Easter in Greece — Centuries of Tradition
In spring, Greece blooms both physically and spiritually. Easter, not Christmas, is the rock star in the Orthodox calendar. Perhaps it is in other forms of Christianity as well, but that’s harder for me to see through the layers of commercialism and weeks of planning that precede Christmas. The weeks of shopping, wrapping, decorating, and baking; the numerous Secret Santa, Yankee Santa, and White Elephant gift exchanges; the caroling, the donations, and the holiday movie marathons. On Easter, the only preparation required is to stock the fridge with eggs and the baskets with candy. Years of living in our commercial society has perpetuated my beliefs that Christmas is the most important holiday in Christianity; perhaps if I was more religious, I would see through this sham?
Theologically, though, Easter is more important than Christmas. Think about it: on Christmas, we celebrate a birthday…no big deal, people are born all the time, right? But on Easter, that same guy supposedly rose from the dead…that’s more impressive, and basically everything in the Greek church leads up to this day. Greece celebrates not just Easter itself, but the days leading up to it with a seriousness and intensity I have not seen here in the US in other forms of Christianity. After witnessing Easter Sunday and the traditions leading up to this day in Greece, I have a better understanding of the holiday and why it is so important to so many people.
Last spring, my mother-in-law and I arrived in Aegina, Greece on the Thursday before Easter, known as Maundy Thursday. The traditional red (symbolizing blood and life) Greek Easter eggs are prepared on this day, but we just bought ours already dyed at a local market. This was basically the only Maundy Thursday tradition I participated in, since I spent the rest of the day sleeping after our journey of two planes, a taxi, a ferry, and yet another car.
But, I still experienced another Holy Week tradition, even though I didn’t participate per se. On the way to the family’s house before my epic sleep session, we stopped for lunch at a lovely waterfront taverna. I ordered a chicken and pistachio dish (the island of Aegina is known for its pistachios), but due to the locals’ fasting traditions during Holy Week, there was no chicken! Most Greeks will not eat anything with blood during Holy Week (many even observe this throughout all of Lent leading up to Easter), opting instead for vegetarian and shellfish dishes. The server recommended a vegetarian stuffed tomato; it was divinely spiced and I appreciated trying something I normally would not order.
After sleeping from 4 in the afternoon all the way through to the next morning, I was ready for all the Good Friday activities!
On Good Friday morning, each church holds a lengthy service observing the un-nailing and removal of Christ from the cross. We walked around Aegina town, visiting three churches after such services. In each church, the cross is now empty, and only the crown of thorns remains. Nearby is the epitaphio, the main component of Good Friday celebrations. Representing Christ’s tomb, the epitaphio is an intricately carved wooden structure that church members elaborately decorate with flowers on Good Friday. We were lucky enough to find one still being decorated in one local church.
After admiring the various epitaphios, we headed home for a fasting-compliant lunch of octopus, noodles, and vegetables. In the evening, just before sunset, we headed back to town for the Good Friday evening traditions.
Evening vesper services are followed by a procession where clergy members, almost like pall bearers, carry the epitaphio through the village and back to the church, representing Christ’s funeral procession. Each church holds a procession with their own epitaphio, so there can be multiple processions that intersect. There were three simultaneous processions in Aegina town, and we strategically positioned ourselves to see all three from a single vantage point. The spectators in the crowd hold lit candles in a vigil service to complement the somber tone of the procession. Before our trip, my mother-in-law had explained this tradition to me, and I had envisioned it as a parade. Oh, we are going to watch the wonderful Easter parades in Greece! But no, it is definitely not cheerful like a parade; the mood is very somber and introspective.
The next day, Holy Saturday, is a day of waiting. Christ is in the ground and there isn’t as much activity as the previous days. The day is filled mostly with kitchenwork in preparation for the midnight meal that will break the traditional fast. The family indulged me as a tourist, and we took a break to visit nearby Agios Nektarios church and monastery.
Midnight Resurrection service. Each churchgoer brings their own candle, and most kids have customized candles they decorated in school with their favorites toys, animals, or colors. Just before midnight, the priest emerges with the Holy flame, lighting a few candles in the front rows of the congregation. The flame is then passed throughout the crowd until everyone’s candle is lit from that single flame. So many worshippers attend that not everyone fits inside the church — this stream of light extending through and beyond the church is very beautiful. Finally, at midnight, the priest exclaims “Christos Anesti” (Christ is risen), the church bells toll, and the crowds outside the church light firecrackers. The crowd exchanges kisses and it is a very joyous mood after the somber Thursday and Friday traditions. There is so much emotion, it seems as though this concludes the service, but it is really only getting started! The service apparently continues into the wee hours, but we left after this highlight to go enjoy our feast.
When leaving the church, it is important to keep your candle lit so you can bless your home with the holy flame. But…..no one told me this!! I extinguished my candle because who travels in a car with a lit candle??? The Greeks on Easter! Fortunately, someone else in the family had the foresight to bring the holy flame home and my heathen ways were presumably forgiven.
Lamb is the traditional meat to break the fast, and I read many households prepare a lamb tripe soup. We did not have that, but we did eat lamb lungs! The Greek word for lung is pnevmonas, which I though was really easy to remember because it is so similar to pneumonia. Anyway……
Easter Sunday was relaxed…we did not attend church, but instead I went fishing with the family’s little boys in the nearby village of Agia Marina. After a bit of fishing, I wandered about and enjoyed the tranquility of the morning; I think most locals were still sleeping after a late night at church and then perhaps some celebrating.
Easter in Greece was truly an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience (though I hope to do it again one day!). You do not need to be religious to enjoy the ceremonies; you are experiencing culture and centuries of tradition — isn’t that what travel is all about?