The Easter Holy Week is the most important festival in the Greek Orthodox Church year. The Easter begins on the Saturday of Lazarus (the Saturday before Palm Sunday) with children going from door to door singing the hymn of "Lazarus" and collecting money and eggs.
On Good Thursday evening, while other Christian churches would be observing the cleansing of the feet, the Greeks are already re-enacting the crucifixion. Half-way through the service of prayers and readings from the Gospels (at about 9pm) tension mounts as a life-sized figure of Christ on the cross is brought in and erected in the centre of the church. Girls bring wreaths of flowers which are hung on the arms of the cross and stacked at its base, and the faithful come up to kiss Christ's feet and the nearby icon of His mourning mother which is framed in sweet-smelling flowers.
is a day of mourning. The drama of the death of Christ is
followed with great devoutness. Sweet things are not eaten - for
the love of Christ, who was given vinegar to drink. The
traditional food is boiled vegetables or lentils with vinegar.
Devout Orthodox will have abstained from meat for the 50 days of
Lent and on Wednesdays and Fridays from milk, cheese and yogurt
as well and all products of animal stock. Thus during Holy Week,
the only food left to give up is oil. In the meantime in
the countryside the wholesale slaughter of lambs is only too
evident and in the towns and villages men are buying charcoal, a
new spit for the barbecue and the whole lamb or kid.
On the morning of Good Friday - Megali Paraskevi - the church service reaches its climax at about 10.30am when the nails are knocked out of the hands on the cross and the body of Christ is wrapped in a white cloth and carried into the sanctuary by the priest, who later returns bearing aloft a heavy cloth depicting Christ in the tomb. This is taken around the church in procession and the lamenting congregation sprinkles it with rose water. In a galleried church a rain of flower petals falls as the cloth passes below. It is then placed on an ornate canopied bier, thickly encrusted with flowers, set up under the empty cross, which now holds only the crown of thorns and a purple sash. The devout file past and lean inside to kiss the Gospel and an icon, also now smothered in sweet-smelling flowers, usually stocks and lilies.
Businesses open and entrance to sites and museums is allowed after 12.00 noon.
Vesper evening on Good Friday is followed by the procession of the bier (representing Christ's funeral). A band or choir playing or singing solemn music precedes the procession; they are followed by the cantors, the clergy, women bearing myrrh, the altar boys carrying the liturgical fans, scouts and guides, and the people of the region, who sing the hymns throughout the procession. All along its route, people scatter flowers and perfume on the epitaphios (bier), holding lighted candles in their hands. The 'epitafios' (holy tomb) is reverently carried around the parish in a procession on the evening of Good Friday. SPRING is in the air, and Greeks worldwide are preparing to celebrate their pascha or Greek Orthodox Easter.
On Good Friday, anyone visiting a Greek Orthodox Church in Greece after midday, hoping to find a service-taking place will be disappointed. Two lengthy services, the second commemorating the Descent from the Cross (often translated directly from the Greek - apokathilosi - as "the unnailing") will have been held in the morning, and only the flower-decked bier of Christ - epitafios - remains in the church waiting to be carried around the parish and later in the evening the village or town.
In the evening, after another service, each parish makes up a procession and carries its epitafios around the neighborhood escorted by young girls carrying wreaths and youths with various banners and church ornaments, followed by the flock holding lit beeswax candles (brown candles for the evening of epitafios and white candles are reserved for the Anastasi and Easter Day). Processions from all the churches, whether in a village or small town, will converge at one spot where all present pray together before returning to their own churches. The impressive procession is indeed often the first sign of Easter noticed by most tourists in Greece, and although awe-inspiring, with candles flickering in the dark streets, it lacks the drama of the preceding services inside the church. Visitors are most welcome to attend services - each lasts for at least three hours - but should observe that tradition dictates [mostly in Greek villages] that men stand on the right and women on the left or in the gallery.
is a day of expectation. The housewives finish baking bread
decorated with the red eggs (dyed on Thursday), which symbolize
the blood of Christ as well as new life after Resurrection. They
also prepare the trademark soup of lamb's entrails (mageiritsa)
to be eaten after the midnight service (Anastasi),
while still observing a rigorous fast. On Holy Saturday evening,
the Resurrection mass takes place. All churches are packed for
the evening Resurrection service, and those who come late crowd
around outside carrying their unlit white candles. At about
11.40pm all lights are put out and candles extinguished as the
priest appears at the central "royal" door of the
sanctuary with the new Easter flame, a triple candle. From this
the candles of the congregation are quickly lit and passed from
one to another until the church is ablaze, and a river of light
pours out of the doors and spreads rapidly through the streets.
(The symbolism of the one flame is sometimes ruined nowadays by
someone impatiently and thoughtlessly lighting his candle with a
cigarette lighter.). The ceremony of lighting of candles is the
most significant moment of the year. People, carefully, take home
their lighted candles with the holly light of the Resurrection.
Before entering their houses they make a cross with the smoke of
the candle on top of the door, they light the oil candle before
their icon-stand, and try to keep this light burning throughout
The priest then emerges and ascends a platform to read a Gospel passage and at exactly midnight, he cries "Christos Anesti" (Christ is Risen) and the faithful respond: "Alithos Anesti" (Truly He is Risen) amid ringing bells and snapping firecrackers. In harbour towns the hooting of ships' sirens adds to the din. Families and friends kiss one another and exchange the Easter greeting in an atmosphere of relief from the pent-up emotions of the previous few days. Even non-church-goers are caught up in the general euphoria.
They carry the new flame, sometimes shielded in a paper lantern, to light the family icon lamp and to smoke a cross over the lintel of the front door. Then they sit down to a supper of mageiritsa with salad and cheese, fresh bread and red eggs, although some members of the family may have stayed at the church to take Holy Communion in the early hours of Easter morning. Other, more popular times to take communion are on Saturday or even Thursday morning, the first Resurrection, when the bier is dismantled and the flowers scattered around the church.
The Lenten fast ends on early hours of Easter Sunday with the cracking of red-dyed eggs and the "mageiritsa" soup.
Orthodox Easter Sunday
Easter Sunday is the biggest church holiday in
Greece. Saint Paul first underlined the Christian symbolism of
Easter and when the Christians began to celebrate Easter, they
retained some of the features of the Jewish Passover, such as the
eating of lamb. In Byzantine times, it was the custom to bake
ring breads with a red egg in the middle. The egg, is a symbol of
life, while red is the color of life.
A chance to get away: Everyone who possibly can usually returns to his home village or goes to the countryside for the Easter holiday, but one can also find memorable services in Athens held at the Athens Cathedral, attended by civic dignitaries, and at St George's atop the Lykavittos Hill.
Easter Sunday dawns on a huge picnic scene: practically every family in the country is roasting a lamb out of doors, many over an open pit of glowing charcoal and the outdoor feast starts from early morning followed by dancing.Neighbours and passers-by come in to sample the mezedes or tidbits of liver (kokoretsi), eggs, salad and bread with wine or beer, and the first browned slices of lamb hot from the spit.
The red eggs are cracked in a kind of competition, one end against another held in a closed fist, with the bearer of the unbroken egg being the winner, as in the game of conkers. Loud music accompanies the feasting and dancing which follows in the afternoon and continues on the next day. A service of love - agapi(love) - is held in the churches, when red eggs are handed out to the congregation.
See our Easter Sunday "special tour" to watch the Greek custom of "lamb on the spit", enjoy a traditional lunch and drive to the area of Marathon, where the famous battle took place for only 36.00 euros per person.
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