Mauro Giachetti: Easter in the Greek Tradition

Mauro Giachetti: Easter in the Greek Tradition

Posted April 20th, 2009 by webmaster



    In the Greek world Easter is unquestionably the Feasts of Feasts, whose date was fixed in one of the canons passed during the first Ecumenical Synod at Nicaea, in 325. The Greek Orthodox Church does not however always celebrate Easter on the same date as the Catholic Church, because Orthodoxy still follows the Julian calendar while the Roman Catholics abide by the Gregorian calendar.
    In Greece the week prior to Holy Week, known as Palm Week, is also frequently referred to as Dumb Week, because throughout this period no service is held in the churches, with the exception of Friday, the eve of the Saturday of Lazarus.
    On Saturday the children wander around the houses of the villages intoning particular tunes known as lazarakia that tell about Lazarus’s resurrection. While doing this, they frequently carry a little image in which the sacred event is represented. In Macedonia, Thrace and Central Greece only teenage girls seem to be allowed to perform this ancient rite: one of them holds a wooden pestle enveloped in gaily tinted tatters. This item looks like an infant in swaddling-bands. In other regions of Greece, Lazarus is symbolized by a distaff or a doll bedecked with flowers, tatters and fringes. The inhabitants of Crete construct a cross of reeds and adorn it with garlands of lemon-blossoms and red flowers picked in the fields.
    The Sunday preceding Easter, Palm Sunday, has been called thus to remember the jubilant advent of Christ in Jerusalem, not long after the resurrection of Lazarus, when the citizens of that city covered His way with palm branches as a token of  reverential respect.
    The habit of dispensing bay or myrtle twigs on Palm Sunday dates back to the 9th  century when it was first established by the Church and, once it was accepted by the multitudes, it was progressively characterized by a more elegiac nature. Later on,  people themselves provided the churches with branches of laurel, myrtle and palm crosses; and eventually they began to invoke the fertilizing power dwelling in the evergreen leaves of the plants, pleading that it should pass into the brides of the year. This was achieved by touching the newly wed young-ladies with the vaya, or palm branches.
    Holy Week is time of universal bereavement and demands a more rigorous form of abstention from eating and drinking, and in most parts of Greece this precept is observed, as usual, particularly by women: absolutely no food is eaten on the first three days of Holy Week and only a titch of water is drunk at nightfall.
    In the course of the Holy Week two services are held each day in the churches: the morning service is chanted on the evening of Palm Sunday, when the bells start chiming from the church tower in order to invite the population to go to the morning services celebrated on Holy Monday. The evening services celebrated from Palm Sunday to Maundy-Thursday are all called Nymphioi (Bridegrooms) because while the service is being held the icon of Christ is carried in front of the iconostasis, while the choir intones the hymn ‘Behold the Bridegroom cometh at the heart of the night’. On Tuesday evening the service is largely devoted to the reading of a passage in the Gospel alluding to the episode of Mary Magdalene pouring myrrh over Christ’s feet.
    Wednesday is devoted primarily to the ritual of the anointment of the faithful, which occurs subsequent to the service: the priest anoints all the people in church with holy oil on the forehead, chin, cheeks and hands or with a twig of oregano. The faithful take these twigs home because they are believed to possess potent therapeutic powers.
    In all homes the traditional preparations for Easter generally commence early on the morning of Maundy-Thursday. Among other things, that is when eggs are dyed red. The red eggs possess a profuse symbolic meaning: they symbolize the tomb from where life springs up again, and their color which is the color of blood, signifies the foremost element of life and good health.
    The fact that the color red is generally believed to have a protecting influence, might also explain another Easter custom which consists in hanging pieces of red material out of the windows. Thus on Maundy-Thursday the inhabitants of Messimvria in Northern Thrace, used to dip a cloth in the dye with the eggs and hang it out of the window for forty days. This cloth was then used for many magical purposes – exorcism, etc.   
    Maundy-Thursday is also the day when the Easter rolls are traditionally cooked in the oven. They are customarily prepared using a surplus of yeast left over from the previous Wednesday. The names for these rolls may differ and in accordance with their shapes they are called ‘dolls’, ‘baskets’ etc. In Olympos, a village perched on a high mountain in the northern part of the island of Karpathos, in the Dodecannese, between Rhodes and Crete, the women prepare several kinds of bread loaves like the simple koulouria, or the poulloi, more ornate and elaborate in shape, into which are enclosed eggs dyed in different tints, although red by far the prevailing color as it also signifies the blood of Christ on the cross.
