Greek Easter, one of the most important religious festivals has arrived accompanied by the smell of spring, the rebirth of nature and the sweet smell of home cooking.
Greek Easter doesn’t usually fall on the same day as everyone else’s as the Orthodox Christian Church calculates a bit differently to other Christian denominations – it uses the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian.
Two other important elements are Passover and the Spring Equinox. In the Bible, the events that led up to Jesus’ arrest, execution, and then his resurrection, took place after Passover. Jesus and His Disciples shared a Passover meal (the Last Supper) together, shortly before His arrest.
Generally, the date for Easter is set on the first full moon after both the Spring Equinox and Passover and since they fall at a different time each year, the date for Easter can vary from early to late spring.
For Greek Orthodox, the celebrations for Easter begin on Kathara Deftara (Clean Monday), the beginning of Lent, by fasting on varieties of seafood, rice, meat free salads, taramosalata, halvas and plenty of fruit and vegetables.
Everything should look clean and new, so houses are cleaned, painted or whitewashed, and new clothes are a must, especially new shoes.
Holy Week is dedicated to people going to church in the morning and evening for services commemorating the Lord’s Passion.
On Holy Sunday and Monday night, the church must prepare to unite with Christ, the bridegroom, for all eternity.
On Holy Tuesday night, we commemorate the anointing of Christ with myrrh by a woman who wet his feet and dried them with her hair. Christ forgave her for her sins as an example to us on how to repent and be saved. The Kassiani hymn is sung as a hymn of repentance.
Holy Wednesday afternoon or evening, the church offers the Sacrament of Holy Unction. During this service, the priest reads seven gospels, and seven blessings to bless the oil which will be used to heal the ailments of the body and soul. At the end of the service, the priest anoints each parishioner with the oil by making the sign of the cross on their forehead, cheeks, chin and hands.
Today, Holy Thursday, most women do their Easter baking of flaounes, made of short crust with a cheese, egg and mint filling, formed into triangular and square shapes.
Koulouria are also baked with milk, spices and a little sugar, and Tsoureki, a rich yeast bread formed of braided strands of dough flavoured with orange and mehlepi.
Eggs are dyed as well. Traditionally they are dyed red, symbolising the blood Christ shed for our sins on the cross, but dyes in other colours are also available.
In the evening, a representation of Christ’s Crucifixion takes place in church, where icons are draped in black. The priest reads 12 Gospels that tell all of Christ’s suffering that led to his Crucifixion. After each Gospel reading, a candle is also lit.
Good Friday begins with everyone taking flowers to church so that the young girls can decorate the Epitaphio (Holy Sepulchre). The whole structure is completely decorated with flowers, a job that takes the greater part of Good Friday morning. At lunchtime the traditional Faki Xidati (vinegar and lentil soup) is eaten, containing vinegar because it is said that when Christ asked for water on his way to Calgary, he was given vinegar instead. From early afternoon you will see streams of cars and pedestrians going from church to church to pay their last respects to Christ and to compare the decoration of their own parish Epitaphios with that of the others.
Meanwhile, all the streets along which the Epitaphios will pass in the solemn procession later that night are decorated with coloured lights. The procession starts after the evening service with the priests preceding, then the Scouts or young men carrying the litter of Christ and then the choir, singing hymns. The whole congregation then follows.
On Holy Saturday, during morning Mass, as the priests announces Jesus’ resurrection, the black drapes drop from the icons and the members of the congregation rap their seats to express their joy.
In the evening, dressed in their best Easter clothes, people gather in churches and squares in cities, towns and villages carrying white candles (lambades) to listen to the Kalo Logo (Good Word).
The real sermon of resurrection is at about midnight. Everybody goes to church with a candle and the sermon is held. When the priest proclaims that “Christ has risen”, all candles are lit, church bells are rung and everyone greets everyone else with “Christos Anesti” (Christ has risen), to which the other answers “Alithos Anesti” (Indeed He has risen).
People embrace and continue the celebrations at home. They eat traditional avgolemono soup (egg and lemon rice soup) or magiritsa (made from the organs of the lamb) and crack eggs to symbolise Christ’s breaking from the tomb.
On Sunday morning most people who have not taken Holy Communion during the Holy Week take it now. At home, red eggs are cracked, flaounes eaten and the fast broken.
At lunchtime, family gatherings are held all over the world where everyone celebrates the resurrection of Christ; lambs are roasted on the spit (lamb is the preferred choice because Jesus is known as the Lamb of God) and wine is enjoyed freely!