For Greeks, Easter is the biggest religious holiday of the year. Although many of the celebrations have roots to pre-Christian times – the Eleusinian mysteries in ancient Greece were also a celebration of rebirth after death when in winter everything dies and in spring they’re born again – today in Greece, Easter celebrations have a direct connection with the Orthodox faith.
By “Pisach” (the word means crossing pass) the Egyptians celebrated the passage of the Sun from the equator, the vernal equinox and the coming of spring. The Jews established this celebration to commemorate their liberation from the Egyptians and the crossing of the Red Sea. In addition they wanted to celebrate the end of the winter and the beginning of the spring.
In Christian feast was given the name “Easter” and by decision of the First Ecumenical Council in 325 AD set to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the full moon of the vernal equinox. At Easter, people celebrate the victory of Christ against death, the victory of God’s love to the humans despite their weakness and the arrival of spring, the awakening of nature after winter hibernation.
The word Easter, “Lampri” refers to the two weeks starting from the resurrection of Lazarus until the Low Sunday (Saint Thomas Sunday), the Holy Week and the week after Easter.
From the Byzantine years Christians were making preparations long before the Easter holidays. They overlaid their house’s floors with herbs, laurel, myrtle, rosemary, lemon; they bought new clothes, which called them “lampriatika”.
On Easter day everyone exchanged gifts and wished “Christos Anesti “that means Christ Has Risen, while at night the streets and the houses were illuminated. At the time of Ottoman domination Easter had a very special significance for the Greeks because they made a comparison of Jesus’ last week of life with their obedience to Ottomans along with Christ Resurrection came alive their hopes for the resurrection of the Nation.
The big week, or as it is known in Greek ‘Megali Evdomada,’ is the week from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. Despite it being an ordinary work week, shops have special hours, there are church services every evening, and many people clean and prepare their homes in preparation for the big feast of Easter Sunday.
Holy Week is essentially a revival of Jesus´ last days when the Orthodox Church relives the last week of the life of Jesus. On Thursday Greek Easter bread called tsoureki is baked and the traditional red Easter eggs are dyed. On Good Friday you´ll hear the church bells ring all day for the funeral of Christ. Many people participate in the quiet procession while carrying candles and the experience overall is quite solemn.
On Good Saturday in the morning we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, it is called “Proti Anastasi” (first Resurrection of Crist) and the touch of the Holy Light from the Holy Grave in Jerusalem. It is the last day of Lent and it is filled with preparations for the midnight meal, including a traditional soup called magiritsa. Just before midnight on Saturday everyone gathers at church with their Easter candles (or ‘lambades’ in Greek).
Just before midnight all the lights are switched off, as a symbol of Jesus’ descending to the kingdom of death, and a moment later the priest announces ‘Christos Anesti,’ or Christ Has Risen. People start cheering, greeting and kissing each other and many fireworks go off.
Everyone carries candles with them to be lit by the priest’s candle which represents the ‘holy flame.’ The tradition is that representatives from the Greek Orthodox Church have transported to Greece a candle lit by the eternal burning flame at the Church of the holy Grave in Jerusalem, and the flame is spread from candle to candle all over Greece.
Each person carefully carries their lit candle home in order to bless their home by drawing a cross with the flame above the entrance for protection from all evil.
The ‘tsougrisma’ game begins where people break each other’s´ red eggs by hitting them against each other. The one with the strongest egg is said to have good luck for the whole year!
The first meal after Lent is usually the traditional Easter soup called magiritsa, eaten after church on Saturday night.
On Easter Sunday family and friends gather for a big Easter meal, which typically includes roasted lamb, loads of different salads and mezedakia. On Easter Sunday, there is a scent of spring and delicious food across the entire country!