Greek Orthodox Easter

Greek terms to know:

  • Kalo Pascha  (Pronounced kaLO PAska)
  • Christos Anesti (Christ has arisen) and then the reply is
  • Alithos Anesti (Truly He has arisen)

So you might be wondering why in Greece Easter falls a week later than Easter in the United States or Rome and that is because Greek Christians follow Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Eastern Orthodox countries other than Greece include: Bulgaria, Belarus, Cyprus, Georgia, Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Serbia, and Ukraine.

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Greek orthodox priests have a discussion at the beginning of the Great Week.

The Great Schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

  • There are about 225-300 million Christians in the Eastern Orthodox Church out of 2.2 billion Christians in the world.
  • Greek Orthodox Christianity is just one sub-group of Eastern Orthodoxy.
  • Differences between the two branches of Christendom had been growing culturally, politically and religiously for years, and in 1054 AD,  Pope Leo IX excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, who then mutually excommunicated the church. The churches have remained divided and separate ever since.

Greek Orthodox Easter

The actual spiritual preparations begin 40 days before Easter on Clean Monday. Great Lent, which is a 40 day period of self-reflection and fasting starts on Clean Monday. Clean Monday falls seven weeks before Easter Sunday and is the start of the non-meat fast of Lent. About 6 weeks after the Lenten fast begins, the Great Week commences.

Delicious tsoureki with dyed-red eggs.

Delicious tsoureki, an Easter pastry with dyed-red eggs saved for Easter Sunday morning.

Thursday

morning starts the ceremonies of the Great Week and the church service commemorates the Last Supper and the Betrayal of Christ. This is the day that families start to prepare for the week to come. They hard-boil eggs and dye them red, signifying the blood of Christ, and bake the Easter bread, called tsoureki. Tsoureki is a delicious sweet bread that everyone waits to eat until Sunday morning. It is quite the treat. For the recipe and more information on tsoureki follow this link.

Good Friday

is a day of mourning so many Greeks may avoid household chores. A ritual lament called the “Procession of the Epitáphios of Christ” mourns the death of Christ on the cross with a symbolic decorated coffin carried through the streets by the faithful. The procession ends at the local church and families attend to decorate the coffin of Christ with locally picked flowers that have recently bloomed with the coming of spring.

Saturday

night is in my opinion the pinnacle of the Greek Easter Holy week. The sharing of the eternal light ritual begins at 11pm on Saturday night and ends after midnight when the people walk home with their candles lit. The holy flame starts its journey in Jerusalem and is flown by military plane and brought to Greece and distributed to the local churches. This rite of unification and intensification is both beautiful and in my opinion magical. There is such a tangible and visual understanding of the power of community and the way the light spreads through the church and down the street and then singularly out into the community is really something special.

Lit candles and fireworks illuminate the entire city scape of Athens.

Lit candles and fireworks illuminate the entire city scape of Athens.

This whole candle lighting procession begins at midnight when the church turns off all the lights and the priest announces “Christos Anesti” (that Christ has Risen) and lights the first of the candles. Soon the whole room is illuminated by the light of everyone’s candles.

At the stroke of midnight the church bells ring in celebration, fireworks go off, and ships sound their horns. When the chimes started going off I saw people start turning to one another shaking hands and kissing on the cheeks. I thought I understood this as the “Peace be with you, and also with you” bit. But my friend, Ann, my impromptu guide for the evening, explained the priest had just proclaimed “Christ has risen from the dead and in doing so has trampled on death and to those in the tombs he has given life.” What people were actually saying to one another was “Christos Anesti” (Christ has arisen) and replying with “Alithos Anesti” (truly he has arisen).

Upon arriving home with their candles lit, they trace the cross three times above the door to bless themselves, the trees and the farm animals. The meal this night consists of bloodless meats like fish and/or shellfish. Also on this night a game with the red hard-boiled eggs is played.

Eggs are important in many religious settings and serve as symbols of rebirth and renewal. Life bursting from what looks to be an inanimate object has always fascinated humans and been a part of religious practice. To play, two people crack the eggs against gently and lightly, whoever cracks the others egg and keeps their shell intact wins and gets good luck for the year. The practice is meant to symbolize Jesus breaking out of the tomb.

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Folk singers in Livadia, watching over roasted lambs on the spit.

Easter Sunday

is an amazing way to end a long winter and a 40 day fast. For most Greeks, Easter is the best day of the year. Friends and families gather for a roasted lamb feast and to eat, drink, talk and dance. Some communities like Livadia, have huge folk festivals in the village square and roast up to 50 lamb like the ones you see above. In the center of Athens also, it is not uncommon for families to roast a spiced lamb or a goat right on the sidewalk over a charcoal fire outside of their apartment. The roasted lamb symbolizes Jesus, the Lamb of God, who was sacrificed and rose again on Easter and is the most important food of the day.

Roasted lamb on an Athenian sidewalk.

Roasted lamb on an Athenian sidewalk.

As loner today my roommate Russell and I were happy to be greeted at Cafe Caldo Wera with a plate of food and an invitation to join in the feast, “Gia to kalo tis imeras,” which translates to “for the good of the day.”

Today’s whole experience ties nicely into the Homeric concept of Greek hospitality that we are currently discussing in my classes using the Odyssey. I don’t feel like I am in another country today, just an extended family member that’s been away a while.

Monday

is a day that is meant to bring a nice end to the Great Week, and finish off any leftover food from the feasting from the day before. This day off of work now serves as a travel day for people to get back home, and to get ready to go back to work.

All in all these days and rituals are sweeping events that affect the entire country of Greece, whether they are a practicing Orthodox Christian or not. The foods, the rituals and the ceremonies are known by all. Cities clear out, with families heading for the islands and parks and churches are flooded with practitioners.

Regardless of your religious affiliation, you cannot be in Greece during this week and not be moved by the beliefs, the traditions and the embodiment of community in this beautiful country.

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