Easter Traditions in Greece and Cyprus

This year Greek Easter coincides with the Latin Easter on the 4th April 2010. The Greeks and the Orthodox Christians throughout the world are celebrating Easter which is considered to be the most important religious festival in Greece and Cyprus.

This is a short introduction (specially dedicated to our young compatriots and our English speaking friends) of how the Greeks celebrate Easter. It starts from the Sunday of Lent – 40 days before Easter – leading to the triumphant Anastasis or Resurrection of Christ from the dead.

Let us follow the traditional steps of preparations of the celebrations based on history and tradition:

The Sundays of Lent

The First Sunday of Lent – The First Sunday in Lent is called Orthodoxy Sunday because on this day each year is celebrated the Feast in honour of the restoration of the use of icons, or holy pictures, in the Church.   This Feast was first celebrated on March 11, 843, when after more than a century of controversy the Byzantine Empress Theodora finally brought about a restoration of the icons.   The First Sunday of Lent has been kept as an anniversary of Orthodoxy ever since that time, because those who had wished to do away with the pictures were also desirous of modifying the Orthodox Faith; the icons were and are a symbol of the Orthodox Faith, and no Orthodox Church is without them.

The Second Sunday of Lent – The Second Sunday of Lent commemorates St. Gregory Palamas, a monk of Mt. Athos, who about 1350 became Archbishop of Salonika in Greece.   St. Gregory was a famous ascetic who developed a system of mystical contemplation aimed at promoting union with God.   His ideas found favour among the Eastern monks, and in 1368, eight years after his death, he was declared a Saint by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Philotheos, who had convened a Council to consider his life and works.   From that time to the present, he has been remembered every year on the Second Sunday of Lent.

The Third Sunday of Lent – The Third Sunday of Lent marks the middle of the Lenten period.   This day is dedicated to the Holy Cross, and the ceremonial of the day is similar to that of Holy Cross Day, September 14.   At the end of the Liturgy, the Cross is carried in the procession on a tray of flowers, and placed on a table in the centre of the Church.   The Priest stands before the table and raises the Cross aloft, praying for the welfare of all Orthodox Christians.   He circles the table, stopping at each side and raising and lowering the Cross, and praying in turn for the President of the United States and other civil authorities, for the Armed Forces, for the Archbishop, and for all Orthodox clergy.   After the prayers the blessed flowers are distributed to the people, in token of the refreshing beauty and strength which comes from the Cross of Christ, and to encourage them in the midst of the Lenten fast.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent – The Fourth Sunday of Lent celebrates the memory of the famous Saint and ascetic, St. John of the Ladder, who was head of the monastery located on Mt. Sinai, where he died in 605 A.D.   St. John got his name from a famous book of spiritual exercises which he wrote and entitled “The Ladder of Perfection,” and which he intended to serve as a means of climbing spiritually from earth to heaven.   St. John’s regular Feast Day falls on March 30; his commemoration on the Fourth Sunday of Lent as well, probably had its origin in the fact that his book of spiritual directions was read in the monasteries during the Lenten period, and that he was regarded as one to the greatest monastic ascetics.

Thursday of the Fifth Week of Lent – The Chief feature of the Morning Services prescribed for the Thursday of the Fifth Week of Lent, is the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. When performed in parish churches, this Service is done on Wednesday evening, and is usually much abridged because of its extreme length.   The Cannon itself is made up of more than two hundred and fifty hymns, all penitential in character.   It was highly regarded for the learned symbolism with which it abounds, and for its poetic form.   St. Andrew of Crete is credited with the invention of the Canon form of hymn composition.   St. Andrew of Crete was Archbishop of the island during the eighth century.   After a career in the great church of Constantinople, where he became famous for building orphan asylums and taking care of the poor, he was selected as Archbishop of Gortynia.   He administered his diocese with vigour and was very zealous for the welfare of his people, who suffered not only from famine and plague, but from the visits of Arab marauders as well.   He died on July 4, possibly in 740 A.D., while returning home from Constantinople where he had gone t interest the Court in the plight of the Cretans.   St. Andrew is one of the most famous of the Byzantine orators and hymnographers   Besides the Great Canon, he wrote several others for penitential year, and numerous individual hymns as well.   His feast day is July 4, the anniversary of his death.

