In case you hadn’t heard, Greek Easter is a BIG DEAL. It’s easily the most important holiday in the Greek Orthodox calendar, and is certainly more important than Christmas. Everyone has been telling me ever since I arrived that I have to find a way to get in on the real deal when it came time for the celebrations, and thanks to my fellow Fulbrighter Georgia, I dare say I did just that. Not only did I get to go all-out for the holiday itself, but I also have now been to church in Greece three times as much as I have ever been in the US!
Georgia’s aunt and uncle, our hosts for the weekend, live in a gorgeous house in the countryside in Evia. Her aunt is Greek-American, her uncle is Lebanese, and the charmingly bizarre flock of family and friends they assembled for the holiday were Greek, American, Swedish, British, Romanian, Greek-American and everything in between. There were twenty people staying in the house for the weekend… and twenty more were invited for the actual holiday!
The church I went to Rethymno for Palm Sunday was huge, as Rethymno is a fairly large city. This time, the church we went to was the only church in the village, and was therefore small and packed full of the whole village for every service. I went to two services: one on Good Friday, and one on Saturday night for the resurrection.
The traditions I witnessed on Good Friday were fascinating, especially as an outsider to not just Greek religious life, but to religious life at all. My family doesn’t attend church, and never has in my lifetime. Because of this, I’m not sure what exactly was different about the Greek Good Friday service from services in the States, but I’ll tell it as I saw it.
When we got to church, there were hymns called lamentations blasting through the church loudspeaker into the village. Inside, pretty much the whole village was packed in, and there were some chanters performing the hymns. During the hymns, a priest came through with a golden container full of sweet-smelling holy water, and sprinkled it over the crowd. The church itself was beautiful; simple on the outside, and very decorative on the inside. I did manage to get a few pictures, taken as discreetly as possible.
For the next part of the service, four of the strongest boys in the village were selected to carry a structure representing the tomb of Jesus. The epitafio, as it is called, was decorated with red and white flowers. The boys carried it three times around the church, with everyone else following in a slow procession.
Last, after the three trips around the church had been completed, the boys stopped at the door of the church and held up the epitafio above the door. Everyone then ducked underneath it on their way back into the church, and more lamentations were recited.
The Resurrection Service
On Saturday night at about 9:30 PM, we headed back to the church for the resurrection service. The service would have been at midnight, but there is only one priest for all the villages in this area, and on Saturday night of Holy Week, he actually travels around and performs services at each one in turn. Ours began at around 10.
We were each given a candle, and filed slowly into the church. Again, it was packed. We stood near the middle as about thirty minutes or so of hymns were recited.
After the hymns, every light in the church was extinguished. In the darkness, I could hear all the village children squealing with delighted mock-terror.
Suddenly, a single candle came into view at the front of the church. This candle was actually carrying a flame brought all the way from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. They fly a candle lit all the way from Jerusalem, with the Greek Army to protect it, and each church in Greece gets their own candle lit from this one with the holy light. The priest begins lighting the candles of the churchgoers, one by one, and they turn to their neighbors and light theirs, until the whole church is filled with candlelight.
During this process, three things began to happen: the hymns became “Christos Anesti!” (“Christ is risen!”) repeated over and over again, the church bells began to ring, and fireworks started going off outside. When you take into account that half of the “Christos Anesti”s were sung by an over-enthusiastic, tone-deaf little altar boy right into the microphone, you can understand the joyful cacophony that was blazing all around me.
Quite honestly, it was extremely moving, even for someone who isn’t Greek or Christian. I actually even teared up a bit, simply for the joy all around me; the bells ringing, the firecrackers exploding, the village children gleefully waving their holy candles about, and everyone in the church singing “Christos Anesti,” along with the off-pitch but whole-hearted caterwauling of the altar boy. We all greeted each other with “Christos Anesti,” to which the traditional reply is “Alithos Anesti” (“Truly, he is risen”), before heading home.
Then came the next challenge. Now that we each had a candle lit with the holy light, we were expected to get it all the way back to the house, because it’s good luck to bring the holy light into your home. Unfortunately, it was a windy night, and my candle must have blown out at least eight times. But you re-light it from your friend’s candle and keep going, as long as one candle is still lit with the holy light.
When you return back to your house, someone makes the symbol of the cross with their candle right above the door in black soot on the threshold. Then, everyone brings their candles inside and keeps them lit in a vase while you sit down for a massive dinner!
The traditional supper after this service, as everyone has traditionally been fasting, is a soup made with various organs from lambs or kids. However, we ate a really nice pasta with shrimp instead. While I would have gladly tried the soup, I won’t pretend I wasn’t thrilled to see that pasta on the table instead!
The Big Day
Suddenly, it was Easter! I have to say that Easter Sunday was one of my very favorite days I have spent thus far in Greece. Though the day itself holds much more significance for those who are Christian, I myself was just happy to enjoy the general joy and cheer around me. My companions were of varying degrees of commitment to their faith, but whether they were celebrating “the salvation of the fallen world through the sacrifice of one man,” as Georgia so eloquently put it, or simply the chance to be with their friends in the lovely Evia sunshine, everyone was happy on Easter Sunday!
I did four things on this day, all in the company of awesome people. I waited to eat. I drank while I was waiting. I ate. And I napped. Then the cycle repeated itself, and the whole day was a blissful haze of good company, good food, and total contentment.
Even without a spiritual connection, I thoroughly enjoyed basking in the glow of my first Greek Easter. I’m very grateful to my hosts for sharing their holiday with me, and happy to have such great friends to share this adventure with! I sincerely hope this was only the first of many Easters I will celebrate Greek-style, whether Stateside or back for the real deal.