22 April 2008

Celebrating Easter in Greece

Patrick Comerford

This week my friends in Greece are preparing for the most important holiday in the Greek calendar. The celebration of Orthodox Easter (Pascha, Greek: Πάσχα) is unique in almost every corner of Greece. Special traditions mark Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection.

The unique Greek way of celebrating Holy Week and Easter began at the weekend with the Saturday of Lazarus, with children going from door to door singing the Hymn of Lazaros and collecting money and eggs.

Palm Sunday recalls Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

On Holy Monday, the Greek Church recalls the parable of the barren fig tree. The first days of Holy Week remind us of Christ’s last instructions with his disciples. These teachings inspire the readings and hymns during Great Compline, Matins, Hours, and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts with Vespers.

The evening services on Holy Tuesday emphasise the need for true repentance. The Gospel reading recalls Christ’s prophecies of his second coming and the Last Judgment.

On the afternoon of Holy Wednesday, the Greek Orthodox Church administers the sacrament of Holy Unction for the bodily and spiritual health of those who are present.

Holy Thursday celebrates the Last Supper. In the evening, the Holy Passion service includes 12 Gospel readings, with Christ’s last instructions to his disciples are heard.

Friday of Holy Week, traditionally called Great and Good Friday, is a day of mourning, marking the crucifixion. The drama of the death of Christ is followed with great devotion.

Early in the morning, girls collect spring flowers for the epitaphios or bier of Christ. Vespers in the evening are followed by the procession of the bier. Mournful dirges are heard all day and culminate in the evening with the spiritually up-lifting candlelit procession of the epitaphios through the streets.

The Resurrection Liturgy takes place on Saturday evening. The most significant moment of the year comes at midnight with the ceremony of the lighting of candles.

Afterwards, people carefully take home their lighted candles with the holy light of the Resurrection. Before entering their homes they mark a cross with the smoke of the candle on top of the door, they then use the candle to light the oil candle before their icon-stand, and try to keep this light burning throughout the year.

‘Holy Fire’ from Jerusalem

At the Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem on Holy Saturday, the Patriarch enters the Holy Sepulchre alone to pray. Moments later he emerges with burning tapers to proclaim that Christ has risen, and the bells ring out.

In this centuries-old annual ritual, the Patriarch miraculously receives the holy fire from the entirely darkened chamber surrounding Christ’s burial place.

The holy fire is later flown to Athens Airport, where it is received by a guard of honour and is sent out to distant parts of Greece. The flame arrives in Athens at the church of Ayioi Anargyroi in Plaka, the seat of the representative of the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem to the Archbishop of Athens. From there, it is sent out to the churches of Attica for the midnight service.

Local customs

Throughout Greece, there is a plethora of customs and traditions associated with Easter. There is a festive atmosphere everywhere and people eat and dance often late into the night and early morning.

Many places in Greece celebrate Easter in their own way.

On the island of Patmos, the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet takes place on Holy Thursday morning. It is based on the New Testament and can be compared to corresponding Byzantine customs.

On the island of Tinos, portable Holy Sepulchres from both the Orthodox and Catholic churches are brought to the island port, where the clergy chant together and the portable Holy Sepulchre of the church of Aghios Nicolaos is brought into the sea.

In Vrodathos on the island of Chios, once the psalm commemorating the resurrection of Christ begins on Holy Saturday, fireworks light up the midnight sky.

On the island of Corfu, the body of the island’s patron, Saint Spyridon, which has not decomposed, is carried around and the island capital, and many believe that it performs miracles. On Easter Saturday, ceramic pots are thrown out of people's windows to cast away Evil.

On the island of Crete, and in many parts of Greece, a doll is made of old clothes from each house hold and burned, symbolising the burning of Judas.

In Nafpaktos in central central Greece, on the evening of Good Friday, large crowds of people accompany the epitaphios as it is carried through the town's harbour where lighted torches. There at the entrance to the fortress, torches form a large cross that lights up the harbour, creating a scene of unforgettable beauty.

In Leonidio in the Peloponnese on the night of the Resurrection, the sky is filled with hot-air balloons from each parish.

In Thrace and Macedonia young women in traditional clothing called the Lazarins go around the villages singing traditional Easter songs.

Fasting and food

Complete fasting is part of the Orthodox discipline of Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, no meat dishes are served. On Good Friday, no sweet things are eaten: instead, Greeks eat soup made with sesame-paste, lettuce or lentils with vinegar.

Following 40 days of fasting, the traditional Pascha meal in Greece is a banquet of meat, eggs and other long-forbidden animal products. Cheese, eggs, and richly scented breads play an important part on the table, but the meal is almost always centred on meat ... as this vegetarian has noticed.

On Easter Day, the celebrations begin early in the morning with the cracking of red eggs and an outdoor feast of roast lamb followed by dancing.

The Easter table reflects the culinary differences around Greece. Recipes have evolved based on the lie of the land, on what is available place by place, and on the tastes and origins of local populations.

Lamb (or goat on the islands) is the traditional Easter meat served throughout Greece, although how it’s cooked varies from region to region. Spit-roast lamb, which originated in Roumeli, is now the prevalent tradition, but many areas preserve their distinctive way of preparing the Easter dish. On many islands –including Andros, Samos, Naxos, and Rhodes – lamb is stuffed with rice and herbs and then baked in the oven.

One of the nicest Greek customs is the use of red eggs for the Easter celebration. Greeks mainly colour eggs red to signify the blood of Christ. They use hard-boiled eggs, painted red on Holy Thursday. People rap their eggs against their friends’ eggs and the owner of the last uncracked egg is said to be lucky.

The other delicacies in the Paschal feast vary from region to region. They include cheese pies, regional fresh cheeses and yogurt served with honey. The sweets include special tsoureki and of course, the koulouria , tis Lambris (Paschal cookies).

Christos Anesti! Alithos Anesti! Kalo Pascha! Kali Anastasi!

ΚΑΛΗ ΑΝΑΣΤΑΣΗ, Υγεία και κάθε Ευλογία Θεού

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College

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