When my husband and I were teachers in London, we used to spend as much time as we could in Greece, but as our holidays were confined to certain weeks of the year, there were so many of the Easter traditions that we didn’t see. Depending on the date of Greek Orthodox Easter, we usually caught some of the fun of Apokries, but we missed the beginning of Lent – Sarakosti: the excitement of the central market in Athens in the early hours, where seafood and halva is sold all night long before Clean Monday, or the kites flying from the hills on that day. Now we feel so lucky to live in Athens, and to be able to share the traditional activities which mark the progress of the forty days towards
Holy Week (Megali Evdomada) and Easter itself.
I love the different ways in which the gradual approach of Easter becomes apparent. Shops which earlier in the year were selling costumes for Apokries, then the kites, now have windows filled with toy rabbits, chickens and ducks, or with Easter candles, which are given as presents and taken to church for the midnight service on Easter Saturday. These are usually beautifully decorated, and presented in special boxes, but it never seems incongruous to me that some of the ones given to children have toys attached to them, like a Barbie doll, or Superman, or even cars and spaceships! In food shops, especially bakeries and patisseries, you see new notices attached to the trays: ‘Nistisima’ means that the food has been made without animal products. Fasting certainly doesn’t mean ‘no food’! Some of the pastries and sweets made now are more delicious than at any other season; seafood is allowed and at this time of year it has been freshly caught.
The music associated with Orthodox Easter is beautiful, particularly the hymns of mourning sung on Good Friday. On the first Friday evening of Sarakosti there are the first of the Chairetismoi (Salutations): these are prayers of devotion to the Mother of God, rather like the ‘Hail Mary’ of the Roman Catholic Church. A different group of these prayers is chanted on each of four Fridays; on the fifth Friday all four are chanted as the Akathistos Hymn. ‘Akathistos’ literally means ‘not sitting’, as the congregation stands while the verses are chanted. To listen to the Hymn in the church of Saint Dimitrios, in the Psyrri area of Athens is a really special experience. This church is rather unusual in having a choir as well as chanters, and in parts of the hymn there is an unobtrusive musical accompaniment.
A week after this comes Palm Sunday (Kyriaki Ton Vaïon), when the Church services celebrate the entry of Christ into Jerusalem. In many churches, especially on the islands and in villages, little crosses have been made in the days before Palm Sunday and are given to the people at the end of the service. In Athens it is more likely to be some sprigs of bay leaves, but they are equally prized: people sometimes put them in purses, or keep them in their homes to bring good luck for the next year. For those who have been fasting there is a respite on this day, as fish is allowed.
Now the most important week of the Orthodox calendar begins: this is Megali Evdomada (Literally ‘Great Week’), when the pillars in the churches are covered with purple cloth and the services follow the Passion of Christ. Most Greeks, even if they haven’t fasted in the previous weeks, will do so now. During this week Athens steadily becomes empty, as people leave to go to their family village or island. For those who remain, and for visitors to Athens, this has the advantage that it’s easier to get an unrestricted view of activities!
On Megali Pempti (Holy Thursday) the people remember the Last Supper and the Betrayal of Christ. Although so many people have left the city, the churches in Athens are always crowded: you have to go really early if you want to have a place to stand inside. (A place to sit will be almost impossible to find!) In the evening service the account of the Passion of Christ in all four gospels is read, and a cross with the figure of Christ on it is carried in a procession around the church, while the beautiful hymn ‘Today he … is hung upon the tree ….’ is chanted. Finally the crucifix is placed prominently in the middle of the church.
On this day the red eggs which are traditionally associated with Easter in Greece, are prepared. Packets containing the red dye are on sale everywhere this week. (Also blue and green!) In the homes hard boiled eggs are died red in memory of the blood of Christ.
Megali Paraskevi (Holy Friday) is the most solemn day of Holy Week. The shops are closed till 1.00 p.m., so that everyone can go to the church to venerate the crucifix. It’s impossible not to be affected by the atmosphere of mourning: the church bells toll all morning, and the flags on official buildings are at half mast. The chanting from the cathedral is relayed by loudspeakers, so the people sitting in the cafés around the square are conscious that something memorable is taking place. After the evening service on Thursday, the women of each parish will have decorated a funeral bier with garlands of fresh flowers. During the Friday morning service the figure of Christ is taken down from the cross and wrapped in a white cloth, which is then placed in the sanctuary. An embroidered cloth, the Epitaphios, is placed on the bier; this is then sprinkled with flower petals. The priest places the Gospel (Evangelion) upon the Epitaphios. (This word is also used to refer to the bier itself).
During the rest of the day, the churches are filled with people paying reverence to the Epitaphios. I like to visit some of the beautiful churches in the centre of Athens, to see the different ways each Epitaphios has been decorated.
In the evening comes the service of the Epitaphios (Funeral Service). The bier is taken out of the church and carried round the streets in solemn procession, while a Lament, mourning the death of Christ, is sung. This is one of the most moving parts of the Easter rituals: a band comes first, playing solemn music; the Epitaphios congregation follows the with lighted candles, while people in the flats which the procession passes watch from their balconies, holding candles or incense burners. In some areas, like Piraeus, the processions from different churches will converge in a square: the sight of several processions coming together, each with its own Epitaphios, is really impressive. Finally the procession returns to the church. This used to be a signal for people to descend upon the Epitaphios and to strip it of most of the flowers. However, in the church of Saint Spyridon in Piraeus, the Epitaphios is placed safely behind the gates at the front of the church; a priest then distributes handfuls of flower petals to the congregation. I think this is a perfect solution – everyone has a reminder of the occasion to take home, but the decoration of the Epitaphios remains intact, to be enjoyed by visitors to the church until Easter has passed.
