Candlelit processions, midnight mass, spit-roasted lamb, red Easter eggs and dancing in the streets…
With Easter on the horizon, I’ve been thinking about Spring Break…any break, really. I know there are those out there who have thrown caution to the COVID wind and taken flight for southern climes—I’m not one of them. I prefer to daydream about 2022 and where I might like to go once the pandemic has calmed down—fingers crossed.
Suddenly, Greece popped into my head and I recalled a conversation I once had outside Corinth on a visit to the Peloponnese. On an afternoon break, I had the pleasure of sharing a coffee with our bus driver. His name was Telemachus and with a name like that and being Greek after all is there little wonder he peppered our conversation with allusions to Homer and characters out of Greek Mythology?
He and I spoke of many things, including future visits, and at one point he looked at me rather conspiratorially, paused, and shared that Easter was a great time to visit Greece. Responding to my quizzical look, he said it was a magical time steeped in tradition, brotherly love, and true celebration of life.
It turns out the Easter holidays do seem like the perfect time to visit Greece—religious or not, you get to experience the life-affirming, ages-old spectacle of religious festivities first hand, as well as align yourself with the slower pace of authentic village life. And, since Greek Easter is celebrated in accordance with the Orthodox or Julian calendar, it falls as much as three weeks before or after Easter in countries that observe the Gregorian calendar.
This fortunate discrepancy allows you to appease your family by spending Easter with them before stealing off to Greece. It’s also relatively inexpensive and remarkably tourist free during this time and represents the calm before the storm of summer visitors that drive up the cost of flights, lodging and food.
As with so many spring festivals across the globe, Greek Easter is celebrated just as winter’s or, in this case, Persephone’s hold over the land is breaking and wildflowers are bursting forth everywhere. According to Telemachus, the wildflower spectacle is particularly beautiful on Crete—the southern most Greek island.
With over 360 churches and monasteries (on average, there’s a church for every seven Greeks), the mountainous island of Idhra or Hydra is home to one of Greece’s most notable celebrations. Unless you’ve planned ahead however, you haven’t a hope of finding accommodation of any kind.
Instead, try medium-sized villages like Metsovo, Leonidio, or Syros—they promise less crowded options. Each is famous for their spectacular weeklong Easter festivities and, in most cases, by planning ahead you’ll definitely find lodging. Telemachus also assured me the less populous towns and villages are more welcoming and would consider it an honor to include you in their community celebration.
The first great ceremony of the Easter week takes place on the evening of Good Friday, when Christ’s descent from the cross is lamented in churches across the country. The lamentation begins at dusk when a decorated Epitafios, Christ’s funeral bier, or an icon leaves the sanctuary and is paraded through the streets in a solemn procession. The events climax late Saturday evening with the majestic Anastatsi mass, which marks Christ’s resurrection.
At the stroke of midnight, every light across Greece (and much of Eastern Europe and Russia too) is extinguished and the congregations plunged into darkness—the same darkness that enveloped Christ as he passed through the underworld.
Then, a glimmer of light appears behind the iconostasis or altar screen as the priest comes forth, bearing a lighted taper, chanting “Avto to Fos…” or “This is the Light of the World”. Stepping down into the sea of parishioners, he touches his candle’s flame to the one nearest his, intoning “Devthe, levethe Fos” or “Come, take the Light”. This action ignites a chain reaction, and soon the church is ablaze with light and the miracle of resurrection has been affirmed.
As the church is filling with light, the night sky outside is filling with fireworks and shouts of “Hirtos Anesti” or “Christ is Risen”, which rise to mingle with responses of “Alithos Anesti” or “Truly he is Risen.” With just a few hours until Easter dawn, the revelers look forward to breaking the Lenten fast with a traditional meal of mayiritsa.
Mayiritsa is a soup made from lamb tripe, rice, dill and lemon. Once the stomach used to make the soup has been removed, the rest of the lamb is slow-roasted on spits and served throughout the day’s festivities. In addition to the consumption of lots of soup and lamb as well as other foods like braided sweet bread, the day is filled with a great deal of dancing and the exchange of beautifully dyed Easter eggs.
Pagan in origin, Easter eggs represent the link between Christian spiritual regeneration and the symbolism of rebirth, resurrection, and fertility inherent in the egg. On Holy Thursday, the eggs are painted or dyed a deep, pomegranate red symbolizing Christ’s blood and then dispersed on Easter Sunday for the traditional crack test.
With much laughter, fanfare, and healthy competitive spirit, each egg is tapped—friend-to-friend, relative-to-relative, Greek to visitor—until a single crack-free egg remains. The fortunate person who ends up with the last intact egg is considered lucky for the rest of the year.
Celebrations, like Easter in Greece or the Hindu festival of Holi in India (held around the same time), are a great way to renew oneself by immersing yourself in something larger. Plus, as Telemachus asserted, villagers, their day-to-day cares set aside, are more relaxed and more willing to forget passport colors and accept outsiders on a deeper level.
So, if you can let your hair down and throw off your own cares for village life, you’ll soon be tapping your red Easter egg against your neighbor’s with equal gusto. The reward? For a few hours or maybe even a few days, you’ll actually have the pleasure of becoming Greek.
Easter Dates: 2021 – 4/4; 2022 – 4/17; 2023 – 4/9; 2024 – 3/31; 2025 – 4/20
Orthodox Easter Dates: 2021 – 5/2; 2022 – 4/24; 2023 – 4/16; 2024 – 5/5; 2025 – 4/20
Featured Village Traditions:
Idhra (Hydra) – this island is known for plunging their heavily decorated Epitafios or Christ’s funeral bier in the sea, thereby affirming and blessing those that earn their living from the sea. This tradition is unique to this island.
Metsovo – in this village perched in the Pindus Mountains you’ll experience the same traditions found elsewhere, like disguises, wild music, traditional costumes, endless dancing, pranks and the general frivolity stemming from pagan fertility rites, but set in a traditional, very picturesque mountain village.
Leonidio – located on the Pelopennese, this town practices a tradition found nowhere else in Greece. On Resurrection night, they fill the skies with paper lanterns fueled by hot air produced by lighting a wick set in a vessel of oil at the base of the lantern. The lanterns vary in size and the tradition is said to have been introduced by sailors returning from the Far East in the 19th century.
Syros – this Cycladic island spreads a message of peace and hope Easter weekend. It is customary for Catholic and Orthodox church members to join together at the end of the traditional procession on Miaouli Square in Ermoupoli for prayers and hymns. This tradition certainly illustrates Telemachus’s assertion of brotherly love.
One last thought, remember to do your research and book early!