Greece, Easter and Holy Week in

Greece, Easter and Holy Week in

The Greek word for Easter is Pascha, a Greek pronunciation of the Hebrew word for Passover, Pesah (see also Easter, Origin of the Word). Greeks also call the festival Lambri, meaning "the radiance" or "brightness." This name recalls the fires and lights used in the Resurrection service that commemorates Jesus' rising from the dead (see also Easter Vigil; Easter Fires). In Greece Easter is the most important holiday of the year. Greeks sometimes call it Eorti Eorton, "the festival of festivals."

Most Greeks are members of the Greek Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy is one of the three main branches of the Christian faith. Orthodox Christianity developed in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and north Africa. It split away from Western Christianity, which later divided into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, about 1,000 years ago. Orthodox and other Eastern Christians follow a slightly different schedule of religious observances than do Western Christians. In addition, they maintain their own distinctive calendar system which causes their Lent and Easter season observances to fall on different dates than those celebrated by Western Christians (see also Easter, Date of).

Holy Week

Christians call the last week of Lent, that is, the seven days that precede Easter, Holy Week. Strictly observant Orthodox Christians fast throughout Lent, refraining from eating meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, olive oil, and alcoholic beverages. Many less observant Orthodox Christians, who do not fast throughout Lent, will observe the fast during Holy Week. Distinctive religious observances take place throughout Holy Week. In addition, Greek families put their homes through a special spring cleaning in preparation for Easter. This cleaning includes giving their homes a fresh coat of whitewash. Other Easter preparations include the purchase of decorated candles, wrapped with ribbons or molded into playful shapes, to carry during the Resurrection service. Godparents buy these candles for their godchildren. For those who would like a more permanent memento of the holiday, jewelry shops sell egg-shaped pendants, made of gold or enamel and marked with the current year.

Lazarus Saturday

Greeks and other Orthodox Christians observe the day before Holy Week begins as a religious holiday. Known as Lazarus Saturday, the day commemorates the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:144). Orthodox church services held on that day retell the story of his coming back to life at Jesus'command. Some people refer to this miracle as the "first Easter." Indeed, Lazarus' raising provides Jesus' followers with a preview of the kind of miracle that will occur the following week on Easter Sunday.

Children celebrate Lazarus Saturday by singing folk songs about Lazarus from door to door. Called lazarakia, these songs describe the miracle of his return from the dead. Sometimes the children carry props said to represent Lazarus, such as a picture, doll, or even a staff or rod covered with flowers, ribbons, and cloth. On the island of Crete children display a more abstract emblem representing Lazarus, a cross made of reeds and decorated with lemon blossoms and pretty red flowers. In central Greece girls usually take responsibility for banding together to sing lazarakia. On the island of Cyprus boys do, often acting out the story told in the song. One child, draped with garlands of yellow flowers, lies down and pretends to be Lazarus. When the others call, "Lazarus, come out!" he jumps up from the ground. Songsters refresh themselves with special buns known as lazari. Some bakers form the buns by twisting lumps of dough, as if to represent a man twisted up in a sheet. Others form it into long thin strips, cross the ends, and decorate the resulting loop with a cross made out of currants, a raisin-like dried fruit. According to Greek folklore, a child who rolls one of these buns down a hill stands a good chance of finding a bird's nest where it comes to rest.

Palm Sunday

Fasting is relaxed on Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week, because it commemorates the joyful welcome that Jesus and his followers received as they entered the city of Jerusalem. Church services feature processions recalling that of Jesus and his followers, and worshipers are given small crosses twisted out of palm leaves attached to a sprig of bay or myrtle. Parishioners bring these ornaments, called vayas, home with them and tuck them inside the frame of an icon, a religious image used to focus prayer or worship. Old folk beliefs taught that the vayas protected against disease and other misfortunes. A pregnant woman, touched by a vaya, could expect an easier delivery, and in some places even farm animals were thought to benefit from the protection they bestowed.

