You’re probably already aware that the Greeks are very warm and sociable people, who like nothing better than to get together with family and friends for a celebration. Despite all the changes that modern Greece has gone through, the most important celebration every year throughout Greece remains a religious festival, and the most significant Christian festival at that – we’re talking of course about the Greek Orthodox Easter!
The state religion of Greece is Greek Orthodox, part of the wider Eastern Orthodox Church. It is a Christian religion, taking its inspiration from the Bible and practicing a faith spread by the Apostles of Jesus. In some ways it is very similar to the Roman Catholic Church, although the Eastern Orthodox Church does not have a Pope figure as the absolute head of the church. The Greek Orthodox Church still plays an important role throughout society Greek society. 98% of the Greek population is Greek orthodox, and priests are a regular presence in daily life, and still bless tavernas, cafes and offices in a special ceremony. Visiting Greece or her islands you’ll see evidence of the Greek Orthodox Church with your very own eyes. There are countless churches and chapels of all kinds of sizes and shapes – with over 500 on our little island paradise of Mykonos alone!
Greek Orthodox Easter is the most important celebration in the church’s calendar. It marks the day Jesus rose from the dead after his crucifixion. Like the Western Christian Easter, the Greek Orthodox Easter period begins with Lent and a period of fasting. This starts on ‘Clean Monday’, the start of the seventh week before easter. On Clean Monday (which is also a national holiday), Greek people traditionally eat special ‘lagana’ bread and seafood and fly kites. Clean Monday this year was on the 14th March. There is a Holy Week leading up to Easter Sunday, commemorating the events in Jesus’ life before his crucifixion on Good Friday. In 2016 Easter Sunday will be on the 1st of May, which is later than the Western Christianity Easter date because the Greek Orthodox Church uses the older Julian Calendar as opposed to the now commonly used Gregorian Calendar. Easter (or ‘Pasha’) is a truly spectacular and memorable celebration throughout Greece, so we thought we’d give you a bit of a breakdown of some of the fascinating island traditions that we’re very familiar with as they take place in Mykonos.
40 days before Easter Sunday, on the first Saturday after Clean Monday, a procession begins at the Panagia Tourliani Monastery in Ano Mera in the centre of the island. Priests carry a holy icon from the Monastery followed by pilgrims during a 8km procession west to the Chora, the main town in Mykonos. The icon is then displayed in the Church of Life Giving Spring, the town’s main church in Alefkandra square. Children accompany the procession with wreaths made from palm leaves. Five weeks later, on Lazarus Saturday (the day before Palm Sunday) the icon is returned back to Ano Mera. This Saturday is also the day when traditional bakeries throughout Mykonos prepare a delicacy called ‘lazarika’. This is a sweet spicy bread with currants that is shaped like a little man with his arms crossed in a shroud and with cloves for eyes. It represents Saint Lazarus of Bethany, who Jesus raised from the dead. Lazarika is made without dairy, which shouldn’t be eaten during Lent. As the Holy Week continues, the bakeries produce more special bread (food is a very important part of Greek celebrations, as you may have guessed!). ‘Lambrokouloures’ is another sweet bread with braids that symbolise the Holy Trinity, and is decorated with special red eggs (more on those later).
Good Friday in Mykonos is a rare occasion when an otherwise vibrant island turns solemn, as women in churches throughout Mykonos sing gospel lament songs about Jesus’ crucifixion, replicating the sorrows of the Virgin Mary as she wept for her son. There is then a quiet procession, as a casket (commonly referred to as a bier) representing the body of Jesus, and beautifully decorated with flowers, is carried through the villages with worshippers following. The mood is very downbeat and solemn, and an anathema to the archetypal Greek celebrations. On this day bakeries will produce yet more breads, this time in the shape of the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
After the sorrow of Good Friday, the night of Holy Saturday marks a total transformation! Locals gather outside the island’s churches just before midnight to celebrate the resurrection of Christ in an unforgettable ceremony where a priest holds aloft the Holy Light (a candle lit from Jerusalem) and proceeds to light the candles of each worshipper gathered in front of the church. The vision of a sea of lighted candles, fireworks, and people kissing one another proclaiming “Christos Anesti” (Christ has risen) is truly magical. Everyone then returns from the churches to their homes carrying their candles and will proceed to scorch the sign of the cross in the doorway above their front door with the candle as a way of blessing their house for the coming year. They will then enjoy a traditional meal to celebrate the end of fasting, often a soup called ‘mageiritsa’ made from vegetables and the boiled parts of a lamb (it’s nicer than it sounds!). For many people the night then descends into a big long party, something that Mykonos is pretty familiar with!
Easter Sunday itself is a day spent amongst family and friends, and is one of the most extraordinary displays of the Greek hospitality, warmth, and family life, as family members from all over Greece return to their home villages and islands to feast and celebrate with their loved ones. A lamb is roasted on a spit over a barbecue, together with a variety of amazing Myconian delicacies including salads, kopanisti spicy cheese (yum!), louza (a cured ham) and Myconian sausages, and of course the famous red eggs. It really is a true feast day!
We’ve mentioned the red eggs several times, and you may have seen them in pictures or photos of Greek easter celebrations. These hard boiled eggs are a mainstay of the Greek Orthodox Easter tradition, and are dyed red to symbolise the blood of Christ. Legend has it the eggs were inspired by Mary Magdalene, who went before the Emperor Tiberius Caesar in Rome holding an egg (the symbol of rebirth) and proclaiming Jesus had been resurrected. An understandably dubious Emperor claimed for some proof of this miracle, and promptly the egg in Mary’s hand changed colour to red. In Greece, young and old alike play games with the boiled eggs on Easter Sunday, cracking the eggs against each other and saying “Christos Anesti” followed by “Alithos Anesti”. The winner of the game is the person whose egg takes longest to crack!
Easter is a powerful representation of rebirth and the end of dark times. It marks the end of winter and the arrival of another glorious summer of perfect weather in Mykonos. This year the stars have really aligned and it just so happens that Easter is just a few days before we open on the 3rd of May for another exciting summer season. If you haven’t heard already, this year where we’re launching a brand new one bedroom private pool sea view villa, adding more delights to our authentic Greek breakfasts and more dishes to our private dining menu, as well as extending our private transfer service. If you’ve enjoyed reading about the Mykonos Easter traditions, you can create your own mini tour of the religious sites we’ve mentioned. One of our dedicated team will only be too happy to help plan your excursion for you by arranging a car rental or tour adventure. We’re looking forward to welcoming you all to Panormos Bay in 2016!