Tomorrow is the Greek Orthodox Easter. Pretty much the same as that celebrated by any other Christian denomination, you may think, and you would be partly right. For, you see, Easter is a really big deal over here. Bigger than Christmas (I can practically hear the gasps).
Following forty days of lent, when many people give up meat (and fast-food and even souvlaki joints joints offer veggie or seafood alternatives), it all kicks off with Palm Sunday – a week before Easter. Church-goers are treated to handmade palm crosses and liberally scattered bay leaves. These are meant to remind us of Jesus’ triumphant entrance to Jerusalem. They are taken home, as a blessing.
Monday and Tuesday have morning and evening services. Tuesday is dedicated to Maria Magdalene, and a 9th century Byzantine troparion (poem) is sung, written by Kassiani (a Byzantine monk, renowned for both her beauty and poetry skills).
Wednesday has three services: a morning liturgy; an afternoon unction service and an evening service, where the Last Supper is celebrated. The unction service is the most popular of these, with churches overflowing with people. It takes place before a bowl filled with olive oil. Once it’s over, the priest anoints people with it. They also dip small cotton balls into it and take them home. This oil is believed to cure sickness, so they also take bottles of the oil home, to anoint themselves in case of ill health.
Thursday has a morning liturgy and an evening service, referred to as the Twelve Gospels. This is a reference to the priest reading twelve gospel excerpts, namely those describing how Jesus was captured and brought to Pilate.
Good Friday also has two services. In every church there is a wooden cross, complete with a figure of Jesus nailed on it. This is brought to the center of the church, and Jesus is removed from the cross. A gold-embroidered sheet with the scene of His burial is placed inside an elaborately adorned box, known as the Epitaph.
Throughout the day, bells ring pensively. In the evening, a solemn procession takes this around the village or parish. This consists of marching bands, boy scouts and hundreds of people. The Epitaph chanting, known as Epitaph mourning, is particularly haunting – you can listen to it below in a lovely rendition by Glykeria.
Saturday has a morning liturgy, but it’s the midnight Resurrection service that everyone’s waiting for (unless you’re in Corfu. Unable to keep fasting for too long, Corfiots have decided to celebrate what we call the First Resurrection; when Jesus goes to Hades to take the souls to Heaven. At noon sharp, clay jugs are thrown out of every window. Moments later, marching bands playing happy tunes march throughout the city and the fasting is over. Everyone else has to wait until midnight before they break the fast).
Moments before midnight, everyone’s out on the streets. At midnight sharp, the Holy Fire is distributed, having arrived earlier by plane from Jerusalem (see below). Everyone lights up their candles, kisses each other and exchanges wishes of Christos Anesti (Christ is risen). Moments later, only a few are left behind to attend the midnight mass. The crowds disperse and go home, where they break the fast with a meat stew called magiritsa and boiled eggs. Traditionally, people make a wish and crack each other’s eggs. Whoever cracks his neighbor’s egg, will get their wish fulfilled.
In most places, however, there are also fireworks (sometimes taken to the extreme, like in Chios or Crete, where tons of fireworks or even heavy weapons may be used). The photo on the right is from Corfu, which features a lovely fireworks display. You can see below the crowds with their lit candles.
Finally, Easter Sunday is celebrated by eating lamb (as in the Lamb of God, but also a reference to the Jewish Passover and Exodus). There is no morning liturgy, only Vespers, so religion takes a back seat to a rather boisterous and prolonged family lunch.
Needless to say, every part of Greece has its own customs for the occasion. For example, on some islands the Epitaph is dipped into the sea, to ensure kind seas for the ships in the following months.
I mentioned before the Holy Fire being transferred to Greece from Jerusalem. Mihran Kalaydjian kindly left a comment last week, detailing what that is all about. Here is his story, in his own words.
(Note: the video starts off with a bit of a travel log, so I suggest you start playing at 4′)
“This ceremony takes place in the Orthodox Church of the Resurrection of Christ in Jerusalem in such a way that bewilders the soul of the Christians.
