the altars embroidered with buds and flowers that have been intricately woven together. The service on Thursday commemorates the Last Supper and the Betrayal of Christ. During this service a two-dimensional figure of Christ on the cross is brought into the church and set up, while the church bells ring. On Friday the nails holding the figure of Christ are knocked off and the figure is taken down from the cross and wrapped in a white cloth. A large piece of cloth, embroidered with the image of Christ, called the Epitaphios is brought into the church. The church bells start to toll and all the flags in Greece are lowered to half-mast. In the evening a funeral service is held and at about 9pm the Epitaphios, the bier, which represents Christ's burial place, is taken from the church and with the bells tolling mournfully, is carried through the streets in a solemn procession.

On Saturday the Orthodox Patriarch breaks the seal of the door of the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and emerges with the Holy Fire, which is then flown to Athens and distributed to churches all over Greece.

Anastasi, on Saturday night, sees pretty much the entire country in church: it does not matter if you're religious or not, even though most Greeks are - this is a cultural event, a getting together of the whole country and everyone attends. The churches are packed, people standing in the darkness, everyone holding a candle. The lights are turned off at midnight and the priest announces that Christ has risen from the dead. Candles are lit from the priest's and then from each other: the tiny flame is passed from one candle to the next spreading and multiplying.  Fireworks and sometimes dynamite erupt.

The small town of Vrondathos on the island of Chios is known for its 'rouketopolemos' where rival churches fire hundreds of rockets at each other's churches. (Image taken from here )

Then everyone heads for home with their lighted candles to light the kandili in front of the family icon. If you're an atheist like us, then you carry the candle home and then snuff it out. Those who have been fasting can now eat. The traditional dish is magiritsa, a thick soup made from the intestines of the lamb that will be roasted the next day.

Easter Day, Pascha or Lambri,  is a huge celebration: a lamb is roasted, traditionally on a spit, and friends and family get together to eat, drink, talk and dance. In some towns and villages it's a community celebration with rows of lambs on the spit roasting in the square.

When I was a child the whole of our extended family on my mother's side would go to my aunt's summer house in Glyfada: a lamb would be roasted on a spit in the garden, there would be lots of food, alcohol for the adults,

tsoureki, a traditional cake,

which always has a red egg in the middle

koulourakia, Easter biscuits

chocolate eggs

and more eggs.

Then we would all crack eggs.

According to age-old Greek tradition, Easter eggs are dyed red. The red colour represents the blood of Christ while the egg itself represents the sealed tomb of Jesus.

Cracking, or 'tsougrisma', symbolizes the breaking open of the tomb and Christ's resurrection from the dead. Two people compete by holding their respective egg in their hand and tapping at each other's egg. The goal is to crack the other person's egg. The winner then uses the same end of the egg to tap the other, non-cracked end of the opponent's egg. The winner is the one whose egg will crack the eggs of all the other players and s/he will have good luck for the rest of the year.

This Easter we will have a family celebration. There will be six of us and we are all very much looking forward to it. It snowed in large areas of Greece yesterday, even in Attica, which is where we are, but not in Athens itself even though it was very cold yesterday. So, it will be a white Easter for a lot of people. The forecast is good for Sunday though, so fingers crossed.

Finally, a traffic cop from 1972 in Athens. (Image taken from here )

Photographs of events will be posted as the week unfolds.


  1. the sweets seem to be very delicious, I am already a fan of sweets and chocolates and when we travelled to the Sacred places Greece, we bought many chocolates with us, but all my cousins took my chocolates and did not let me eat anything.

  2. Poor you! Does not seem fair...

    I agree with you, they are delicious. I hope you get another chance to go to Greece and sample the sweets.

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