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Greek Easter > The Holy Week April 2, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Special Features.

Easter is the biggest celebration of the Greek Orthodox Christians and the one richest in folklore.

The word “Pascha”, Easter in Greek, stems from the Jewish “Pesah” which means “Passover”. Jewish people celebrated “Pesah” to commemorate their liberation from the Egyptians and the passage of the Red Sea, while Christians celebrate the Resurrection of Christ the Saviour and the passage from death to life.

The corresponding Greek word for “Pascha” is “Lambri” (Brightness) because the day of the resurrection of Christ is a day full of joy and exhilaration. Easter is a moveable holiday. Its celebration falls on the first Sunday after the full moon of the spring equinox. Easter is by far the holiest of Greek holidays, but it is also the most joyous, a celebration of spring, of rebirth in its literal as well as figurative sense. Greeks leave the cities in droves to spend Easter in the countryside, usually in their own ancestral villages.

Lent > The 40 days of Lent, starting on Clean Monday, are the preparation period for Easter. During this period people prepare themselves for the Holy Day of Resurrection of Christ, the Greek Orthodox “Pascha”. The 40 days of fasting are an exercise for both body and soul. Many traditions related to this period give a very special character to Greek Easter. When we were small children, we used to paint the Lent as a Lady with 7 feet and no mouth, symbolised the fasting period where no meat, milk, eggs or fish could be eaten and some times not even olive oil on Wednesdays and Fridays. At the end of every week, we cut a foot and the last foot is for the Holy Week.

The only day that we are allowed to eat fish is March 25th, the day that Archangel Gabriel announced to Virgin Mary that She is going to give birth to Christ. This day is also a National Day Celebration in Greece because this day on 1821 Greeks started war for independence from Turks.

Independently of the date that we celebrate “Pascha”, the Lent has a part during March and we say, “March is never absent from the Lent”. This phrase is used for people who try to be present at every important happening. During the Lent no weddings are performed at churches.

Saturday of Lazarus > The last day of the Lent is the Saturday of Lazarus. Lazarus was a very good friend of Christ and his resurrection by Christ was a sign for His own Resurrection after a week. This day, in some villages, women bake small breads with the shape of human body, the “lazarakia” and children go from house to house, singing about Lazarus and his resurrection. 

Holy Week (Megali Evdomada) >
Palm Sunday (Kyriaki ton Vaion or Vaioforos) >
Palm Sunday is the start of the Holy Week. In the morning, all churches offer palm leaves reminding the triumphal entering of Christ in Jerusalem before the Passion. We are aloud to eat fish. Just to find the strength to continue the fasting for another 6 days. The afternoon of Palm Sunday and every afternoon of the Holy Week, people go to churches to attend the “Akolouthia tou Nymfiou”, special liturgy.

Holy Monday (Megali Deftera) > We start shopping for the goods we are going to prepare the next days. The lamp, the eggs, etc. In the evening we all go to churches.

Holy Tuesday (Megali Triti) > Preparations start and fasting goes on. In the evening at churches we listen the hymn of Kassiani.

Holy Wednesday (Megali Tetarti) > On Holy Wednesday, the service of Holy Unction is performed while the faithful kneel before the priests anointed with the Holy Oil to receive forgiveness. In the evening, at churches, the center of the ceremonies and services is the “Washing of the Disciples’ Feet” that takes place at many areas. For example, at the island of Patmos, a platform is set up in the square of the main town, which is always crowded for the occasion. During the ceremony, which lasts about an hour and a half, the Bishop, who “plays the part” of Christ, washes the feet of twelve monks, the Disciples, in imitation of the action of Christ before His Crucifixion.

Holy Thursday (Megali Pempti) > The preparations for the celebration of the Resurrection start on Holy Thursday. On that day housewives traditionally prepare tsourekia (sweet buns resembling brioche), avgokouloura (cookies with flour and eggs), ouzou (cookies with flour and the drink ouzo) and colour eggs with special red dyes. Ever since antiquity the egg symbolises the renewal of life and the red colour symbolises the blood of Christ. In the past, people used to place the first red egg on the icon stand of the house in order to cast out evil spirits. In some villages they used to mark the head and the back of small lambs with the red dye used for the dyeing of the eggs. They also used to keep one of the big round Holy Thursday loaves at the icon stand in order to protect the members of the family from spells.

On the morning of Holy Thursday, groups of children visit all the neighbourhoods of the town, carrying baskets, singing and collecting flowers to decorate the bier of Christ. The epitaphios procession takes place in the early morning hours, after the Crucifixion rite, after which it is also customary for women to stay in church to sing the traditional laments. In the evening at churches, the service of the Twelve Gospels and the enactment of Christ’s Crucifixion are taking place. The faithful offer wreaths to Him.

