The days of chocolate Easter eggs may long have passed here in the UK, however this time of the year is the most sacred observance in the Greek Orthodox faith. Preparations for the Easter (5th of May) come to a climax toward the end of the Holy Week, between Palm Sunday and Easter.
Holy (or Great) Thursday
Easter preparations begin on Holy Thursday when the traditional Easter bread, tsoureki, is baked, and eggs are dyed red. Red is a representation of the blood of Christ and the egg symbolises victory over death. On Holy Thursday evening, church services include a symbolic representation of the crucifixion, and the period of mourning begins.
Holy (or Great) Friday
The holiest day of Holy Week is Holy Friday. It is a day of mourning, not of work. Church bells ring all day in a slow, mournful tone. Many people do not cook on Holy Friday, but if they do, traditional foods are simple, boiled in water (no oil) and seasoned with vinegar. Traditionally, women and children take flowers to the church to decorate the Epitaphio (the symbolic bier of Christ). In the evening, the bier is carried on the shoulders of the faithful in a candle-lit procession through the community to the cemetery, and back.
Holy (or Great) Saturday
On Holy Saturday, the Eternal Flame is brought to Greece by military jet, and is distributed to waiting Priests who carry it to their local churches. On the morning of Holy Saturday, preparations begin for the next day’s Easter feast. Dishes that can be prepared in advance are made, and the traditional mayiritsa soup is prepared, which will be eaten after the midnight service, to break the fast.
The midnight Service of the Resurrection is an occasion attended by everyone, each holding a special candle made for Easter, called labatha, which is traditionally given as gift to children from their godparents. Shortly before midnight, all lights are extinguished and churches are lit only by the Eternal Flame on the altar. When the clock passes midnight, the Priest calls out “Christos Anesti” (Christ is risen), and passes the flame, the light of the Resurrection, to those nearest him. The flame is then passed from person to person, and it isn’t long before the church and courtyard are filled with flickering candlelight. The night air is filled with the singing of the Byzantine Chant “Christos Anesti,” and wishes are exchanged. As soon as “Christos Anesti” is called out, church bells ring joyously non-stop and displays of fireworks and noisemakers are set off.
It is the custom to carry the Eternal Flame home and use it to make the sign of the cross on the door frame in smoke. The smoke cross is left there throughout the year, symbolising that the light of the Resurrection has blessed the home. Once home, everyone gathers around the table for a traditional meal to break the fast, which includes the mayiritsa soup, tsoureki and the red eggs. But before the eggs are eaten, there’s a traditional challenge: “tsougrisma”. Holding your egg, you tap the end against the end of your opponent’s egg, trying to crack it.
On Easter Sunday, the spits are set to work, and grills are fired up. The customary meal of the day includes whole roasted lamb or goat to represent the Lamb of God. Drinks flow freely and preparations for the meal turn into festive celebrations even before the eating begins. These high-spirited gatherings often last long into the night.
Another national holiday, Easter Monday is a day to take things slowly, and certainly a day filled with delicious leftovers!
Kalo Pascha, everyone! – Happy Easter!