    In Thrace there is a rather atypical belief as regards the red eggs of Easter. The eggs that hens lay on Maundy-Thursday are dyed, wrapped in a kerchief in the evening and placed under the lectern from which the priest will read the Twelve Gospels. After the eggs have been blessed by the priest, the womenfolk bring them home and put one of them on the family iconostasis shrine. It is deemed that if this egg has been laid by a black hen, in seven years’ time it will become an talisman as powerful as the Holy Cross. Pregnant women wear it as a protection against the menace of miscarriage. This Thracian custom is based on a much earlier type of magic ritual, the so-called aetitis (eagle) stone, which women wore exactly for the same purpose. It is called eagle stone because in ancient times it was believed that eagles (aetos = eagle) picked it up and placed it in their nest. As Aelian observes (1,35): ‘it is also said that this stone is good for pregnant women because it is an enemy of abortion’.
    But let us go back to Maundy-Thursday which continues to remain an occurrence greatly revered in Greece. During the service celebrated in the morning in every church the priests read the Gospel chapter that refers to the Mystiko Deipno, or Last Supper. In the evening, the service is totally dedicated to the so-called ‘Passion’ and is known as the Liturgy of the Twelve Gospels, in view of the fact that the priest reads twelve different passages illustrating the Passion of  Christ. The priests are dressed in black robes and the churches are bedecked in black, purple and white. When the fifth passage – alluding to the Crucifixion itself – has been read, the priest emerges from the sanctuary (the Vima), carrying a great wooden crucifix which he places in the center of the church. The faithful decorate it with garlands of flowers. Finally the priest reads the remaining seven passages touching upon the death and burial of Jesus. The service finishes very late at night.    
    On Good Friday fast and abstention from work are almost total. People spend the day participating to the Descent of Christ from the Cross and to the procession of the Epitaphios (Christ’s funeral, a ceremony that clearly shows the pagan origin of some Easter traditions). At noontime, when the Descent from the Cross takes place, the women begin to decorate the pall, a piece of gold-embroidered material symbolizing the body of Christ: a profusion of violets, roses and all kind of vernal flowers are intertwined into garlands and bouquets and pinned to the pall, until it is literally  covered with flowers. (Doesn’t this bring us back to the Adonikai anthophoriai and to Demeter and Kore?) To better understand what I mean by this, let us read a brief, poignant passage from Nikos Kazantzakis’s wonderful Report to Greco:
    «I had never expected to find  such tenderness and warm human understanding in Byzantine paintings. Previous to this I had seen only fierce ascetic forms holding parchments covered with red letters and calling to us to despise nature and flee to the desert; to die in order to be saved. But now here were splendid colors, here were faces of the utmost sweetness. Christ entering Jerusalem on his humble beast, kindly and smiling, the disciples following with palm branches, and the populace gazing at them with ecstatic eyes, as at a cloud which passes and then scatters… And the angel I saw at Aphentiko, a beautiful stalwart the green color of oxidized brass, his curly hair bound in a wide ribbon. With his impulsive stride and firm round knees he resembled a bridegroom heading for – but where was he heading with such joy and haste?
    Just at that moment the bell began to ring softly, sweetly, for the Good Friday vigil. I entered the church’s warm domed interior. In the center, covered with lemon flowers, was the epitaphios, the sepulchral canopy, and lying dead upon the lemon flowers, He who is incessantly dying, incessantly resurrected. Once He was called Adonis, now Christ. Pale black-robed women were kneeling around Him, bending over Him, bewailing Him. The entire church smelled of wax, like a beehive. I thought of those other priestesses, the Melissae, at the temple of the Ephesian Artemis; also the temple of Apollo at Delphi, built of wax and feathers.»
