Easter Sunday in the western Christian world is a moveable feast, formerly set as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, but subsequently subjected to even more arcane determinations. The Greek Orthodox Easter is usually one to five weeks after this date, but occasionally it falls on the same Sunday, and this year both traditions will celebrate Easter Sunday on April 20th. This is not especially unusual; it happened in 2007, 2010, 2011, and will re-occur in 2017. But the coincidence is a happy one: by Greek standards this is nearly summer; the weather should be beautiful, the beaches uncrowded, the sea inviting, and the islands flowering and verdant. If you are like many dependent on the dates of the school holidays for your travel plans, 2014 is a perfect year to experience the charm and beauty of Easter in Greece.
Easter is the not only the most important feast in the liturgical calendar, but among believers it is also a turning point in human history, the fulfilment of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Life. And just in time for spring… the Easter tradition poignantly and joyfully calls upon seasonal symbols and rituals of sacrifice, redemption, rebirth, and regeneration as old as humanity, and nowhere perhaps as colourfully as in Greece, where both the Greek Orthodox and Catholic communities give themselves up to the increasingly dramatic and devout celebrations of Megali Evdomada (“Big Week”, or Holy Week).
On the Cycladic island of Syros, this magic is especially vivid. It has the unique distinction of having both Christian communities, the Orthodox and the Catholic, happily pitch in together during Holy Week to provide some spectacular festivities. On Good Friday, from the majestic Cathedral of San Giorgio behind its Venetian battlements on top of Ano Syros, and from the magnificent blue and gold-domed Greek Orthodox cathedral perched on the hillside opposite, religious processions bearing the Epitaphios, floral decorated ceremonial funeral biers, wend their way down the hillsides to meet in central Miaoulis Square for joint festivities and ceremonies of choirs, candles, and costumes.
On Paros, the third largest of the Cycladic islands, the population doubles during Holy Week, many drawn to the extraordinary highlight of Marpissa Parastassis: a type of spectacular Greek son-et-lumière that takes place on Good Friday, as the Epitaphios is carried in a sombre twilight procession trailed by penitents dragging wooden crosses through the streets strewn with myrtle and bay laurel, and lined with costumed bystanders forming living tableaux depicting scenes and characters from the Easter story: the entry into Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives, Roman guards, the Last Supper. At Panagia Ekatonapillani, the “church of 100 doors” in the main square of the island’s capital Parikia, perhaps the most famous Byzantine church in all of Greece, the Easter midnight mass is a majestic and unforgettable experience.
Holy Week in Greece, in both the Orthodox and the western traditions, increases daily in drama and expectation, with church services and specific events and customs for each day. It is preceded on Lazarus Saturday (one week before Easter), on which children go door to door singing the Lazaros hymn and collecting money and eggs. On Monday of Holy Week, there is a church service where the icons are kissed; on Tuesday, a day of mourning, the koulouraki, a sweet and delicate butter-and-egg pastry, are made to be eaten on Easter Sunday. Wednesday is the day of the Holy Oil, which is blessed in evening services by the bishop. Thursday sees communion services, and the women dye ceremonial eggs (kokkina avga), dyed red in onion skins and vinegar, which symbolize the blood of Christ, and bake tsoureki, a braided sweet bread, for the Easter Sunday feast. Today the Epitaphio is decorated with garlands of flowers in preparation for Good Friday. This is Megali Paraskevi , the most sacred day and a day of mourning. Flags are flown at half-mast, funeral bells knell; it is a day of rest and fasting for both the Orthodox and Catholic communities, leading up to the dramatic evening processions of the Epitaphios.
Megalo Savato, the day before Easter Sunday, begins with a morning church service, followed by the baking of kalitsounia (cheese pies), and the lambs for the Sunday feast are slaughtered. The celebrations culminate in the Saturday midnight Mass of the Anastasi (the Resurrection) with the dramatic lighting of the Holy Flame: the priest emerges from the back of the darkened church with a single lit candle whose flame is passed from candle to candle among the congregation until the entire church is flickering, and the joyous greeting “Christos anesti” (“Christ is risen”) and the response “Alithos anesti” (“He is risen indeed”) resound to the rafters. After the service the still-lit candles are brought home, and a cross drawn with their smoke on the entrance door before entering. The Lenten fast is now broken with the traditional mageiritsa, a type of avgelemono soup made of the offal from the lambs, flavoured with onions, dill, thyme, and lemon, as well as hiroméri (a smoked salted pork).
Easter Sunday is a day of feasting, wine, music and dancing, and presents for the children. The Paschal lamb is spit-roasted (arni pashalino tis souvlas), and the red-dyed eggs, before being eaten, are knocked together in the game known as Tsougrisma, with the owner of the last egg to crack declared the winner, and expected to enjoy good luck for the upcoming year.