Saturday, May 03, 2008
A short description of Greek Easter
In Greece, Easter is as big as Christmas is in England (minus the excessive consumerism). It's the biggest festival of the year, a major religious celebration characterised by fasting, church-going and big family meals! It is celebrated in April or May, sometimes at the same time as English Easter, more often a week apart. Western Christian churches use the Gregorian calendar to calculate Easter, whereas Eastern Orthodox churches use the Julian calendar - hence the difference in dates. Unusually this year, Greek Easter was a whole 35 days after English Easter.
Easter starts with a 40-day fast (Lent) during which many people cut down or abstain from eating meat and dairy products. The end of Lent marks the start of Holy Week with more fasting, church-going and preparations for the big feast on Sunday. Preparations involve spring cleaning, dyeing eggs (mainly crimson red although some people do different colours, but not pastels), baking Easter bread (tsoureki) and Easter biscuits (koulouria), candle buying and travelling to spend Easter with their extended families, usually at the village or small town where the family originates from. Candles are key to Easter - big candles (called lambadhes) are used on Good Friday, when there is a procession during the late evening church service, and also on Saturday night for the main Easter service. The lambadhes used on Good Friday are plain brown ones, whereas the ones used on Saturday are usually white and sometimes decorated. Children's lambades are bought by their godparents and come in different colours, with ribbons, toys and elaborate decorations.
Easter is a time for godchildren, as tradition dictates that godparents should buy their godchildren their special Easter candle, a pair of shoes, a tsoureki and an Easter egg. Kids get very excited about their special presents, particularly the Easter candle, which they take with them to church on Saturday night and have to bring home lit, so that they can make a cross with the flame over the main entrance to the house.
On the Thursday before Easter an almost life-size icon of Christ on a cross is put up in church. On Good Friday the church is decorated in purple, which in Greece is the colour of mourning, and the bells ring all day long as if for a funeral. The priests take down the icon of Christ from the cross and wrap it in linen, reenacting the burial rituals. The icon is then placed in a special coffin decorated with flowers and wreaths, which is carried through the town during the evening procession, followed by worshipers carrying candles.
The Saturday night service starts at about 11 PM. At midnight, the "holy light" is distributed through the church from candle to candle, and then the priest announces that "Christ has risen", at which point everyone embraces and offers each other wishes. In many areas of Greece there are special customs, for example people may take a red egg to church and crack it at midnight, or bangers and fireworks may go off, or hot air balloons let up, or a bonfire started at which Judas's effigy is burned etc.
When the church service finishes, usually around 1 AM, people return home where they tuck into lamb soup, Easter eggs and koulouria. Egg cracking is a popular custom, whereby each person cracks the end of their egg against someone else's saying "Chist has risen" as he does so. They then turn their eggs round and the other person cracks his or her egg saying "Indeed He has". This goes on round the table and the person who has been left with an uncracked egg is the winner.
The next day, on Easter Sunday, family and friends get together to eat lamb on the spit, other meat delicacies, eggs and more cakes than you can shake a stick at. In the evening, there is a special church service called the "service of love" which is often performed in the centre of each town and is followed by dances, eating and drinking. More eating, drinking and general merriment goes on into the evening and the next day (Easter Monday) which is also the day when most people return to their homes, so all the motorways are clogged up.
I have added more photos to my Flickr Greek Easter set so you can have a full account of Greek Easter in words, photos, or both!