In Greece, Easter is a huge tradition celebrated by those who cross themselves every time they pass a church and those who haven’t passed a church in well… ever. In a country where traditions run deep it’s definitely one of the traditions that run the strongest. Though the beliefs of an Orthodox Easter and an Easter in America hold the same core beliefs, the traditions differ. Instead of Easter bunnies leaving candy baskets and Easter egg hunts at grandma’s house; Orthodox churches explode fireworks in the square at midnight, so loud, I’d rather label them bombs. In the island of Chios, there are a couple of churches famous for their “rocket wars”; where they fire fireworks directly at each other. Lambs are roasted over a spit in the backyard; and of course, though we both feast on Easter Sunday, in Greece, the devout who’ve fasted forty days of all meat, animal products and oil during νηστεία (nisteia), the Orthodox lent, gorge themselves to the point some people literally die in hospitals of overindulgence!
Though my first official Easter was spent here two years ago during my first visit, I didn’t really pay much attention to the details other than the shocking fact that the lambs still had their eyeballs and tongues on them as they roasted over the fire; and the exciting fireworks. This year however, I paid more attention to try and give you the full experience. So, I’ll start with Μεγάλη Παρασκευή (Megali Paraskevi), Good Friday, and the traditional Επιτάφιος (Epitaphios), literal translation: ***grave parade.
The “grave parade” sounds rather depressing because in a sense… its supposed to be. For devout Christians, it’s the most mournful day of the year since this was the day Christ was crucified. Earlier that afternoon, the church places the επιτάφ (epitaph), the painted icon of Christ being let off the cross, on a bier, which is what they laid corpses upon to be carried to the grave. Later, the priests prepare the epitaph to be ceremonially paraded across the town square. The icon is covered with a intricately engraved wooden canopy, smothered in a thick array of spring flowers, sprinkled with rose water, decorated with candles and ceremonially sensed with incense. The idea of the ceremony, or the Επιτάφιος (Epitaphios), is to prepare this icon, the symbolic body of Christ, for a symbolic funeral. The faithful visit it throughout the day: kissing the epitaph, sometimes crawling underneath it to show their reverence by putting themselves “beneath” him; while some simply light a candle and say a short prayer.
Though Alex and I didn’t participate in this, we did arrive in the square later that night with our ceremonial candles to stand outside the church with the rest of Vrilissia (our area of Athens) and wait for the Epitaphios parade to begin. It was pretty to see the square glowing with hundreds of little candle flames, listening to the solemn lamentations from within the church, as the bells tolled solemnly.
At nine o’clock, the hour of Christ’s death, the priests began the procession around the square, as the town followed. Some dodging to the front of the ceremony to snag a picture of the Epitaph. Well, at least that was me.
Though I think its supposed to be a very quiet, somber event, it was a mix of sternly religious yiayias (Greek word for grandma) dressed in their usual black attire, young kids bouncing around as their parents struggled to keep them from burning peoples’ hair off with their unguarded candle flames, and young people there just to gather with friends. For the most part, its a mix of a solemn funeral procession and a giant town reunion.
During Μεγάλο Σάββατο (Megalo Savvado), Holy Saturday…
You have the main event, which Alex calls the “bangboombang” that I mentioned earlier is the incredibly loud fireworks exploded at midnight in the town square. But before this, the town gathers once again at the square with their ceremonial candles. All very similar to the night before… this time however, no candles are lit. Everyone awaits the holy flame which they say is carried all the way from Jerusalem by a high priest who lights the initial candle by the power of the holy spirit of God. It is then flown to relight the candles of thousands of other Christian churches around the world. Right before midnight, priests proceed again outside the church under a canopy of palm leaves, for their last ceremony of passing the holy flame… until Χριστός ανέστη!! (Christ has risen) and the town explodes in booms of fireworks, tolling church bells, screaming children and Αληθῶς ἀνέστη! which means, “It is true he has risen!”
Then, everyone fights through the town traffic of everyone known to anyone, to head to their mom’s house for the traditional μαγειρίτσα (mageiritsa); a soup made of herbs, lemon and… (you don’t really want to know if you actually want to try it someday). Let’s just say a wide variety of lamb parts. Alex’s mom, because she’s traditionally British and is about as into the idea of a wide variety of lamb parts as I am, cooked a revised version of μαγειρίτσα with just rice and liver.
It oddly enough tasted a lot like σπανακόπιτα (spanakopita) which is a spinach cheese pie I really like here… so I enjoyed it 🙂
Now for the final day… Easter Sunday! Καλό Πάσχα (Kalo Paska)!!
This is many Greeks, religious and non-religious, favorite day of the year. Because here, what’s more religiously upheld than religion itself, is a party! On Easter Sunday everyone sits with their friends and families feasting and roasting lambs in the backyard. Though our friends this year weren’t particularly into waking up at seven a.m to roast a whole lamb, we still ate till we wanted to die (none of us actually did however) already prepped lamb ribs, sausages, potatoes and playing τσουγκρισμα (tsougrisma). This is the tradition of taking died red Easter eggs, symbolizing the blood of Christ, and tapping the head and tail end of your egg against your friend’s egg, to see whose egg wouldn’t crack. Whoever’s egg didn’t crack is said to be the luckiest person of the year (which was ME!).
So, if you ever want to plan a visit to Greece, Easter time is not a bad time to book. Especially if you can join locals you know to try all the traditional Greek Easter customs. But again, just don’t ask what’s in the soup :).
*** the translation of the Επιτάφιος (Epitaphios) into “grave parade” I found out later is definitely not the translation! Ha! Not sure what it is exactly… but note to those who don’t speak Greek with Greek friends… don’t always trust their translation of a word they know you don’t. Often times you’ll get trolled with.