Holy Tuesday

Church services on this day recall the woman who anointed Jesus'feet, sometimes identified as Mary Magdalene and sometimes as Mary of Bethany, another of Jesus'friends (John 12:3). Many women who don't normally attend church make an effort to attend this ceremony.

Holy Wednesday

On this day church services include special healing ceremonies in which worshipers are anointed with holy oil, a specially blessed, fragrant oil. As parishioners file out of the church the priest paints a cross on their foreheads, cheeks, chins, palms, and the backs of their hands with a swab dipped in holy oil.

Red Eggs

In Greece people dye their Easter eggs red. Several legends illustrate the significance of red Easter eggs to the Greek people. According to one of these tales, as Jesus hung on the cross a woman walked by carrying a basket of eggs. A drop of Jesus' blood fell onto the eggs, staining them all red. This miracle inspired the Greek people to dye all their Easter eggs red, in memory of the Crucifixion (for more on crucifixion, see Cross). Some people add that the red color of the egg represents the blood of the Crucifixion, the egg itself Jesus inside the tomb, and the cracking of the egg Jesus' resurrection and emergence from the tomb. Another old legend popular among the Orthodox credits Mary Magdalene with the invention of red Easter eggs, when an egg she was using to demonstrate the Resurrection to the emperor Tiberius miraculously turned red in her hand. In Greece the red egg has become an extremely popular Easter symbol. Red Easter egg toys for children also appear in shops at Easter time.

Some families take their red eggs to church to be blessed on Maundy Thursday, after which they are known as "evangelized eggs." In some areas old folk traditions called for housewives to dye one egg per family member and one for the Blessed Virgin Mary (see Mary, Blessed Virgin). After the eggs were eaten the shells were collected and buried at the foot of fruit trees in the belief that this would help them to bear more fruit.

Maundy Thursday

Greek tradition recommends that families bake Easter breads and dye their Easter eggs on Maundy Thursday. Because of its strong association with the dyed red eggs, Greeks sometimes call Holy Thursday "Red Thursday." According to one custom, the first egg to emerge from the dye is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Folk tradition suggests that this egg might have the power to work miracles. Often families keep this egg or an Easter egg blessed at the Resurrection service in the ikonostasi, a shelf or niche where the family keeps devotional materials such as icons, incense, blessed palms from Palm Sunday, a Bible, and a cross. The Easter egg and other seasonal items, such as palm crosses, remain throughout the year, until they are disposed of on the following Maundy Thursday.

The morning church service on Maundy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper (for more on the Last Supper, see Maundy Thursday). The Bible tells that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, providing them with an example of how to treat others. Some Greek churches offer footwashing ceremonies on Holy Thursday in which the priest washes the feet of twelve men and boys. The people of Patmos stage a play called Niptir, or "Washing," in the town square which reenacts the famous footwashing scene. Some people wash the feet of their elders or other family members on Maundy Thursday, anointing them with scented oils.

The Last Supper is also famous for Jesus' sharing of bread and wine with his disciples, a gesture which the early Christians turned into a ceremony called the Eucharist. Since Maundy Thursday may be seen as the "birthday of the Eucharist," many people honor the day by participating in this ceremony.

Evening church services commemorate the Crucifixion (see also Royal Hours). Twelve Gospel passages, selections from the Bible that tell the story of Jesus'life, are read aloud and hymns are sung, including a long religious song called "The Virgin's Lament." Women and girls may stay up throughout the night, mourning the torture and death of Jesus.

Good Friday

Good Friday is a national holiday in Greece. The day's religious services commemorate the death of Jesus Christ and many of the day's folk customs echo the theme of death. Flags are flown at half-mast, people visit cemeteries, and church bells play funeral knells. In some towns people practice a folk custom called the burning of Judas, in which Jesus' disciple Judas is symbolically punished for having turned Jesus in to the religious authorities. Many devout people drink vinegar or eat foods prepared with vinegar on Good Friday, recalling that when Jesus thirsted on the cross, the guards offered him vinegar to drink (Matthew 27:48, Mark 15:36, Luke 23:36, John 19:29). Others observe a total fast.

