Greek Easter: A Complete Guide to the Greek Orthodox Easter Traditions
Written by Dr. Maria (C)Hnaraki
It is not accidental that Greek Easter-time coincides with spring when everything gets reborn. On Greek mainland or islands this is particularly felt. Spring break in Greece is a multisensory activity that we highly recommend experiencing!
Greek Easter: get ready for all events and celebrations
Easter is a very pleasant period of time to be in Greece, as it the celebration Greeks treasure the most. Spring season is delightful as several flowers bloom and trees blossom.
Different events are held during the Greek Easter week. Paying a visit to churches and monasteries around that period of time is an interesting cultural experience full of mesmerizing sounds, beautiful aromas, and colorful images. You are always welcome to join in the Greek tradition of lighting up a candle and making a wish as you enter holy spaces.
Easter is the greatest celebration of the Orthodox Church and, at the same time, the most cherished family time for Greeks. If you have seen the popular movie ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding‘, you will get a good understanding of how a typical Easter gathering would look like: the funny family reunions in the scenes of this movie, although dramatized, are actually rather close to reality.
If you plan on being in Greece during Easter, consider yourself lucky; Easter in Greece is something you should experience at least once in your lifetime!
When is Greek Easter?
Greek Easter dates vary from year to year as defined by the Greek Orthodox calendar. Orthodox Churches still use the Julian calendar for Easter, meaning that there can be a weeks-long lag behind the Gregorian.
In 2021, Greek Easter is Sunday, May 2nd
It was the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council in 325 AD who came up with a uniform way of setting the date. They decreed that Easter was to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox -but always after Passover.
In some years, however, Eastern and Western Easter fall on the same date, and this will happen again in the year 2025.
What is the Greek Lent (Sarakosti) and when does it start?
Three weeks before Lent starts, Greeks attend carnival festivities such as parties, feasts and parades (everyone, kids, in particular, get the chance to get dressed up in brilliant costumes). It is a period when, in preparation for transitioning to a vegan diet for Lent, communities consume large quantities of red meat and animal products.
When does Greek lent start? Kathara Deutera
Greek Lent starts on the so-called “Clean” (Kathara) Monday. Symbolically, on that day, Greeks fly kites in the sky, an act that symbolizes reaching up high and joining the heavens. Parents and children spend time outdoors together, enjoying veggie and seafood-rich lunches with family and friends.
On that day, children also bake (from the inedible salty dough) or paint and cut a figure called “Kiria Sarakosti” (from the Greek saranda which means 40). Sarakosti is a woman with 7 legs, for the 7 weeks till Easter, hands in prayer, and no mouth. She represents Lent, a period of time when one speaks less but meditates more. Starting on the Saturday after Clean Monday, Greek children cut a leg. The last leg is cut on Holy Saturday and it is hidden in a dried fig or walnut. Whoever gets this fruit or nut is lucky!
Saturday before Easter Sunday
The Saturday before the Holy Week (which Greeks, by the way, call “Great”), Greeks celebrate the miracle of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead, after four days in the tomb.
Greek children prepare special Lenten breads called ‘Lazarakia’ (Little Lazarus buns). They are sweet, spicy small breads, shaped like boys with crossed arms on their chest, sort of wrapped in burial clothing. If you would like to make Lazaeaki, follow this recipe by the famous Greek chef, Akis Ppetretzikis.
In several parts of Greece, children also assist adults with making the palm crosses that are given out to people who attend the religious services on Palm Sunday.
On that Sunday, Greeks are allowed to break the fast for fish only, a dish which commemorates the miracle of the multiplication of the fish by Jesus.
During the Easter Week ‘Holy or Great Week’
Holy Wednesday: collecting vine leaves, making dolmadakia and go to the church
On Holy Wednesday, children get out in the fields to collect the first grape leaves from the vines which they will then use for making dolmadakia (stuffed grape leaves with rice) the day after (namely on Holy Thursday).
Vine and its branches are traditionally seen as depicting Christ and his followers. Also, according to the religious belief, Holy Thursday is the day Christ died on the cross and hence got dressed in a burial garment, a scene which resembles to rice getting wrapped into the grape leaves.
On that afternoon, Greek also visit a church and get a small bottle of blessed olive oil which parents apply onto their kids forehead, ears, the bottom of hands and feet, belly, chest, etc.
