Greek Orthodox Easter, or Pascha, is the most important religious feast of the year, with customs and traditions that have been part of Christianity for two thousand years.
The 40-day period of Lent before Easter (Πάσχα-Pascha), the solemnity of Holy Week, the rich symbolism, and the unique traditions of Orthodox Easter make it very different than Easter as celebrated by Western Christians.
The way Greek Orthodox Easter is observed by the faithful is so very different, with different symbols used to commemorate the Resurrection, and with Orthodox and western Easter being observed on different dates.
Every Easter, Greeks thank and honor Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins and we celebrate the miracle of the Resurrection, the rise of Jesus Christ from the dead and the promise of an afterlife.
Preparations for Easter start 40 days prior
Greeks prepare for Easter forty days before the great feast, with fasting, praying and attending liturgies through Holy Saturday, until the resurrection of Christ is celebrated on Easter Sunday.
On that Sunday, Greeks celebrate with a huge feast that includes drinking, singing and dancing, a joyful culmination of forty days of devotions.
Preparations for Easter begin at the start of Great Lent. Orthodox Christians fast and pray regularly during the forty days of Lent and Holy Week.
Great Lent officially begins on what Greeks call Clean Monday, seven weeks before Pascha, and runs for forty contiguous days. Clean Monday is celebrated with Greeks eating seafood, octopus, and dishes containing fish roe.
Great Lent prepares the individual believer to reach for, accept and attain the calling of his Savior.
Observance of Great Lent includes abstinence from many foods (including all meat and dairy), almsgiving and an intensified period of prayer alone and in church, along with self-examination, confession, repentance and restitution for sins committed during the past year.
Lent for the Greek Orthodox concludes with the Presanctified Liturgy on Friday of the Sixth Week. The next day is called Lazarus Saturday, the day before Palm Sunday.
On Holy Week, the church’s liturgies run for hours and hours. Also called Passion Week, the gospels read in church during this time recount the Passions of Christ, the painful days that led Him to the Cross and then to Resurrection.
Holy Monday’s liturgy commemorates the blessed and noble Joseph and the fig tree which was cursed and withered by the Lord.
The evening liturgy begins with the Hymn of the Bridegroom: “Behold the Bridegroom comes in the midst of the night… beware, therefore, O my soul, lest thou be borne down in sleep…and lest thou be shut out from the Kingdom…”
The Tuesday of Holy Week liturgy commemorates the parable of the Ten Virgins. It is about the preparation of the soul and wakefulness.
On Holy Wednesday, Orthodox churches hold the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. This very ancient Liturgy is a Vesper Service, held during the evening.
The sacred ceremony of the Mystery of the Holy Unction takes place during that liturgy. It is the evening devoted to repentance, confession, and the remission of sins by the Lord, preparing the faithful to receive Holy Communion, usually the next day.
Holy Thursday liturgies are the most heartbreaking of all as Jesus Christ’s betrayal is recalled, as he is led to his death at the end of the day.
On Holy Thursday morning, the liturgy celebrates four Events: the washing of the disciples’ feet, the institution of the Holy Eucharist, the Marvelous Prayer, and the betrayal.
After the washing of His Apostles’ feet, He pointed out the betrayer, celebrated the Eucharist as part of the Passover meal with is disciples, and pronounced the new commandment to love one another as He had loved them.
Upon leaving his Apostles, Christ spoke to them about the descent of the Holy Spirit to complete man’s union with Christ. His departure, Christ said, would bring joy to them and the world.
The Holy Friday liturgy celebrates the holy, saving, and awesome Passion of Christ. To take away our sins, Christ willingly endured every kind of torture, and finally the Cross and Death, purging all our sins with His death.
The liturgy also includes the reading of the “Twelve Gospels.”
On Holy Friday, church bells throughout Greece ring mournfully all day long, and in the evening there is the Procession of the Epitaphios — a recreation of the tomb of Christ — in each parish.
In the morning, the Epitaphios is decorated with spring flowers — mostly white, red, and purple — until it is entirely covered.
The Epitaphios is often sprinkled with flower petals and rosewater, decorated with candles and ceremonially censed as a mark of respect. Traditionally, the faithful walk underneath it as it is held aloft as a gesture of faith.
In the evening, the ceremonial Epitaphios Procession takes place, led by the parish priests and followed by the faithful holding lit beeswax candles.
On Holy Saturday, psalms are read and Resurrection hymns are sung, telling of Christ’s descent into Hades: “Today Hades cried out groaning,” the psalm says.
The hymns speak of the conquering of death and the day’s celebration is called “First Resurrection.” Most of the readings of this day are from the Old Testament on the prophecies and promise of the conquering of death.
Finally, at midnight, there is the moment that all Greeks around the world eagerly anticipate: The Resurrection ceremony, when the faithful can finally greet one another by saying “Christos Anesti!” (Christ is risen!).
On this night, Greeks wear their Sunday best, take a white candle, and go to church to attend the liturgy, waiting for midnight.
Children hold their lampatha (λαμπάδα) a decorated white candle given to them by their godfather or godmother. This is a much-anticipated gift by children.
Children keep their lampatha throughout the year because the blessed candle which has been lit by the Holy flame on Resurrection night can be used in other special liturgies such as baptisms and weddings.
At midnight, all the priests come out and chant “Christos Anesti!” while they pass the Holy Light from which all the faithful light their candles and pass the light to one another, saying “Christos Anesti!” with the recipient replying “Alithos Anesti!” or “Truly, He is risen!”
The Holy Fire
In Orthodox tradition, the Holy Fire is considered a miracle that occurs annually on the day preceding Pascha within Jesus Christ’s tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem.
