Easter is one of the most important and beautiful traditions in Greece, and undoubtedly one of most authentic Greek experiences. In combination with the Greek spring that celebrates in all its glory, Greek Easter (pronounced Pas-ha in Greek) is considered one of the most important celebrations in the country and one well worth experiencing.
Why is the Greek Easter on different dates than in other countries?
In the meeting of Nice in 325AD, it was agreed that Easter is to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox. A lot of things took place since, including the split between the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches in 1054 AD. Even though the Greek Orthodox church follows the Gregorian (so called Western) calendar, like most of the Christian western world, it is still using –out of tradition– the Julian (so called Eastern) calendar for Easter.
The Julian calendar, a solar calendar by design, had miscalculated the duration of Earth’s rotation around the Sun by about 10 minutes. This almost negligible error has piled up over the millennia, resulting in the Julian calendar being 13 days behind the Gregorian one in our days. Therefore, the 21st of March occurs on the 3rd of April and if the lunar circle has just closed, the date for Easter is out by one, or maximum two, weeks. There are however years when the Greek Orthodox and the Western Easter dates coincide.
How do authentic Greek people celebrate Easter?
The Easter ‘celebrations’ begin on the Sunday one week before Easter, when according to Christian tradition and beliefs, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey. The entire week following Palm Sunday (the holy week) is closely intertwined with religious customs and celebrations. These customs are followed even by people who are not close to the church, demonstrating the deep penetration of Christian customs to folklore and national traditions.
What can I do to participate in the Holy Week?
There are several masses taking place during the holy week, each of them with its own significance and liturgy. On Good Tuesday, for example, the chanters in church sing the Song of Kassiani, a wonderful chant dedicated to the prostitute who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and hair, in repentance. On Wednesday evening, the mass focuses on the parts of the Holy Bible depicting the dark moments of the Last Supper and the subsequent betrayal by Judas. For the ones who can follow the old Greek spoken in church ceremonies, the moments are hair raising. Thursday evening is dedicated to the life and death of Jesus. This is the longest mass of the year and the only time that all 12 evangelical books are read in Greek church.
What do I need to know about Good Friday?
Good Friday, the day when Jesus was found dead on the cross, represents the greatest day of mourning and, in the minds of many religious Greeks, the most important day of the religious calendar, well more important than Christmas! The day starts with the mass of the Apokathelosis, literally the removal of the nails from Jesus on the cross. The dead body of Jesus is put on the Epitaph (the grave bed) which has been lushly decorated with white flowers of the Greek spring. The Epitaph is to be carried around on the evening of the same day.
Do not miss (1) – the mass of the Epitaph on Good Friday evening
In the evening of Good Friday, the Epitaph mass accompanies Jesus to the kingdom of the dead. If there is one ceremony you should not miss, it is this one, regardless of your religious beliefs or lack thereof. During the mass, the chanters sing the Praises (Egkomia), the three songs that Mother Mary sang to her dead Son. In most churches, the Epitaph is carried through the streets where all people, holding candle lights, chant the Praises. Watching the people walk in the candlelit streets, full of spring flower smells, and singing in harmony is one of the most beautiful cultural experiences modern Greece has to offer.
Don’t miss (2) – the Resurrection Mass after Good Saturday midnight
People congregate in churches before midnight of Easter Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. A few minutes before midnight, the holy light (often flown in to Greece directly from Jerusalem) is shared amongst the participants. Almost everyone buys a white candle at church (kids come with their own, decorated candles, gifted to them by their godfathers) which is used to collect the light and carry it home afterwards. Exactly at midnight, everyone starts singing the resurrection chant ‘Hristos Anesti’ (Jesus has resurrected). It is unavoidable but to notice the jubilant faces of everyone, religious or not, the moment that the ‘news’ of the resurrection is shared.
Don’t miss (3) – the celebrations of Easter Sunday
No matter where you are in Greece on Easter Sunday, you will come across people roasting entire lambs in their back yards. Feel free to join them, everyone will offer you some wine and meat and welcome you to this day of celebration. The music, the wine and the food go on for hours, until everyone is exhausted and goes to rest.
If you don’t eat meat, like me, the biggest happiness of Easter Sunday is the eating of Tsoureki, a traditional Greek brioche style bread baked with an entire egg on it. A lot better than lamb, I am telling you!
Why are the Praises (Egkomia) so important?
The three Praises are only sang once each year and constitute some of the most beautiful expressions of religious melody, in a byzantine musical tradition characterised by what the layman perceives as monotony.
The first of the Praises talks about the life in the grave. The second one, in a masterful expression of bereavement and irony, contrasts the sadness brought about by the death of Jesus with the beauty of the spring. The last of the Praises announces that, the painful and unfair death was worth its cause.
Try to find a translation of the Praises and marvel at the beauty of their lyrics and the feelings that they convey. When you then listen to them in church, you may feel ready to cry!
What constitutes Greek fasting?
Depending on how much you get into it, the Greek Orthodox fast is characterised by an elaborate nexus of rules and principles that can confuse even the most diligent scholar. At the simplest, the Greek fast can be described as a vegan diet whereby all animal products and animal derivatives (milk, cheese, butter and the likes are avoided). Notable exception is seafood (sea shells, clams, shrimp, octopus, calamari, lobster!) which is exempt from the fasting rules.
The Greek fast starts on Clean Monday and lasts for a total of 50 calendar days, which are considered to be 40 due to the relaxation of rules during some days. There are no restrictions as to the times of the day that one can eat and, once again interestingly enough, wine is generally not prohibited.
Where can I enjoy an authentic Greek Easter?
Anywhere in Greece! The Easter customs are so pervasive in modern day culture that you will come across Easter festivities, no matter where you are. Having said this, it is only normal that the customs are more evident on the countryside, where the relentless rhythms of the city do not overtake the celebrations.
The Peloponnese and the region of Live-Bio is characterised by unimaginable natural beauty during the times of Easter and it is a wonderful place for you to experience it all. Plus, with us as your hosts, you will be introduced to the customs and traditions from the inside, making it a memorable authentic Greek experience for you and your family.