Early May is a wonderful time for everyone to get acquainted with the Easter traditions of the Greek Islands and to experience popular summer tourist sites in a different light. Here are some suggestions
Faithful Christians all over Greece follow the Holy Week ritual devoutly, giving their body and soul to the culmination of the Passion of Christ and, finally, rejoicing in his Resurrection. Each community celebrates Easter with a pinch of local tradition and flavour.
Easter celebrations are exciting all over Greece, but some of the most famous destinations for Easter celebrations include Corfu, Skiathos, Patmos, Chios, and Leonidio. This is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to delve into an overwhelming spiritual atmosphere and participate in sacred rituals, age-old traditions and joyful celebrations!
Here are some elements of the tradition you will find everywhere:
On Maundy Thursday the Service of the Holy Passion is held, while preparations for the celebration of the Resurrection are underway. The Easter brioche (“tsoureki”) and painted eggs are prepared with special red dyes, a custom that symbolises the rebirth of life and nature.
On Good Friday, the sacred day of the culmination of the Passion of Christ with the Deposition from the cross and Christ’s burial, people decorate the Epitaph, as tradition calls for the Crown of Thorns of Jesus Christ to be covered with flowers.
In the evening the Epitaph Mass takes place and people join the procession on its way through the streets of every single village and city, listening to chanters reciting the funeral psalms in a mystic atmosphere of devout concentration.
Before midnight, people gather in church holding white candles, which they light with the “Holy Light”. The Resurrection of Christ is celebrated at 12 midnight sharp, with drum beats and fireworks. When “Christós Anésti” (Christ has risen) is proclaimed against a background of loudly tolling bells, people repeat the phrase “Christós Anésti” to one another and respond with “Alithós Anésti” (He has truly risen).
An impressive firework display lights up the night sky, and people gather around the festively laid tables, crack red eggs and feast on the traditional “maghiritsa” (a tripe and herb soup). On Easter Sunday morning, as the 40-day period of fasting finally comes to an end, it is time for lamb prepared on the spit or roasted in the oven. The atmosphere is festive. Easter tables are set and people merrily rejoice, eat and drink with their family until late at night.
Spending Easter on Skiathos, the island of “the saint of Greek literature”, Alexandre Papadiamantis, is definitely a spiritual experience, as the locals observe the monastery ritual of Mount Athos and spend the Passion Week in devoutness and deep contemplation. The sound of the funeral bells ringing, and the scents of nature in blossom, blend harmoniously in sweet melancholy.
In the morning, Christians go to church to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ to symbolise the Last Supper, while children move from house to house, holding cane crosses adorned with rosemary, violets, roses, lilies and poppies, singing Easter songs for treats.
During the Passion Week on Patmos, visitors are immersed in a deeply spiritual atmosphere. The presence of the Monastery of St. John, devoted to St. John the Baptist, brings a special tone to the occasion.
On Good Friday, unlike elsewhere in Greece, the Epitaph Mass starts at 1 am and the circumambulation at 4 am. The litany passes through the narrow streets of the town of Skiáthos, where the houses are all lit and people wait by the windows to see the procession approach. At 5:30 am the litany returns to the church and everybody shouts “Open the gates!” The church opens in a representation of the descent of Jesus Christ to the Underworld.
The congregation then gathers again for the First Resurrection service, listening to the bells ringing in a joyous celebration of the victory of life over death. The priests hold palm leaves, i.e. symbols of victory and triumph, and sprinkle the Christians with holy water.
In the afternoon, religious rituals give way smoothly to prevailing gastronomic desire, with everyone focusing on the preparation of the Lucullian Easter meal.
Another good option is the city of Corfu, where fascinating religious celebrations are held at Easter. The Municipal Chorus sings ecclesiastical hymns on Good Wednesday, while on Maundy Thursday in the Duomo, the Catholic Cathedral, 12 candles are ignited and extinguished one at a time after the reading of each of the 12 Gospels. On Good Friday young girls decorate the epitaphs. The last and most impressive epitaph, the Epitaph of Corfu Cathedral, makes its appearance at 10 pm with the Corfu Philharmonic, giving an ecstatic dimension to this mournful night.
During Easter time in Leonidio devoutness and excitement go hand in hand, thanks to a spectacular balloon custom that is more than a century old. The custom is a recreation of a similar one that local seamen saw practiced in some Asian country.
On Easter Saturday at 11 am, the first Resurrection brings a truly unique celebration: “Christós Anésti” is proclaimed against a background of loudly tolling bells and the joyful sounds of bands parading through the streets. At night there is the Catholic Mass of the Resurrection in Duomo or the Orthodox Resurrection Service at “Páno Platía” (Upper Square).
The island of Patmos owes its fame to St. John the Baptist, the most beloved disciple of Christ, and to the monastery, built during the 11th century AD, to honour his name. This monastery has always represented the “heart” of the island.
During Passion Week, visitors are immersed in a deeply spiritual atmosphere. The presence of the Monastery of St. John leads to uninterrupted observance and practice of the preserved Early Christian traditions like “The Washing of the Disciples’ Feet” and the Re-enactment of the Deposition from the Cross in the Monastery of St. John.
Next is Chios, or Hios, which is also well known for its magnificent Easter festivities. The scenic picture of shipowners’ mansions with exquisite flower garden designs, peaceful little ports with colourful boats, and picturesque windmills by the sea, changes dramatically following the Resurrection mass. On the night of the Holy Saturday, a rocket war breaks out there. Dating back to the age of the Ottoman occupation (15th-19th centuries), this custom turns the village into a virtual battlefield.
Preparations for this bloodless “war” last for months and the improvised rockets, made of coal, sulphur and nitro, are put on wooden stands ready for the “gunners of Chios” to fire them. Teasing and challenging each other alternately with test shots until the sound of horn signals “fire”, late at night.
The following day finds the beautiful village of Vrontádos again restored to its peaceful self.
During Easter time on Leonidio devoutness and excitement go hand in hand, thanks to a spectacular balloon custom that dates back more than a century. Although its origin is unknown, it is believed that the custom is a recreation of a similar custom that local seamen saw practised in some Asian country.
On the night of Easter Saturday, locals and visitors alike gather in the central square of the village and wait impatiently for the big moment. It is midnight, and when the words “Christos Anesti” (Christ is risen) are heard, the men of the village set fire to oil-and-petroleum-soaked pieces of cloth at the bottom of each balloon.
It all boils down to a competition between the five parishes of the village. Preparations last for six weeks until Easter, while Easter Saturday night sees five to six hundred balloons fill the sky with their sparkling light.
Tradition has it that, regardless of the weather conditions, calmness takes over and only gentle westerly blows, just strong enough to allow the balloons to reach for the stars.