In the church, a blue light is said to emit from within Jesus Christ’s tomb, rising from the marble slab covering the stone believed to be that upon which Jesus’ body was placed for burial.
The light is believed to form a column of fire, from which candles are lit. This fire is then used to light the candles of the clergy and pilgrims in attendance.
The fire is also said to spontaneously light other lamps and candles around the church. Pilgrims and clergy say that the Holy Fire does not burn them.
The Patriarch is inside the chapel kneeling in front of the stone, while the church is dark. Then the Patriarch comes out with the two candles lit and shining brightly in the darkness.
The crowd roars as they witness the bright candles with the Holy Fire and light their own, jubilant after seeing the miracle.
The Holy Fire, which Greeks call Holy Light, is taken to Greece by a special flight, while it is received in the country by political and church leaders with all the honors of a visiting state leader.
Greek Easter Food traditions
Naturally, after the 40-day Lenten fast before Easter, what most Greeks have in mind is to rush to the table to make up for lost time.
Since meat, milk and eggs, as well as alcohol and sugar, have been prohibited for a long time, there is a great deal of eating to make up for.
Right after the Resurrection liturgy, in the middle of the night, Greeks will go home to eat the first meat that they have had in forty days. Magiritsa (μαγειρίτσα) a soup made from lamb offal is c consumed at that time; tradition dictates that it be the offal of the very lamb which is to be roasted on Sunday.
Magiritsa also contains dill, lettuce and other herbs and greens. Eaten after forty days of strict fasting, it is an ideal food with which to prepare the stomach for the Easter Sunday feast.
Easter Sunday is the big day in Greece, the day of the greatest feast of all. The festive day begins with the many preparations for the roasting of a whole lamb on an outdoor spit.
The particular meat is high in religious symbolism, which actually goes back to the Old Testament.
When God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham obeyed God and began preparing for the sacrifice. When Isaac saw what his father was doing, he asked, “The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Although Abraham naturally did not really want to kill his son, he was willing to do what God wanted him to do. When God saw that he was willing to obey, He told Abraham to stop, and Abraham sacrificed a nearby ram instead.
Today, Greeks spend Easter Sunday morning slow-roasting the delicious lamb, and then the whole family gathers at the table to eat. The whole preparation and the turning of the spit is a communal experience.
The whole Easter Sunday experience builds strong bonds between family and friends on the most holy of days for Greek Orthodoxy.
Once at the Easter table, Greeks will crack brilliant red-dyed eggs with their family and friends. The eggs are dyed red on Holy Thursday, a custom which goes back to the early Christians and symbolizes the sacrificial blood of Christ.
Later Greek Orthodox tradition said that the eggs are dyed red on Holy Thursday in commemoration of the Last Supper.
The cracking of the red eggs has its own symbolism as well. The hard shell of the egg symbolizes the sealed tomb of Christ, while the cracking means that the tomb has been broken and that Christ has been resurrected from the dead.
Along with the red eggs and all the feasting comes the delectable tsoureki. Called τσουρέκι in Greek, this is a sweetened yeast bread made with butter, milk, eggs and spices.
Tsoureki is also prepared on Holy Thursday, but it is not to be eaten before the Resurrection, just like the red eggs. The tsoureki also usually features a brilliant red-dyed egg nestled into its braids.
Tradition has it that the tsoureki symbolizes the Resurrection of Christ, and rebirth in general, as after the dough is molded into shape, it rises and looks like it is alive as it swells and transforms into the finished loaf.
The tsoureki has different names and shapes in different parts of Greece, such as “kofinia,” “kalathakia,” “doksaria,” “avgoulas,” “koutsouna,” “kouzounakia” and others. The most common shape is the braid.
The unique fireworks of Greek Easter
A unique Easter tradition in Greece is the fireworks and firecrackers launched into the skies at midnight when priests across Greece declare that “Christ is Risen.”
It is a moment when the ringing of the bells is drowned out by the the noise of firework displays all across the country, lighting up the skies.
This tradition is fairly recent and its origin is unknown. It is reminiscent of people who fire guns into the air to celebrate a great occasion.
Unfortunately, it is a tradition which always leaves victims behind, such as people suffering burns, sometimes leading to mutilated limbs — even death in more than one case.
Usually, neighboring parishes participate in a “fireworks war” against each other in trying to outdo the “opponent.” It is a tradition that the Church of Greece and authorities have denounced.
Greek Orthodox and western Easter
The Greek Orthodox and western Easter are usually set on different dates. Unlike most European nations, which celebrated on April 4 this year, Greece will celebrate Orthodox Easter on May 2.
Orthodox Churches still use the Julian calendar for Easter, meaning at some times that there can be a weeks-long lag behind the Gregorian that Catholic countries use — and even a weeks-long lag between when Jews celebrate Passover and Easter.
Due to this difference in the measurement of days, the last time the two great Christian denominations shared a date for the celebration was in 2017.
Calculating the dates of Greek Orthodox and western Easter is a complicating factor that has caused debate throughout history.
In the early days of their faith, Christians celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ at different times. It was the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council in 325 AD who came up with a uniform way of setting the date.
The Holy Fathers decreed that Easter was to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox — but always after Passover.
To this day, the Orthodox have stuck with this method of calculating the date of the feast, leading to it usually falling later than in the Western world.
In some years, however, Eastern and western Easter fall on the same date, and this will happen again in the year 2025.
In 1923, a group of Orthodox churches met in Istanbul to re-examine the calendar issue, eventually adopting a controversial position that important religious dates would follow the more astrologically-accurate Georgian calendar — except Easter.