Saturday of the Fifth Week of Lent – The Service prescribed for the Saturday of the Fifth Week of Lent is that of the Akathistos Hymn, a devotion in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary.   This Service consists of the recitation of Little Compline, which is combined a series of special hymns in honour of Mary.   Present custom is to hold the service on each of the first five Friday evenings of Lent.   The Akathistos Hymn itself is divided up into four parts, and on each of the first four Friday evenings a successive part is sung, and on the fifth Friday evening the whole hymn is performed.   The Akathistos Hymn was composed as an offering of thanksgiving to the Blessed Virgin in the year 626 A.D.   In that year the Persians and Avars attacked the city of Constantinople and besieged it.   The Patriarch Sergius led the despairing people in a great procession around the walls of the city, singing and bearing with them icons of the Lord and His Mother.   Strengthened, their devotion on, and aided by a tempest which sprang up and wrecked many ships of the fleet drawn up before the city, the inhabitants sallied forth and put the invaders to flight.   They considered their deliverance all the more miraculous because the Emperor Heraclius was absent on a campaign with the major part of his army.   In thanksgiving the people gathered in the great Church of the Holy Wisdom, and stood the whole night through singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving.   The word “Akathistos” means “not sitting» and it is still customary for the congregation to stand while the stanzas of the hymn are being sung.   The Akathistos Hymn is one of the great devotional compositions of Christian hymnography and has been translated into many languages.   It is often used a Service of Intercession to the Blessed Virgin, and is sung in all Greek Orthodox Churches during Lent.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent – On the Fifth Sunday of Lent is commemorated St. Mary of Egypt, one of the most famous women penitents of Christian history.   Her story is told in the Menaion, on April 1, her Feast Day.   She is called to remembrance on the Fifth Sunday of Lent as well, not only because of her ascetic life, but in order that the example of her repentance may have a salutary effect on the faithful, and urge them to similar sincere repentance of their misdoings.

Before Holy Week begins, we celebrate the Saturday of Lazarus.   This commemorates the miracle of Lazarus’s resurrection by Christ.   This miracle was performed as a preview to His own resurrection which is commemorated on the following Sunday.   The Sunday after the Saturday of Lazarus, we celebrate Palm Sunday when Christ entered Jerusalem.   Immediately following the Divine Liturgy, the priest hands out crosses made out of palms.   We put these crosses in our cars or anywhere else we feel we want to be protected.   The traditional food for this day is fish, just like the following poem states:

Vagia, vagia ton vagion
trome psari kai kolio
ke tin alli Kiriaki
trome to psito t’ arni

Palms, palms on Palm Sunday
we eat fish and mackerel
and the following Sunday
we eat the roasted lamb!

Holy Week is a period of mourning as we commemorate the Passion of Jesus Christ.   Entertainment is not allowed for the whole week.   The Church has services every night during this week, and each Service re-enacts the events leading to Easter Sunday.  Fasting is strict during this week especially on Good Friday.

Church Services during Holy Week:

On Sunday night and on Holy Monday night is the service for Christ the Bridegroom.   The church (faithful) is symbolically the bride and Christ is the groom.   Like the bride and groom, the church must prepare to unite with Christ, the bridegroom, for all eternity.

On Holy Tuesday night we commemorate the anointing of Christ with myrrh by a sinful woman who wet his feet and dried them with her hair.   Christ forgave her for her sins as an example to us on how to repent and be saved.   The “Kassiani” hymn is sung at this service to honour this woman.

Holy Wednesday morning is the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts (Proigiasmeni).   The same day, in the evening or night, the church offers the Sacrament of Holy Unction.   During this service, the priest reads seven gospels, and seven blessings to bless the oil which will be used to heal the ailments of the body and soul.   At the end of the service, the priest anoints each parishioner with the oil by making the sign of the cross on their forehead, cheeks, chin and hands.

