Greece is not just a country of golden sandy beaches and turquoise seas to be expected over a glass of ouzo on a Summer's evening. Greece is a country that is charming through the year because of the beauty of its landscape in all seasons, its fascinating culture and long held traditions.
Easter is one of those Greek orthodox traditions that you will find compelling wherever you are a believer or not. There is no better way to observe it than on a Greek island or in a village where traditions and rituals are still respected and blessed with fervour and jubilation. Most Greeks, whether or not they practice their religion during the year, take part enthusiastically in the Easter celebrations.
Greek Orthodox Easter is not always celebrated on the same Sunday as in the other Christian churches. In 2016, it happens to fall on 1st May – as beautiful a day as one could hope for.
Since I met my Greek in-laws 20 years ago, I would not dream of celebrating the greatest Orthodox holiday away from my husband's motherland.
Many people leave the big cities to go “sto chorio”, which means to the village of their ancestors. In our case, the entire family goes to the island of Skiathos, in the Sporades. The Rammos family does not come from Skiathos, but it is the place where we decided to build our vacation homes and where we can fully experience the Easter traditions, under the direction of my mother-in-law, an expert in this field .. .
Holy Week or “Megali Evdomada” begins the Monday before Easter. It is the day of the general “spring cleaning” when every Greek housewife dusts and polishes the house, cleans out the courtyards and terraces and decorates her living room with embroidered and starched doilies.
The atmosphere in the shops is feverish too: the butchers take orders for the Paschal lamb, while skewers, metal tanks and charcoal bags invade the pavements and stores. Everyone waits impatently for the fever, particularly those who have been fasting during the 40 days of Lent.
But our family does not order lamb from the butcher. A few days before the big day, my mother-in-law, with supplications and threats, urges my husband to select a victim from the herd of the local shepherd Yorgos.
When my children were younger, Holy Thursday was THEIR big day. They were fully implicated in the baking of the Tsoureki, the Greek Easter cake and the dyeing of the eggs. They picked wild flowers in the garden, and then patently stuck them to a shell, with the help of their loving grandmother. The egg, wrapped in a nylon stocking was immersed in a boiling bath of red dye. After a few minutes, it came out in a bright red dress with the silhouette of the flower in white on the red background. Finally, anointed with olive oil to make it shine, it was carefully placed on a plate, in a white embroidered linen, freshly starched. It was strictly forbidden to touch it until the Day of Resurrection!
Another tradition of Holy Thursday that makes children's eyes shine is the “lambada”. No, nothing to do with the dance that has entertained so many people of my age! “Lambada” in Greek means “candle” and on Holy Thursday, godparents visit their godchildren to offer them the precious candle for the Saturday midnight mass. No need to say that these candles, always decorated and accompanied by a toy for a boy or a girl have a highly commercial purpose …
Another important event of Holy Thursday is the “Epitaphios”. After the Thursday evening mass, the women and girls of the parish build a sort of wooden four-poster bed, which is supposedly to symbolize Christ's tomb. They decorate it with fresh flowers and pray in front of it until dawn. Men are excluded from this ritual.
Good Friday is the most austere day of the Holy Week, as it is considered a day of mourning where Christians commemorate the passion and death of Christ. That day, fast is very strict and the meal consist only of lentils and vinegar. I admit, I cheat … secretly!
After the mass celebrated at 11 am, Christ's effigy is taken down from the cross by the priest and wrapped in a shroud. The priest wears it on his back and walks around the altar three times. The faithful kneel before the epitaph. And take some flowers or petals that will last through the year as a good luck charm.
When we are in Skiathos, we go after dark to the magnificent monastery of Evangelistria in the mountains, for the procession with candles, a kind of reconstruction of Jesus Christ's burial. The Epitaphios is transported out of the church, preceded by the cross on which Christ was crucified. The procession follows with the Faitful holding brown candles and chanting.
On Saturday night, all the faithful go together to Midnight Mass celebrated in a darkened church. Usually the church is overcrowded and the latecomers will have to remain outside.
Around midnight, the moment everyone is waiting for finally arrives: the priest appears, holding three burning candles and announcements: “Come immortal light and glorify Christ risen from the dead.” Everyone claims' CHRISTOS ANNESTI “- Christ has risen from the dead – and the faithful light their candle from the flame offered by the priest, the bells start ringing and the flame slowly goes from candle to candle, among kisses and hugs and” Christos Anesti “He said.
In this general jubilation, try not to avoid getting candle wax on your clothes and setting your neighbors on fire. Twenty years ago, at the end of my first Easter Mass in Skiathos, my future mother-in-law had set fire to the fur collar of my coat. But I can assure you it was quite unintentional …
Note for the record that it is not uncommon for the priest to scold anyone who dares to throw firecrackers during the ceremony.
After the mass, everyone goes back home, holding the candle in his hand, trying somehow to reserve the flame. This can give rise to a great deal of hilarity, especially if you are traveling by car.
You may not noticed that many homes in Greece have a black cross above their main door? According to tradition, the head of the family has to draw this cross with the flame of the Easter candle to bless his home.
After this ritual, the family sets the table impatently. Do not forget that the faithful have fasted all day long. The smell of the “maghiritsa”, the traditional Easter soup, made with the lamb offal, dill, fresh onions, lemon and egg tickle the nostrils and make the hungry guests' mouths water!
But first, you have to knock your red egg against your neighbor's. The owner of the strongest egg will be lucky for the coming year!
On Easter Sunday, the festivals and tradition of the lamb is highly anticipated. In Athens, because of the lack of gardens, the lamb is often baked in the oven but in the forests and in the islands, the day begins early. We prepare the animal, season it, fix it correctly on the spindle, light the charcoal and start turning slowly. More and more often, small electric motors rotate the spindle automatically, but nothing compare to the human lab: when one by one, all the guests sit by the fire and manually turn the spindle, a glass of wine in hand and from time to time , anoint the lamb with a mixture of oil, oregano and lemon.
This ritual, which takes several hours, sharpens the appetite. Of course, the tables are not empty: “Spanakopitta” and “tiropitta”, boiled eggs with oil and oregano, appetizers of all kinds are there to calm down the stomachs. All these dishes are served with traditional island music or rebetika. Most of the guests are not related to bust out some dance moves. It is a day of celebration where all problems and disputes are forgotten. We eat our fill of lamb, we dance, we burst into song, we invite friends to join us and even welcome passers by.
You can not be a true lover of Greece if you have never spent Easter with the Greeks in Greece. Moreover, a short stay on a Greek island at Easter can be the perfect opportunity to identify the perfect holiday villa to rent for your family the following summer.