Thursday, 17 April 2014

Our Greek Easter

Our Greek Easter

This year Easter will be celebrated on the same weekend in Australia and Greece. Easter in Australia seems to be at the wrong time of the year as it is Autumn, and not a time of re-birth when bright yellow chicks pop out of eggs, and spring lambs frisk on the hills. Instead, it’s a time of yellowing leaves, and the time to begin lighting wood fires.

Easter is a beautiful time to be in Greece, the hills are green and all the spring flowers are blooming.

                                           A bunch of spring flowers I picked in Lemnos

For Greeks Easter is the most important date on their religious calendar, more important to them than Christmas. Easter is when families get together and feast together.

There’s no escaping the importance of these rituals in this very religious and traditional country, for in Greece religious rites have been absorbed into the very fabric of society – well accepted, and consistently practiced.

Good Friday 

On Good Friday people in the towns and villages carry candles and follow the procession of the Epitaphios.

On my very first visit to Greece Takis and I went to Rhodes, to join Takis’ brother and sister for their Easter celebrations.

In my book about our Greek renovation adventure I wrote,

‘Easter involves a whole round of services. I was looking forward to attending as many as possible and in addition I was very happy to be celebrating Easter in a European spring.

As a child I’d always decorated a basket with spring flowers – primroses, bluebells, crocuses, and grape hyacinths – and placed it on the breakfast table filled with Easter eggs.’

‘We stayed in a hotel near George and Koula’s apartment, and we did managed to go to most of the Easter services. On Thursday after supper we attended their church, Agei Anargiri, to see the cross carried around the church. On Friday we watched the epitafios carried out into the streets. This is a flower-decorated casket and represents the coffin of Christ. It was quite large and took several men to carry it around the bounds of the parish. The crowd was now larger than the previous night, and on returning to the church people filled church and courtyard, and overflowed into the street.’

‘We’d been to Greek Easter services in Australia, but this was different. It was part of a living tradition. There is not an anxiety to ‘get it right’, such as I’d once noticed in a small Orthodox church in Melbourne. In this church one could not help but notice the anxiety of attendees - evident when an argument broke out during the service between the priest and a member of the congregation! Whatever it was about it involved loud shouting and dramatic gestures. And then later when the epitafios (the flower decked casket) became stuck in the doorway it became obvious that helpful members had over-decorated it, without taking into account the dimensions of the doorway! The pallbearers had to push to get it through the door and in the end the flowers were scattered.’

Saturday in Holy Week the ceremony of the resurrection takes place in the courtyard in front of all churches and bells are rung all over the towns and cities.

‘On Saturday afternoon we drove out into the countryside to stay a couple of nights with friends of Koula and George. While there we planned to attend the Saturday night service – the most important of all the services – in the village church. When we arrived at the house I realized something important was going on in the garden, but Koula hurried me past. When she told me the gardener was slaughtering the Pascal lamb on the front lawn I almost ran into the house!’

‘Later that evening we drove to the village church, and arriving before the crowd we found a place inside. Though we were early, already the psalter was chanting the traditional Easter psalms. Slowly the rest of the congregation filtered in, all decked in their finest clothes. Youths with slicked spiky hair and girls in fashion’s latest frills and flounces stood with their families. Many of the smaller children carried huge cardboard candles almost as big as themselves.’

‘The priest arrived late. (George whispered to me that he was once a barber in America and now runs a café in a nearby village, where he’ll pose for tourists in his priestly gear – for a fee.) We continued listening to the old Byzantine chants, though these were often drowned out by loud bangs from firecrackers impatiently being let off in the car park outside. For the young boys had no intention of waiting for the correct moment when the priest declared Christos Anesti to fire off their volleys. We however did wait, with our candles ready. Then at midnight, when everyone called out ‘Christos Anesti, Alithos Anesti’, the priest used his taper to light one person’s candle, and then the fire spread as each in turn lit a neighbour’s candle.’

A Very Old Tradition?

In many countries there are fire-jumping rituals. For instance, in far off times there was a practice in Lemnos of extinguishing sacred and household fires once a year. These were rekindled with a flame brought by boat from the holy island of Delos. How strikingly similar this very ancient ritual is to current Greek Easter rites. Today the holy fire that is used to light the candles at the Saturday night Easter service has supposedly been brought from Jerusalem and from there distributed across Greece. (More probably the fire that is brought out to the people from behind the iconostasis – the screen at the front of each church – was kindled by the priest just before the service.) 

Easter Sunday 

This is the biggest church holiday in Greece. All over the country lambs are roasted on a spit and there is wine in abundance. Red eggs are cracked against each other and the person with the last remaining whole (uncracked) egg will have good luck.

‘When we also returned to the house after the church midnight candle lighting service for a very late supper of chicken soup. We also played the traditional game of cracking our hardboiled red eggs against each another’s. On the table was the mageritsa soup, though I wasn’t brave enough to try it as this traditional Easter soup is made with lamb’s offal and vegetables. I was amazed to find it was well into Sunday morning when we fell into bed.’

‘We slept in, and then woke to potter around slowly, awaiting the arrival of many more friends and relatives for the lunch. They were coming to join the household for this final Paschal feast, a special lunch that included pasties, salad, wine and cakes. And, in pride of place, was the lamb I’d nearly seen slaughtered the previous day. It had been slowly cooking on a rotisserie all morning. And again I was amazed to find myself by eating some.’

Celebrations can be in April or May. 

Check with your local Greek church for exact dates of the Greek Orthodox Easter, since it changes every year.


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