On Holy Thursday morning, the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is performed.   Many receive Holy Communion that morning.     Red eggs are dyed on this day.   The colour red symbolizes the blood of Christ which He shed for us on the Cross.   During the evening service, the priest reads 12 Gospels that tell all of Christ’s suffering that led to his Crucifixion.   After each Gospel reading, a candle is lit.   After the fifth Gospel is read, the Holy Cross is taken out of the Altar and carried in a procession around the church and then placed in the centre at the front of the church, where parishioners come forth and kiss the body or feet of Christ.     After the Service, women decorate the Epitaphio (funeral bier).

Holy Friday morning is the Service for the reading of the Holy Hours.   In the afternoon the service for the Descent from the Holy Cross (Apokathilosis) is held, where the priests takes the body of Christ from the Cross and places it in the Epitaphio (funeral bier).   After the Apokathilosis, the faithful come forth and kiss the Epitaphio while the young children walk/crawl under it three times.   In Greece, the faithful go from Church to Church to kiss the different Epitaphioi.   At night is the Matins of Lamentation (Epitaphios).  The Epitaphios is lifted and taken outside the church in a procession.   In Greece they take the Epitaphio in a procession through the whole village or town and all the churches meet and continue on together from there.   When the Epitaphio returns to the Church, each parishioner enters the church by passing under the Epitaphio.   Another Greek tradition for Good Friday is to drink vinegar just as Jesus was given vinegar when he said that he was thirsty.

Holy Saturday morning is the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great.   At night the Service of the Resurrection (Anastasi) is held.   It is customary for the godmother or godfather to buy an Easter candle for their godchild. Everyone dresses up in their new outfits and go to Church.   A little before midnight, all the lights in the Church are turned off.   As soon as midnight strikes the priest sings “Defte Labete Fos” which translates to “Come receive the light”.   At that point he comes out of the Altar with a lit candle and gives the light to the whole congregation (one member passes is to the next).   Then, all the Clergy and parishioners exit the church.   Once outside, the priest reads the Gospel of the Anastasi and as soon as he is done everyone sings while making the sign of the cross with their candles:

“Χριστός Ανέστη εκ νεκρών
Θανάτω, θάνατον πατήσας
Και τοις εν τοις μνήμασι
Ζωήν χαρισάμενος”

(Christ has risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death
and granted life
to those in tombs)

In Greece, as soon as the “Christos Anesti” is sung, fireworks are heard throughout.   At this point, the majority of the congregation leaves church although the Liturgy of St. John the Chrysostom follows.  Everyone greets each other with “Christos Anesti” (Christ has risen) and respond “Alithos Anesti” (Truly he has risen”.   The faithful take their lit candles home and before entering the house, they make the sign of the cross above the entryway with the smoke from the candle.   Then they light the kantili and try to preserve that light for at least three days.   Some keep it for as much as forty days.   That night, everyone eats the traditional Anastasi meal which consists of mayeritsa (soup made with lamb intestines), tsoureki (sweet bread), koulourakia, red Easter eggs, etc.   Another tradition is to bump eggs and see whose breaks first.   On the island of Kos, they also eat “lambropittes” which are basically cheese pies.   They make the dough which they place in a round baking pan and fill it with a cheese and egg mixture.   Then they brush the top with egg before baking.

On Easter Sunday in many parts of Greece it is traditional to roast a lamb and also the kokorestsi.   The roasted lamb symbolizes Jesus who sacrificed himself for our sake.
There is an afternoon Church Service on Easter Sunday.   It is referred to as Great Vespers of Agape.   During this Service, the Gospel is read in all different languages.
For forty days following the Anastasi, the Greeks greet each other with “Χριστός Ανέστη – Christos Anesti” and “Αληθώς Ανέστη – Alithos Anesti”.

Written by By Dr Zannetos Tofallis.

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