ON EASTER SATURDAY, at noon, the Orthodox Patriarch, or any other Orthodox Archbishop, enters the Holy Sepulchre in the church of Resurrection, recites special prayers and remains waiting. Sometimes the waiting is long, sometimes short. The crowd, in the darkened church, repeats continually with a loud voice: “Lord, have mercy” (Kyrie eleison). At a certain moment the Holy Fire flashes from the depth of the Holy Sepulchre in a supernatural way, miraculously, and lights up the little lamp of olive oil put on the edge of it. The Patriarch (or the Archbishop), after having read some prayers, lights up the two clusters of 33 candles he is holding, and begins to distribute the Holy Fire to the multitude of pilgrims, who receive it with great emotion, accompanied with the pealing of bells, acclamations, and an unbridled enthusiasm.
The Holy Fire is not only distributed by the Archbishop, but operates also by itself. It emits from the Holy Sepulchre having a gleam of a hue completely different from that of natural Fire. It sparkles, it flashes like lightning, it flies like a dove around the tabernacle of the Holy Sepulchre, and lights up the unlit lamps of olive oil hanging in front of it. It whirls from one side of the church to the other. It enters to some of the chapels inside the church, as for instance the chapel of the Calvery (at a higher level than the Holy Sepulchre) and lights up the little lamps. It also lights up the candles of certain pilgrims. In fact there are some very pious pilgrims who, every time they attended this ceremony, noticed that their candles lit up on the own accord!
This divine light also presents some peculiarities: As soon as it appears it has a bluish hue and does not burn. At the first moments of its appearance, if it touches the face, or the mouth, or the hands, it does not burn. This is proof of its divine and supernatural origin. We must also take into consideration that the Holy Fire appears only by the invocation of an Orthodox Archbishop. Each time that heterodox bishops tried to obtain it, they failed.
Once the Armenians paid the Turks, who then occupied the Holy Land, in order to obtain permission for their Patriarch to enter the Holy Sepulchre, The Orthodox Patriarch was standing sorrowfully with his flock at the exit of the church, near the left column, when the Holy Fire split this column vertically and flashed near the Orthodox Patriarch.
A Moslem Muezin, called Tounom, who saw the miraculous event from an adjacent mosque, abandoned immediately the Moslem religion and became an Orthodox Christian. This event took place in 1549 under Sultan Mourad IV, when the Patriarch of Jerusalem was Sophrony II. (The mentioned split column still exists. It goes back to the XII c. The Orthodox pilgrims embrace it at the “place of the split” as the enter the church).
The appearance of the Holy Fire is an event which occurs every year in front of thousands of visual witnesses. Nobody can deny it. On the contrary, this miracle can reinforce those who have lack of faith.”
This is fascinating stuff. Thank you for the information and Happy Easter. 🙂
So glad you enjoyed it 🙂
I read your very informative blog with interest. In my book ‘Where Lies My Heart’ (to be published shortly on Amazon) some of the Eritrean characters (East Africa) are Orthodox Christians.
Fascinating! One of the oldest churches is in Ethiopia, which had a vibrant Orthodox community until recently.
You are so lucky! I would love to experience Easter in Greece. When Mihran explained the Holy light to me I immediately checked out every youtube video I could find. I wish I could play the ones posted here but it’s only 4 AM, don’t want to wake the hubby. I’ll come back in a few hours. Chow for now!
We’d be happy to put you up if you do visit 🙂
Perhaps we’ll take you up on that one day. The more I see of Greece (pics) the more I want to go.
I assume you’ve been looking at my photos, huh? 😉
Yours and others. I never knew Greece was so beautiful.
Greeks tell this joke:
When God wanted to distribute Earth to humanity, he asked all people to visit him by Friday, as Saturday was His day off.
The Germans, always punctual, were there first thing on Monday, so they got a lovely piece of land in the center of Europe, complete with lush forests and lovely meadows.
The Chinese showed up next, all dressed the same and forming endless lines, so they got China.
Last to visit Him on Friday evening were the Russians, who came as soon as they were through with their bureaucracy. They got a frozen part of Eurasia, but still very lovely.
Then, Saturday morning, just as He was having His morning coffee, there was a knock on the door. He opens and sees the Greeks, late as usual.
