In the Greek Orthodox faith, Easter is the most sacred observance. The preparations and customs, including traditional foods and large feasts, remain an important part of modern Greek life. Toward the end of Holy Week, which is between Palm Sunday and Easter, the preparations for Easter come to a climax. While each region may have its own local customs associated with Easter, there are several traditions that are observed by everyone.
Easter preparations begin on Holy (or Great) Thursday. This is when the traditional Easter bread, tsoureki, is baked and eggs are dyed red to represent the blood of Christ. From ancient times, the red eggs have been a symbol of the renewal of life, carrying the message of the victory over death.
In times gone by, superstitions grew into customs. These include placing the first red egg at the home's iconostasis (the place where icons are displayed) to ward off evil. It also involved marking the heads and backs of small lambs with the red dye to protect them. On the evening of Holy Thursday, church services include a symbolic representation of the crucifixion and the period of mourning begins. In many villages and cities, women will sit in church throughout the night in traditional mourning.
The holiest day of the week is Holy (or Great) Friday. It is a day of mourning and not one of work. It is also the only day of the year when the Divine Liturgy is not read. Flags are hung at half-mast and church bells ring all day in a slow, mournful tone.
Many devout people do not cook on Holy Friday. If they do, traditional foods are simple and only those that can be boiled in water (not oil) and seasoned with vinegar. Beans or thin soups like tahinosoupa (a soup made with tahini) are quite common. Traditionally, women and children take flowers to the church to decorate the Epitaphio (the symbolic bier of Christ). It is the day for the Service of Lamentation, which mourns the death of Christ.
The bier is decorated lavishly with flowers and bears the image of Christ. During the service, it is carried on the shoulders of the faithful in a procession that runs through the community to the cemetery and back. Members of the congregation follow, carrying candles.
On Holy (or Great) Saturday, the Eternal Flame is brought to Greece by a military jet and is distributed to waiting priests who carry it to their local churches. The event is always televised and if there's a threat of bad weather or a delay, the entire country agonizes until the flame arrives safely.
On the morning of Holy Saturday, preparations begin for the next day’s Easter feast. Dishes that can be prepared in advance are made. The traditional mayiritsa soup, which uses the organs and intestines of the lamb that will be roasted, is prepared. This will be eaten after the midnight service. The midnight Service of the Resurrection is an occasion attended by everyone who is able, including children. Each person holds a white candle that is only used for this service.
The special candles that are made for Easter are called labatha (lah-BAH-thah). They are often given to children as gifts from their parents or Godparents. Though the candle itself is typically white, it can be lavishly decorated with favorite children’s heroes or storybook characters. They may reach as high as three feet tall.
The crowds are so big that churches fill to overflowing as anticipation mounts. Shortly before midnight, all lights are extinguished and the churches are lit only by the Eternal Flame on the altar.
When the clock passes midnight, the Priest calls out "Christos Anesti" (khree-STOHSS ah-NES-tee, "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 glowing with flickering candlelight.
The night air is filled with the singing of the Byzantine Chant "Christos Anesti," and the "fili tis Agapis" ("kiss of Agape"). Friends and neighbors exchange "Christos Anesti" with one another as a way of wishing one another well. In response, they will say "Alithos Anesti" (ah-lee-THOHSS ah-NES-tee, "truly, He is risen") or "Alithinos o Kyrios" (ah-lee-thee-NOHSS o KEE-ree-yohss, "true is the Lord").
As soon as "Christos Anesti" is called out, it is also the custom for church bells to ring joyously non-stop. Ships in ports all over Greece join in by sounding their horns, floodlights are lit on large buildings, and large and small displays of fireworks and noisemakers are set off.
The Traditional Meal
It is the custom to carry the Eternal Flame home and use it to make the sign of the cross in smoke on the door frame. The smoke cross is left there throughout the year, symbolizing that the light of the Resurrection has blessed the home. The candles are used to light icon candelabra and are put on the table for the midnight meal. The sight of hundreds of candle flames moving from churches to homes on that night is indeed beautiful.
Once home, everyone gathers around the table for a traditional meal to break the fast. This includes the mayiritsa soup, tsoureki (sweet bread), and red eggs, which were prepared earlier. Before the eggs are eaten, there's a traditional challenge called tsougrisma. Holding your egg, you tap the end against the end of your opponent's egg, trying to crack it. It's a game enjoyed by children and adults alike. Eggs are often made in very large quantities since the game continues the next day with even more friends and family.
The main focus of Easter Sunday is on traditional Greek Easter foods. At dawn (or earlier), the spits are set to work and grills are fired up. The customary main attraction of the day is whole roasted lamb or goat (kid) to represent the Lamb of God. However, many prefer oven and stovetop lamb or kid dishes.
Appetizers, such as Greek olives and tzatziki (a cucumber yogurt dip), are served for guests to enjoy while watching the lamb cook on the spit. Ovens are filled with traditional accompaniments and all the trimmings, such as patates fournou (potatoes roasted with citrus and oregano) and spanakotyropita (spinach and cheese pie).
Great Greek wines, ouzo, and other drinks flow freely. Preparations for the meal turn into festive celebrations, even before the eating begins. The meal is a lengthy affair, often lasting long into the night, sometimes up to four hours.
Another national holiday, Easter Monday is a day to take things slowly. It may be more casual, but it is definitely a day filled with delicious leftovers and a time to relax from the all the previous celebrations.