On the morning of Good Friday the children and women of Greek parishes gather together to decorate the kouvouklion, a symbolic representation of Jesus' funeral bier. They cover it with flowers or flower petals donated by the people of the parish. In some places young girls sprinkle lemon leaves and rose petals over the bier. Later in the afternoon it will hold the epitaphios, a cloth embroidered with the image of Jesus reposing in death. Afternoon services commemorate the removal of Jesus from the cross. During this service people come forward to kiss and bow before the epitaphios, using it as a devotional tool that allows them to express their feelings about Jesus' death. Sometimes children pass under the epitaphios in the form of a cross in order to receive a blessing from the cloth icon. As people leave the church clergy members offer them a flower from the kouvouklion. People part from each other with the pre-Easter greeting, "Kali anastasi" (good resurrection). The epitaphios remains in front of the church until the evening service. People come in throughout the afternoon to pay respects to the epitaphios in much the same way they would pay respects to the deceased at a funeral.

Evening services, which technically belong to Holy Saturday, commemorate Christ's burial and honor his dominion over death and darkness. This somber service features a candlelight procession, said to represent Jesus' funeral procession. Led by the priest and those who carry the kouvouklion containing the epitaphios, the congregation files out of the church and forms a procession that winds through the city streets, in some towns taking a tour through the cemetery, where the bier is carried over graves. Some families burn incense outside their homes to honor the passing of this procession. In many Greek cities, bands playing funeral marches accompany these sorrowful parades. In the Greek capital, Athens, the head of state and other important politicians participate in these processions. As the congregation returns to the church the bearers station themselves outside the front doors, raising the bier so that people must pass under it to reenter the church. Doing so is thought to confer a blessing. Before passing under the epitaphios worshipers blow out their candles, a gesture that signifies the death of Christ, and clergy members sprinkle rosewater, representing tears, on the congregation.

Holy Saturday

In Corfu people break crockery on Holy Saturday. The cracking and breaking apart of the pottery represents the opening of the tomb and Jesus' emerging from death to life. People also say that this custom punishes Judas for his betrayal of Christ, since every sharp edge of the broken crockery is thought to cut into him (see also Judas, Burning of). An old folk belief holds that the dead are released from the underworld on this day and permitted to return to earth. For the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost they live within spring flowers and communicate in secret ways with the living.

Many people spend part of the day preparing for the coming Easter feast. They bake breads and cakes, and buy or slaughter a lamb to be eaten at the festive meal on Easter Sunday. Greek custom also calls for visiting cemeteries on this day and for taking gifts of food to the recently bereaved and to the poor.

Morning church services on Holy Saturday commemorate Jesus' Descent into Hell, where he liberated the dead from captivity in the underworld. The mood of this service lightens considerably as it turns to consider the Resurrection. The clergy change their robes from dark to bright colors in the middle of the service, after which the priest scatters flower petals or bay leaves around the church while chanting, "Arise, O God, to the world." The leaves and petals represent Christ's triumph over death. One old Greek custom called for placing wagtails, a bird similar to a warbler, under a pile of bay leaves. When the priest called out, "Arise, O God, to the world," parishioners kicked away the covering of leaves and the birds flew away. The resulting commotion led Greeks to apply the phrase, "Arise, O God," to everyday speech, where it denotes a sudden noise or uproar of some kind.

Resurrection Service

Easter celebrations begin late at night on Holy Saturday with the Resurrection service, the most well attended church service of the entire year. Everyone who attends the Resurrection service brings a candle or buys one at the church. Some congregations decorate the church for this occasion with twigs of rosemary, signifying remembrance, strings of lights, and Greek flags. One popular tradition encourages people to wear new clothes to this service. Often people wear a single item of new clothing, such as a new pair of shoes. In response to this tradition an old Greek courting custom recommended that men send a new pair of shoes and a candle wrapped in white and pink ribbons to their betrothed at Easter time.