– Please God, we mixed up the dates. We, too, want a home.
– But I told you – you had until Friday. There’s nothing I can do now.
– Truth be told, we saw the crowds and decided to wait for a while, until they had left. We didn’t realize it was too late until now! You’re such a kind God, surely you can find something for us.
God scratches His head, thinking.
– The only place left is a small plot of land I had kept for myself, as it is the loveliest…
Very cute! Only through knowing you have I learned anything about Greece. Before I had no idea it even had forests and rural areas. I had an almost child-like impression — cold, impersonal, lots of cement and tall buildings, a foreign land where people talked about mythology all the time — certainly not even in the realm of reality. Over the last few years I’ve met a few people from Greece and, I’m happy to say, who’ve proven me wrong with their kindness and generosity. Surprisingly, you guys hardly ever mention Greek mythology. 😉
Lol – no, we keep that for our toga parties, when we spread tzatziki on each other and discuss Plato :b
I also wish you a Happy Easter. Thanks for sharing the richness of this holy event. Not having been raised in a particular religion, I find the beliefs and rituals incredibly interesting. Enjoy.
Thanks! I feel the same way with other religions and their festivals 🙂
Happy Easter and thanks for the information. It’s fascinating.
So glad you enjoyed it 🙂
HI Nicholas, I just wanted to wish you and your family a joyous Easter! Thank you for sharing what it’s like in Greece. I really was moved by the audio and video. The Holy Fire was amazing! 🙂
It’s literally out of this world, isn’t it? 🙂
It is! 🙂
Nicholas, Happy Easter! Your celebration write up brought back fond memories of living there and following all the celebrations. Especially Easter! Hope you have (had) a wonderful day and a “boisterous” family lunch! Christine
Thanks! I was thinking of you and Ali, both of whom have spent time over here, while writing up the post. You probably knew all that, but some of it must have seen strange, to put it mildly 😀
The big day is tomorrow, but it’s a low-key affair for us.
Happy Easter, Nicholas! Thank you for sharing these Easter traditions with us.
Thanks! So glad you liked the post 🙂
Enjoyed this article tremendously! I’m listening to the Epitaph chant as I type – I love that kind of music. We all need to learn more about the customs of religions we may not be completely familiar with.
So glad to hear it! Plus, customs like that are pretty inspirational to authors! 🙂
Oh, and of course: Happy Easter, Nicholas!!! 😀
Lol – belated wishes to you, too 🙂
Oh you even did a post last week. So you did great…
Lol – last week’s post was to wish my non-Orthodox friends a happy Easter 🙂 But yes, it was a nice, quiet Easter for me – just the way I like it 🙂
Glad you enjoyed it your way. Have a great Tuesday, Nicholas!
You too, my Kind friend 🙂
Wow, what an amazing ceremony. Not comparable with our Easter traditions. Thank you for sharing this with us. So very informative. I did not know!
Glad you found it interesting! I always worry that people may find such posts irreverent or boring 🙂
Haha… no way! Have a wonderful Easter!!!
The Holy Fire is all new to me. I enjoyed the audio and the video as well. Thanks so much for sharing. It IS interesting how we all celebrate Easter, maybe differently, but the main point is the same. Christ has risen. <3
Happy Easter Nicholas. Thanks for the very informative post. Anyone living here in the US would find it hard to believe that any holiday could be celebrated more than Christmas. I guess we all live in our own microcosms. I enjoy learning about the traditions of other people, however, and I think your Easter is celebrated as it should be. After all, it is about the resurrection of Christ, not the Easter bunny and baskets he leaves.
Lol – I’d never even heard of the Easter bunny until I was an adult 🙂
Excellent blog post, Nicholas! I learned a lot about the Greek Orthodox traditions! Loved the music clip as well. Most fitting!
So glad you liked it; thanks! 🙂
Happy Easter. Thanks for the detailed explanation. Always found these week long celebrations amazing even to read about.
Yes, they can be quite intense 🙂
What a wonderful post, thank you! And, happy Greek Easter!