    The faithful kiss the frame of the Epitaphios and then kneel down in front of it with the hope to be touched by its Grace. At the end of the day, after the Epitaphios has been taken out of the church, the funeral procession sets in motion: at the front of the procession the banners and the cross lead the way followed by the Epitaphios which is in its turn followed by the priests. In larger towns the pageant is preceded by a band playing funeral marches and by government officials. In Athens the Epitaphios is followed by the Archbishop of the city and by some Government representatives. The multitude that follows holding candles looks like a wide sparkling river flowing through the streets. The procession halts at every square and crossroad to let the priests to deliver a concise prayer.
    The mournful dimness of Good Friday ends on Holy Saturday with the evening service of the Resurrection. The faithful go to church wearing their best cloths, possibly new ones, especially the children. Now people carry white candles instead of the yellow ones they had on Good Friday. Children are given particular candles decorated with ribbons, artificial flowers and golden thread. It is customary for young men to send presents and a festooned candle to their betrothed.
    When the service commences the church is faintly lit, but at a certain moment even this dim illumination vanishes and the church sinks into obscurity, symbolizing the darkness of the grave and the shadows of death. Then unexpectedly the door of the Vima swings open and the priest emerges holding a lit candle and chanting: «Come ye, partake of the never-setting Light and glorify Christ who is risen from the dead». Now the faithful light their candles from the priest’s, and each one passes it on to his neighbor until the whole church is blazing with the vivifying splendor of the novel light. After that the priest, followed by the banners, leaves the church, goes up on a scaffolding constructed for that purpose outside the church and reads the Gospel passage illustrating the Resurrection (Mark, 16, 1-8):
    «And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
    2 And very early in the morning, the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulcher at the rising of the sun.
    3 And they said among themselves: ‘Who shall roll away the stone for us from the door of the sepulcher?’
    4 And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: it was very big.
    5 And entering into the sepulcher, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment, and they were affrighted.
    6 And he said unto them: ‘Be not affrighted: ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified; he is risen; he is not here; behold the place where they laid him’.
    7 But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.
    8 And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulcher; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.»
    At last the priest exultingly intones the psalm Christos anesti (Christ is risen). The faithful accompany him swaying their candles rhythmically while at the same time the bells chime joyfully. Each faithful turns to his neighbor saying Christos anesti receiving in response the reply Alithos anesti (He is risen indeed), after which they exchange the kiss of the Resurrection.  
    Going back home from the midnight service, everyone attempts to keep his candle alight till he reaches his house. First he traces the sign of the cross over the threshold of his dwelling with the lit candle which is then used to rekindle the oil lamp burning in front of the small family iconostasis.
    After reaching home, people sit down to share a late repast constituted by a variety of traditional dishes such as magiritsa, a soup made of lamb’s innards boiled with rice and dill, cheese-pies and milk-pies, etc. But first of all, just before dinner starts, they tap eggs together, and it is believed that the person whose red-tinted egg lasts longer without breaking will be very lucky all year long. Moreover the person who is able to crack somebody else’s egg has the right to demand it for himself.
    The lamb is another important traditional symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. On Easter Sunday it is customary to have a meal of roasted lamb (arni paschalino tis souvlas). In villages and small towns, and sometimes even in Athens and other big cities, you can see people roasting their lamb on a spit. They gather in yards and open spaces where they turn the spit slowly while somebody oils the lamb with a feather dipped into a blend of oil, lemon juice and origanum. This has acquired the character of a ceremony, a real festivity. And whoever happens to pass by can receive his treat of lamb with a glass of wine and the wish ‘Many happy returns’.

Mauro Giachetti


PHAIDON KOUKOULES, Βυζαντινῶν βίος καὶ πολιτισμός, nine volumes, Athens 1948
NIKOS KAZANTZAKIS, Report to Greco (translated by Peter Bien), Bantan Books, New York 1965
Greek Tradition, National Tourist Organization of Greece Information Department, Athens s.d.
DIMITRIS S. LOUKATOS, Εἰσαγωγὴ στὴν ἑλληνικὴ λαογραφία, Athens 1978
Thrace, General Secretariat of the Region of East Macedonia-Thrace, Komotini 1994