As the hour nears midnight the light inside the church dims until only an oil lamp near the altar continues to glow. At twelve the royal gates that close the altar off from the view of the congregation swing open and a priest emerges from behind the screen of icons holding a lighted candle and declaring, "Come receive the light from the unwaning light and glorify Christ who rose from the dead." He passes his light to a member of the congregation, who in turn passes it on until everyone's candle is lit. Next the priest leads the candle-bearing congregation in a procession around the church, which represents the arrival of the myrrh-bearing women at Jesus' tomb early on Sunday morning (see also Mary Magdalene). The priest proclaims the Resurrection outside the main doors of the church. Then the congregation reenters the building, now ablaze with lights, to conclude the service.

All Greece seems to erupt with noise in celebration of Jesus'midnight rising. Fireworks explode, car horns honk, church bells ring, and foghorns bellow. Amidst this joyful din the people exchange the customary Easter greeting, "Christos Anesti" (Christ is risen), and response, "Alithos Anesti" (Indeed he has risen). They may also kiss each other on the cheek.

Greek tradition also calls for families to bring a number of red eggs to the Resurrection service that they might be blessed. Afterwards the eggs are called "eggs of the Resurrection" or "eggs of the Good Word."

In Greek Orthodox churches the Resurrection service is punctuated with the singing of a joyful hymn strongly associated with Easter, "Christos Anesti" (Christ Is Risen). Red eggs may be distributed to the congregation as they leave the church. At the end of the service some people take their lighted candle home with them and use the flame to light the vigil lamp in front of their icons. Although the Saturday night service constitutes the main religious celebration of Easter, many Orthodox churches also offer an Easter Sunday service, known as the Great Vespers of Agape.

Easter Sunday

After returning home from the Resurrection service many families break their fast with a special Easter meal. Instead of offering a prayer before sitting down to eat, everyone sings "Christos Anesti" three times. This meal usually includes cheese, Easter eggs, mayeritsa, a lemony soup made from chopped lamb innards, and tsoureki, a sweet, braided Easter bread studded with red eggs. Many follow a tradition that states that the first food to cross one's lips after the long Lenten fast should be an Easter egg. According to this same tradition, the last food one eats before beginning the fast should be an Easter egg (see also Cheese Week).

The meal often begins with an egg-tapping game. In Greece egg tapping constitutes a popular Easter Week pastime. Greek families may place any egg that survives the egg-tapping contest intact in the home ikonostasi. In Greece egg tapping is such a common Easter game that the image of two red eggs knocking against one another appears on many Greek Easter cards. Winning the egg-tapping game is thought to bring good luck for the year. Some players make a wish before testing their egg against an opponent. Greek folklore teaches that the winner's wish will come true.

Activities on Easter Sunday afternoon revolve around the preparation and consumption of a huge Easter feast. A Greek Easter feast nearly always features roast lamb. Traditionalists prepare a whole lamb by roasting it on a spit. Other popular Easter foods include tsoureki, also called lambropsoma, roast chicken, spanikopita, or spinach pie, and dol- mades, stuffed grape leaves. Some villages increase the festivity of the day by sponsoring community Easter barbecues. Many people continue Easter celebrations on Easter Monday and Tuesday.

Easter Week

Greeks call Easter Week, that is, the week following Easter, "Bright Week." Some people continue to offer the Easter greeting and response throughout this week. In Greek Orthodox churches the doors to the sanctuary remain open all week as a sign of Easter joy. The Sunday following Easter is known as Antipascha, a name signifying that the day closes the Pascha, or Easter, festival (see also Low Sunday).

Further Reading

Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Holidays. Volume 1. Detroit, MI: UXL, 2000. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971. Newall, Venetia. An Egg at Easter. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1971. Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Bethesda, MD: Nea Attiki Press, 1993. Storace, Patricia. Dinner with Persephone. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002