Holy Thursday: dying the eggs red, making Easter Butter cookies
Holy Thursday is the time Greek children dye the eggs red to represent the blood of Christ. The hard eggshell symbolizes the sealed tomb of Jesus, and red the blood and the suffering upon crucifixion. Let us not forget that eggs have been a symbol of the renewal of life since antiquity.
On Saturday after midnight, and upon Christ’s Resurrection, Greeks will play an egg battle game (tsougrisma), which children very much enjoy. Choosing each side of the egg, one person cracks the other, with a goal to see who gets the most durable egg. The first one wishes “Christ is Risen” whereas the other one answers back “Truly He is”! More information on this custom, why do Greek dye the Easter eggs red?
On that same day, Greek children assist with the making of Easter butter cookies (like braided or round cookies) and breads (tsourekakia and tsourekia respectively) but don’t eat them before the end of Saturday.
On the island of Crete, kalitsounia (–sweet cheese pastries) are traditionally made on this day as well.
Typically, an Easter bread, tsoureki, has three plaits that are braided within it. It is a mixture of aromatic spices such as mahleb, mastic and coriander, which represent the Holy Trinity; God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. Usually, Greeks decorate them with red-dyed eggs. More about this tradition, What is the difference between tsoureki, challah bread, and brioche?
On Holy Friday morning, the mournful, saddest day for Greek Orthodox Christianity, children assist women with decorating the tomb of Christ (Epitaph) with flowers of various colors and sizes.
Later on in that morning, when Jesus is taken down from the Cross, the Epitaph is ready to hold an image of His body.
During the evening mass, most of the religious ritual occurs outside the church. The ornate Epitaph gets carried out by men, accompanied by young girls who hold baskets full of flower petals. The girls are usually dressed in black dresses and are called the “Myrofores” (which translates to the girls who bring the holy oil).
The believers follow the priest holding a candle in their hands and start marching around the neighborhood, ending in the church. The procession pauses before the church’s entrance so that every attendee who wishes can enter the church by passing under it and, therefore, get blessed.
On this day, the traditional dish is lentil soup, usually with vinegar (or lemon), which symbolizes a gospel scene about Christ being thirsty on the cross, asking for water, but being given vinegar soaked on a sponge instead.
Easter Weekend: Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday
Holy Saturday is the only Saturday for the Greeks when the consumption of olive oil is not allowed.
By that Saturday, each Greek child has received its Easter candle (lambada) with a unique decoration. Traditionally, it is the godmother (nona) or godfather (nonos) who gives the godchildren their Easter candle along with an Easter gift (–usually new clothes, shoes, or money). A big chocolate egg, chocolate rooster, or bunny is a favorite accompanying treat.
On Saturday morning, the so-called First Resurrection takes place at the church. The bells ring happily, a pigeon is released to freely fly inside the temple, while the priests throw bay leaves and flowers petals dipped in spring aromas to everyone in attendance.
On that same evening, people go to church in formal outfits holding their personal votive candle for the evening mass, a ritual that the majority of Greeks attend. The priest will deliver the holy light to everyone, and with candles lit, Resurrection will take place at midnight.
In several parts of Greece, lots of fireworks and shootings take place. A scarecrow of Judas might be set on fire that same night, symbolizing “catharsis”.
Then, people head home to crack red-dyed eggs and eat the magiritsa soup (a meat and vegetable broth that officially breaks down the fasting period). That Easter soup is made of lamb intestines, lettuce, and other greens, and prepares the stomach for a non-vegan diet.
On Sunday, the smell of spit-roasted lamb and other meat delicacies is everywhere. Wherever in Greece, you may be, just follow the smell and the laughter. Almost everyone in Greece visits a village in the countryside on that day when the whole kinfolk gathers to grill lamb and dine together.
Early in the morning on Sunday, the preparation of the lamb starts. The fast is over, so grilled lamb, as well as other meat-based recipes, like kokoretsi, a dish consisting of lamb or goat intestines wrapped around seasoned offal, including sweetbreads, hearts, lungs, or kidneys, and typically grilled, are definitely on the menu.
Traditional Greek folk music can be heard everywhere throughout Greece and people indulge in lots of food while drinking and dancing the day away. It’s the perfect chance for family and friends to reunite.
Everyone gathers together to celebrate with music, lots of egg cracking, food and drinks. The feast doesn’t end until later that day.
The Kids Love Greece team wishes everyone a Spring Filled Resurrection! Καλό Πάσχα! Καλή Ανάσταση!
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