Greek Easter Traditions

Happy Easter – Kalo Paska!

Easter is the most important festival in the Greek Orthodox calendar and is the perfect time to visit Athens or one of the Greek islands like Crete or Corfu. Spring is a wonderful season in Greece; the sky is blue, there is warm sunshine and pretty wildflowers growing in meadows and along the roadside.

Sarokosti is the seven-week Lenten fast that begins on Clean Monday (40 days). On this day, families and friends enjoy seafood and vegetarian picnics in the parks, the countryside, and by the coast while the fly a kite.

Fasting Table on Clran Monday

Greeks of all ages observe the Lenten fast and even those who don’t follow the fast strictly, join in for Megalo Evdomada (Holy Week). The Orthodox fast is strict and prohibits all meat and dairy products, fish (allowed only on certain days), and wine. If you visit any Greek supermarket, the foods will be labeled with the word nistisimo if they can be eaten during the Fast.

Families are quiet and reserved, they do do not have parties during Lent, and marriages do no take place. By Megalo Efthomada, the mood everywhere has become quiet, somber, and reflective as everyone prepares themselves spiritually for Easter

There are many extra services in the churches every day, including a special one every Friday evening called Heretismi. Each week different verses of the Heretismi (dedicated to Our Lady) are sung and the sound of the singing is very special.

On Great Thursday (Megali Pempti), as the Last Supper is remembered, housewives make their final preparations; dying hard-boiled eggs a deep red color to remind us of the blood of Christ and that there will be a new beginning. The air is filled with the wonderful smell of Tsoureki (the traditional Easter bread with a dyed red egg in the center).

Tsoureki and Red dyed Eggs

On Great Thursday evening, once they have completed all their preparations, women traditionally gather in the churchyard for an all-night vigil and mourning, and to decorate the Epitaphios with flowers – the tabernacle containing the icon of Christ’s entombment, which is draped in purple

Good Friday (Megali Paraskevi)  is the holiest day in the year and the church bells ring mournfully all day long. Visitors can visit the churches to admire the floral displays of Epitaphios and there is a friendly rivalry between neighboring villages as to which Epitaphios is best! There is church services held throughout the day.

Early in the evening, people gather in the church once again to sing the Heritismi in its entirety At about 9.00 p.m. the Epitaphios is carried out of the church and through the streets in a somber procession led by the priest who chants prayers and hymns. His parishioners walk behind him slowly, carrying lit candles.

Big Saturday (also known as Holy Saturday) is a busy day as everyone prepares for the family celebrations the following day. The Eternal Flame is brought to Greece by a military jet and it is met by many priests who light their candle to carry to their local churches.

On Big Saturday evening, everyone gathers at their church by 11.00 p.m. for the special midnight service. Visitors are welcome to join this service – whether they are Greek Orthodox or not and even if they don’t speak Greek! There are some really lovely churches to visit in the Plaka district of Athens 

Everyone is smartly dressed and it is normal for men and women to be shown to separate parts of the church. It is a very special and dramatic service that is well worth attending. If you decide to do so, each person in your party should take along one of the slender Easter candles that can be bought in kiosks and supermarkets.

At midnight, the prayers said by the Papa (priest) reach a crescendo and the church is plunged into darkness. There is total silence. The priest then holds up the eternal flame and announces joyfully-

Christos Anesti – Christ is Risen and as the church bells begin to toll, the congregation replies – Alithos Anesti – He is truly risen.

The priest then lights the candles of those standing closest to him and they in turn light the candles of those around them. The wave of candlelight gathers momentum and soon the church is bathed in the golden glow of hundreds of candles. As people light each other’s candles they greet each other with the priest’s words. Outside the church, there is a bonfire burning in memory of the betrayal of Christ by Judas Iscariot. Everyone tries to carry their candle home without the flame being blown out as this is said to bring good luck to the household for the rest of the year.

Once families are back in their home, the Lenten Fast is broken with a bowl of warm soup. Mayiriitsa is the special lamb soup that is used to break the Lenten Fast after the midnight church service on Big Saturday. Some families prefer to share a bowl of avgolemono (egg, rice, and lemon soup) together when they get home from church.

Kokoretsi and lamb on spit is a popular Esater tradition in Greece
Kokoretsi and lamb on spit is a popular Esater tradition in Greece

On Easter Sunday everyone gathers for a big family party which has spit-roasted lamb as the centerpiece. Presents are exchanged and the children are given the red-dyed eggs and they crack them against each other in a game similar to the English game of ‘conkers’.

A visit to the Central Meat Market in the week before Easter will reveal thousands of lambs being sold for the festive lunch on Easter Sunday.

The joy of Easter continues for many days afterward. It is traditional that when people see family members, friends and work colleagues for the first time after Easter, they warmly embrace them with the words-

Christos Anesti, – Christ is risen

and they hear the joyful reply-

Alithos Anesti-  He is Truly Risen.

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