Easter is the most important religious celebration of the Greek Orthodox Church, even more important than Christmas. Accordingly, many traditions and customs are being observed which vary from island to island and even from the mainland. Although I can’t go this year, I have been in the past and the experience of the Lighting of the Candles in church on the night of Holy Saturday is something which deeply moves the soul, regardless to your own religion or even if you have none.
I, of course have it good, because I have not one but two Greek islands practically at my door step: Kos and Samos. A short ferry ride from either Bodrum or Kusadasi and I am in a different country, a different world and never is it more spectacular than at Easter.
Festivity is in the air and godparents buy their godchildren new clothes. Eggs are boiled and painted red. Why red? Well, there are several stories and explanations. One is to represent the blood Christ shed to redeem mankind. Another is, that the Virgin Mary wept bloody tears when her son died and they happened to fall upon a basket of eggs she was carrying, dying them red. Yet another tells of a woman who carried a basket with eggs. When she heard about the resurrection, she didn’t believe it and exclaimed: ‘The dead won’t rise from their graves as unlikely as these eggs will turn red.’ Which, of course, they did!
Good Friday is dominated by processions. The image of Christ, covered in flowers, it taken out of the church and carried around the villages to the cemetery. People follow, many of them on their knees. At the cemetery candles are lit in memory of the dead. As you can see, candles play a major role in Greek Easter celebrations.
On Holy Saturday, mess starts at 11pm. Shortly before midnight, all lights are extinguished. At midnight, the priest comes out from behind the altar with a lighted candle and the light is passed on from person to person accompanied by rejoicing in the resurrection of Christ.
The traditional meal on Holy Saturday is magiritsa, a hot soup made from lamb intestine. Easter Sunday people attend another mess in church and feast at home on roast lamb, easter cake and lots of wine and ouzo.
Kos’s Easter specialty are cheese pies. Eggs are bumped and cracked between people, a tradition which goes back to Byzantine times when this was done with the King and Queen.
If you really want to see the Greeks have fun and celebrate, try to make it to one of the islands at Easter.