Holy Friday (Megali Paraskevi) > Friday is the most sacred day of the Holy Week, the day of the culmination of the passion of Christ with the deposition from the Cross and Christ’s burial. In Greece shops and every kind of services are closed until 12 o’clock, the end of “Apokathilosi” that is the Mourning procession that starts early in the morning carrying an effigy of the body of Jesus (Epitaph). During the representation of the removal of the body of Christ from the Cross, it is sprayed with rose petals and placed on the Holy Altar. All day church bells rink with a mourning sound. Because it is a day of mourning, housewives do not do any house chores, avoiding even cooking. Women and children go to church to decorate the Epitaph (Bier of Christ) with flowers they collect or buy.

The Lamentations are chanted in the evening, followed by the exodus of the Epitaphs carried in procession through the streets of every village after three rounds in the churchyard. Some times, in big villages or towns with more than one church, Epitaphs gather in the main square and all people and priests chant Lamentations.

Holy Saturday (Megalo Savato) > On Holy Saturday, a morning prayerful church service is performed. The priests dressed in white scatter balm leaves and rose petals while church bells ring happily and chanters hymn in praise of Lord. At many areas the custom of ‘the earthquake’ is carried out. This is a re-enactment of the earthquake that took place after the Resurrection, as described in the Bible. The congregation beats the pews rhythmically, while outside chaos reigns, with gunfire, firecrackers and fireworks. This is a part of the ‘First Resurrection’ ceremony. Another custom is to close the doors of the church, and the priest, having made three circuits of the church while chanting, kicks open the central door and enters, singing the psalm “Arate pilas” that means open the gates. Another special tradition of First Resurrection is the ‘Pot Throwing’ custom that takes place at some Ionian islands, especially Corfu. Local people throw pots out of their windows, smashing them onto the streets below. Some times pots are filled with water to make a louder crash. They also hang a red cloth to their windows, red is the color of resurrection. Also in Corfu, the custom of the ‘mastelas’  (washtub) has been revived. A half-barrel decorated with myrtle and ribbons, is filled with water, and passers-by are invited to throw coins into it for good luck. When the first bell sounds for the Resurrection, someone jumps into the barrel and collects up the money. In old times the diver was not a volunteer but an unsuspecting passer-by, thrown in against his will.

Late in the evening, at 11 o’clock, everybody gathers in the churchyard. All over Greece the ceremony takes place on a platform outside the church. Everyone holds a candle which will be lit from the holy flame. Before midnight all lights of each church are turned off and the priest appears at the Royal Door offering the Holy Light to everyone’s candle. He says “Defte lavete fos” that means come and take the Holy Light. This unique flame comes directly from the Holy Grave of Christ in Jerusalem and it lights miraculously without any human involvement. An airplane goes to Jerusalem to brink the Holy Light to Greece.

Once people receive the light, at midnight exactly, the Priest takes the holy icon of Resurrection and steps on the special platform outside the church. The Second Resurrection happens and as soon as the priest says ‘Christos Anesti’ that means Christ is Risen, a huge and magnificent bonfire starts. Everyone shakes hands and wishes a Happy Easter to everyone around them and the so-called “Kiss of Love”. It is considered lucky to reach home with your candle still alight! With the “Holy Light” of the candles people thrice make the sign of the cross on the doorpost over the front door of their houses for good luck.

When the family is back from church, is time to sit around the festively laid table and try one of the oldest Easter traditions, crack red eggs. Every member of the family has their own egg and tries to break the eggs of the other members of the family. Whoever’s egg breaks all the other eggs without breaking will have a good luck all year round. Preparations for the festive dinner of the night of the Resurrection start on Easter Saturday morning and housewives cook the traditional “mageiritsa”, a strong tasteful soup made of innards and aromatic herbs.

Holy Sunday or Easter Sunday (Kiriaki tou Pascha or Lampri or Pascha) > On Easter Sunday morning, in many parts of the country lamb is prepared on the spit. In other regions, the meat for the Easter table, lamb or kid, is roasted in the oven. There is a festive atmosphere everywhere and people eat and dance usually until late into the night. Many people fast for the 40 days of Lent and the final week is a very strict fast, no meat or even olive oil! So this day is dedicated to eating! Nothing is wasted from the Easter lamp, even the intestines, liver, lungs, lights and kidneys are packed with herbs and roasted to form a huge kebab called ‘kokoretsi’ the wine flows freely and don’t be surprised if you are invited to join in the celebrations. Families exchange visits from one house to another, bringing egges, “kokoretsi” and cookies.

On the afternoon of Easter Sunday “Second Resurrection” takes place, at which the Gospel of the Resurrection is read in seven languages. This is the “Service of Love” and expresses the fact that the message of Christ’s Resurrection transmits its redemptive Power to the people of the world.

Later in the afternoon, in many places, the custom is to burn an effigy of Judas. The young people make an effigy of Judas out of old rags, put into its hands the price of betrayal, a bag containing 30 pebbles, and hang it in the courtyard until the rags catch fire and go up in flames. The festivities continue with dancing, singing and eating! People crack red-dyed eggs one against the other and stick the shell on doors or throw it into the garden to bless the harvest.

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