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!


Cheryl said...

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing and broadening my horizons :)

Shionge said...

Thank you for blogging about Greek Easter, I knew it is a big celebration for all christians :D

Karen said...

Very nicely done! Thank you for taking the time to inform us, Tinsie. I would love to have been there in person (your grandparents look especially wonderful!), but this was the next best thing.

I'm wondering about all the lamb. Is there any significance (you know, the Lamb that was slain..) or is it just a common dish?

Tinsie said...

Thanks, ladies! Glad you liked it :-)

@ Karen: I'm not sure about the significance of lamb, it's not that common a dish, so it must be something else.

Loops said...

@ Tinsie: What a wonderful description - I feel almost as if I had been there myself!

@ Karen: Jesus is often described as the "Lamb of God". I think it signifies perfection and purity and the ultimate sacrifice for our sins. I also think some shepherds visited Jesus as a baby and brought him a lamb.

Tinsie said...

@ Loops: You've got to come with us one Easter, it's even better in real life ;-)

@ Loops/Karen: But if Jesus is the Lamb of God, surely we shouldn't be eating lamb?!

Karen said...

loops--That's what I was thinking, wondering if Jesus as the sacrificial lamb was the reason for eating lamb at easter. Not all that different from the concept of communion, right?
Tinsie--If He rose again, I think eating the lamb is ok. Otherwise, it would be creepy (and there would be very little reason for celebrating Easter!).

Tinsie said...

I have to say, I've never heard the Easter lamb being in any way linked to Jesus or having any other religious significance. In Greece Jesus is usually referred to as the Son of God, but hardly ever as the Lamb of God (other than in the Bible, I suppose). I did a search on the internet and found the following explanations, both of which seem quite plausible:

1. Apparently there existed a Jewish tradition of slaughtering a lamb during Passover. A lot of Orthodox Christian traditions link back to Judaism, and it seems like natural progression to go from slaughtering a lamb to cooking and eating it.

2. From an eco-systems point of view, it's possible that eating lamb at the end of spring became a necessity in order to reduce the size of herds before food and water became scarce during the hot, dry mediterranean summers (if you wonder why not beef, cows are very rare in Greece - 50 years ago most people in the south of Greece had never even seen a cow, let alone had the chance to eat beef). The same explains why we (Greeks) traditionally eat pork at Xmas, as pigs used to be fed with the leftovers from the summer crops, which naturally dwindled to nothing at the end of autumn.

I guess it's quite possible that eating lamb is an old Jewish tradition that migrated over and took hold initially because it served a meaningful purpose and later because it just became part of how we celebrate Easter.