Thursday, 12 April 2012

Surviving Pascha: An outsider's guide to Greek Easter (and not a creme egg in sight)

Easter in Greece is heavy on symbolism, rich in tradition and dripping in calories. In a country where religion is woven into the very fabric of society, Easter is a very big deal.

It’s THE religious festival, and like so many occasions here – including elections, military parades, graduation ceremonies, funerals – it’s an intensely social event.

It can come as a bit of a shock, especially for a visitor from places like the UK where most folk see Easter as an excuse to stuff yourself with chocolate and hot cross buns, watch endless hours of sport and old movies on the goggle-box, or take your place in the traditional Bank Holiday traffic jams that clog the roads like too much cholesterol in the nation’s arteries.

So, here is my guide (as an outsider on the inside) to surviving one of Greece’s most enchanting and evocative traditions.

Get your timing right:
If you’re planning to book a trip to experience Orthodox Easter in Greece, check first. There’s a good chance that it won’t conveniently fall at the same time as your 4-day long weekend. Though the dates occasionally coincide, the Greek festival usually comes a week or so after it has been celebrated in many countries.
So, as my friends and family in the UK tucked into Hot Cross Buns to mark this year's Good Friday, we still had Palm Sunday and Holy Week leading up to Easter ahead of us,

Religious run-up: 
The week before Easter – Holy Week – is marked by heavy religiosity, solemn tolling of church bells, the melodic melancholy of priests and psalters chanting, and the gradual emptying of the cities as Greeks head for their villages. 

It can come as a disappointment to visitors to Athens, especially when they find that EVERYTHING shuts on the morning of Good Friday. But, on the other hand, it gives you a rare chance to enjoy the city without crowds and choking traffic. 

Maundy Thursday is a day of preparations, with traditionally-minded housewives (and the occasional obliging grandchild) hard-boiling and dying the red eggs that Greeks crack and eat once the Lenten fast is over (though the less traditional housewives buy them ready-dyed from the supermarket).

At every church, an army of ladies painstakingly place hundreds of flowerheads into the “epitaphio” – a funeral byre covered in countless blooms, which young children are encouraged to pass under throughout the day, for good luck. Come evening, however, the mood becomes much more somber, as a the epitaphio winds its way through the local streets in a symbolic funeral procession.

Fast food:
Strange as it may seem in a country where vegetarianism is considered an eccentricity and vegans as downright certifiable, most folk (even the non-religious) swear off meat, eggs, fish and dairy products for a full week before Easter. Like so many traditions, this is based in pure practicality – a kind of detox before the assault on your body that will follow with the feast on Easter Sunday.

But don’t worry – you won’t go hungry. Seafood, salads, pasta and a plethora of fast-friendly delights are always on offer (and as a visitor, no-one will begrudge you for tucking into a plate of souvlaki).

There is even a “get out early” clause for Greeks suffering from meat withdrawal symptoms – thanks to the so-called “little Resurrection”, marking the time when Christ’s tomb was said to be found empty, they can get carnivorous again from the afternoon of Easter Saturday.

Lighting the way:
My favourite part of the Greek Easter is the midnight ceremony on Saturday when everyone gathers outside their local church waiting for the priest to emerge and announce “Christos anesti!” (Christ has risen), at which point, things go berserk.

Bells peel out madly, fireworks go off (some alarmingly nearby), if you’re near a port you’ll hear ship horns blast, and a frenzy of kissing and cracking of painted hard-boiled eggs breaks out. As the priest makes his announcement, the light from his candle (claimed to be lit from the “Holy Flame” that is said to ignite mysteriously and spontaneously in a sealed chamber in Jerusalem) spreads throughout the crowd, lighting the wicks of the long and often garishly decorated candles (“lambades”) everyone holds.

I'm not a religious person, but I am a bit of a sucker for some traditions, and this is one of them. It's a moment with an intense sense of community, and has the power to move the most determined of atheists.

If you plan to attend the occasion, you have been warned. Go with your own lambada in hand and be prepared for startling bangs, whizzes and being grabbed and greeted by people you don’t know. But you won’t regret it. It’s a beautiful event – even to non-believers – as is the sight of everyone walking away from the church with through the scented spring night, lit lambades in hand, to the midnight feast waiting for them at home. And the combined smells of incense, melting wax, intoxicating orange-blossom and jasmine and countless plates of Easter soup waiting in households everywhere are a real treat for the nostrils.

Food, glorious food:
This is what it’s all about. In a traditional Greek household, most of Easter Saturday is spent with the women in a frenzy of preparation for the coming feast. It’s a heavy, heady assault on the senses - and a little rich for some of the uninitiated.

First of the menu is the traditional “magiritsa” soup served up in the deep of the night after everyone returns from church with their lambades. It’s not everyone's cup of tea, as it’s a broth of braised goat intestines (preparation involves meticulously turning them inside out with a knitting needle and scrubbing them clean) with boiled wild greens. I’m told it’s delicious – but even after 20 years, I prefer to take their word for it.

The real feast, however, comes the next day. Throughout the country, from early in the morning, roasting spits spring up over wood fires in gardens, yards, balconies, even the streets, ready for a goat or lamb to be skewered whole (head and all) and turned slowly for hours until it is cooked through to the bone, glistening in the spring sunlight and sending out mouth-watering meaty vapours. Unlike the kitchen duties, turning the spit is traditionally men’s work – and they can be seen gathered in gaggles around the goat, hard at work, fuelled by coffees, cigarettes, little glasses of ouzo and plates of “mezzes”.

By the time the spit-roast meat reaches the Easter platter, the table legs are heaving under the weight of an absolute cornucopia of delights, true to the opt-quoted truism “Den ftanei an perisevei” (“It’s not enough if there’s not too much). Meat galore is joined by glistening salads, hot crusty homemade pies, specially-baked aniseed-flavoured bread, countless red-dyed boiled eggs, cheeses, dips, and veritable rivers of wine and beer. Then, there’s dessert – homemade baklava dripping in honey, cream pies, aromatic sweet Easter bread.

Maybe now you understand why the Greeks aren’t big on chocolate eggs?
Easter in Greece is not for the faint-hearted (and those with weak hearts need to watch themselves too!), but, even for the most secular of us, it’s a feast for all the senses....


  1. Great post, I've been looking for information on Greek Easter celebrations but this is a much more down to earth post and than all I've found, and exactly what I wanted.

  2. You made me a little bit home sick... My hubby is Greek and we've had Easters in Greece and it's all you say and more!

    1. Wonderful writing, so evocatively descriptive and a veritable onslaught on the senses of the imagination. I am going to make me a date to spend easter week on Skopelos, my particular favourite Greek Island, one year before too long.

  3. The midnight tradition on the Saturday sounds wonderful, I'd love to experience that :)