On the next day, Megalo Savvato (Holy Saturday), the sorrowful mood of Friday has abated. Now the people concentrate on the final preparations for Easter itself. This is the last chance to buy the Easter lamb, and the atmosphere in the meat market is frenetic as people try to secure a last minute bargain. At home, the mageiritsa is being prepared. This is the traditional Easter soup, which will be eaten after the midnight liturgy – the first meal to break the fast after nearly fifty days. It’s very rich, made from a variety of herbs and the intestines and offal of the lamb which will be roasted for celebratory lunch on Easter Sunday. I was surprised to find that many Greeks don’t actually like this soup, but it is an essential element in the ritual, and no Easter table would be complete without it!
At about 11.00 p.m. the churches are full again for the service of the Anastasis – Resurrection. There is a feeling of anticipation as the people stand waiting, holding white candles.
Many of these will have a sort of plastic cup fitted to the top, designed to prevent the hot wax from falling on to hands, or the church floor! Just before midnight the lights in the church are extinguished, then the priest comes from the sanctuary holding a lighted candle. From this, at the stroke of midnight he lights someone else’s candle; people begin to light their candles from each others’ and the church gradually becomes bright with the light of the candles. All over the city, church bells are pealing, as the priest chants ‘Christos anesti’ ‘Christ has risen from the dead, by his death trampling on death …. ‘ There is a feeling of relief and happiness, as people repeat ‘ChristosAnesti’ to each other and the reply is given ‘Alithos Anesti!’ – ‘He is risen indeed!’ Outside, the noise increases until all the bells are pealing.(Not all the churches reach midnight at exactly the same moment!) Fire crackers are set off, and in Piraeus, the ships in the harbour sound their horns. The chanting continues outside the church, but now most people begin to make their way home, in groups of family or fiends, holding their lighted candles. The aim is to get your candle home without losing the flame, but this can be difficult, especially if there’s a wind. People are constantly stopping to relight strangers’ candles and this adds to the jollity – it’s always a memorable experience to be walking throught the streets in the early hours, surrounded by people carrying candles. Even the interiors of the cars that pass are glowing with them! When the people reach home, the head of the family makes the sign of the cross three times over the door with the candle. The smoky mark of the cross will remain until next year.
Now the Easter feasting begins, but in the churches the Easter liturgy, or mass, is still going on. We like to stay until the end of the service – the chanting is beautiful, and now you can be sure of finding a seat! In Saint Spyridon’s church, in Piraeus, and I’m sure in many others, the members of the congregation are given a packet at the end of the service, containing a small tsoureki, the traditional sweet Easter bread, an Easter koulouri (biscuit), a little paper icon depicting the Resurrection and a red egg. This is the one I keep until next year!
These eggs are an essential part of the Easter tradition. A game is played with them in which each person tries to crack someone else’s egg with his own. The winner is the person whose egg lasts the longest: the prize is good luck all year!
Although the family will have shared the eating of the mageiritsa, eggs and Easter bread on returning from church, the real Easter feast takes place at lunchtime on Easter Sunday (Kyriaki Tou Pascha). In the country, people will spend the morning roasting whole lambs, or kids, turning them slowly on spits over charcoal fires in the open air. Even in Athens, I’ve seen people roasting their lamb in the street – there’s very little traffic in the city on Easter Day! We’d been coming to Greece for several years before we had the chance to experience Easter on the island where we always spent the summer – Sifnos, in the Cyclades. We were sure that all our friends there would have their spits outside, but we didn’t see any at all! Sifnos is famous for its pottery: we found that the tradition there is to prepare the Easter lamb as a kind of casserole, called Mastello, which is also cooked slowly for hours in the oven. It is certainly delicious, but….!! Now we eat our charcoal roasted lamb in a traditional taverna in Athens, and enjoy the remains of the Mastello a few days later, on the island!
The church celebrations do not end with the midnight liturgy: on Sunday there is another service in the afternoon, called Vespers of Agape (Love). This is really beautiful in the cathedral in Athens: it is celebrated by the Archbishop and literally dozens of priests, all in gorgeous robes. The hymn ‘Christ is risen from the Dead’ is repeated, as it will be in every church service for forty days, until Ascension Day. Sometimes a choir sings Byzantine hymns, but for me the most memorable part is the chanting of the gospel, which on Easter Sunday is the story of the disciple Thomas, who didn’t believe that Jesus had appeared to the other disciples after the Crucifixion. This is traditionally chanted in different languages – as many as the priests can provide.
The decorated Epitaphios is less prominent now: it is empty, except for a sign which says ‘He is Risen; He is not here’. This sign will remain until next year – a message of hope.
The computerised signs on the front of the city buses also have a message. On Saturday it was ‘Kali Anastasi’ (Literally ‘Good Resurrection’); on Sunday it is ‘Kalo Pascha’ – ‘Happy Easter’. I don’t think there are many countries where you’ll see that on public transport!