Thank you! 🙂
That service looked so chaotic… and dangerous just getting into the church! Services here seem so tame and joyless by comparison, as if its done for the sake of it rather than real belief and love. I remember Easter in the little village in Cyprus when I lived there as a child… all the kids of the village were allowed to go and play in the church, no adults allowed, and after they wandered the village offering bowls of a special food and everyone would take a handful… dont know what it was, or its significance, but I think it had pomegranite seeds in it, and was delicious! Only at Easter. But I have never heard of the Holy Fire though… what is your experience of that Nick, if you dont mind me asking, because I am intrigued, and feel its something quite special.
The special food was properly stari (lit, wheat), which is traditionally offered to the dead as a remembrance. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had its origins in ancient Greek customs. In mainland Greece people bring a bowl to the church, for a 5′ service at the end of mass. The sweet is then distributed among the congregation.
I could be completely wrong, of course, as I’m not familiar with Cypriot customs 🙂
As for the Holy Fire, you may have noticed that I avoided commenting myself, as I have no personal experience. So, I merely quoted Mihran, as he summed up nicely what the Greek Orthodox Church traditionally believes. Whether you choose to accept it or not, is a question of faith 🙂
Thanks Nick! Well, clearly a lot of people in that church did experience something, judging by the reaction! But the fact that they all experienced something different suggests to me that what they saw/ felt comes from within themselves, rather than some external miracle. Which in no way devalues their experiences. Very interesting… cant stop thinking about it for some reason, maybe there’s some link with the ancient Irish festival fires I’ve been writing about recently… its burning off my brain cells, which is a shame, as theres not too many of them left lol!
Lol – I’m sure there are more brain cells left than you think 😉
The question of what an objective reality is, and if such a thing might even exist, has been dealt with by far greater minds than mine. Personally, I lean towards those arguing all reality is subjective, at least on this plane.
Ooooh… that’s a get out quick line if ever I heard one lol! In a way that’s true… we all percieve things differently, so I’ll let you off… this time!
Lol – a large part of my PhD thesis dealt with the subject of metamodernism and the fact that, basically, you can prove anything using logic, depending on your point of origin. To put it bluntly, it is real if you believe in it.
The best way to explain this is through geometry. If you remember your Euclides, he demonstrated how one can prove theorems using logical steps. However, he had to take some things for granted – for example, that two parallel lines never intersect. These, he called axioms.
Nowadays, there are non-euclidean geometries that find application in fields of physics, such as what happens in the inside of black holes. Removing this axiom, one reaches totally obscure results.
Does this mean the ol’boy was wrong? No, it just means one can prove anything, depending on what one accepts axiomatically.
Kant made a seeming somersault using a similar logic. After using Descartes’ cogito ergo sum argument, Kant argues that this proves the existence of God; for only a benevolent God would allow us to think (I’m oversimplifying here, but you get the point).
Feel free to oversimplify as much as you like, Nick, all this stuff is way over my head… but fascinating none the less! The notion of something being real if you believe in it is similar to my idea of truth.
See? I call it the Santa Claus principle 🙂
Loved that. Didn’t know about Holy Fire either. Really interesting. Thanks.
Glad you found it interesting! 🙂
Thanks for sharing the tradition – very informative
Glad you enjoyed it 🙂
The singing voice of Glykeria left its mark on me.
I’d like to comment on the Israeli Security Forces’ conduct. They are only carrying out their duty – to protect and allow people of all faiths to pray peacefully.
Thanks for enlightening me, Nicholas.
I agree. I wish I could start the video around 5′ into it, as that’s where the interesting stuff happens. Sadly, I don’t know of a way of doing so 🙁
Without the events of Easter, Christianity would not make sense…nor would Christmas.Thanks for the glimpse into a different tradition, Nicholas.
Glad you enjoyed it! 🙂
Hi Nicholas – thank you for sharing the traditional Easter events of the Greek Orthodox Church. It is interesting how differently we celebrate such events across various Christians faiths. But one thing I think we all believe as Christians, is the celebratory message of Christ’s resurrection and atonement – that we will be forgiven for our mistakes and live with Him again in Heaven. May God’s blessings be on you and your family and friends this Easter time.
Thanks! I agree; that’s all that matters 🙂
And with you! 🙂