Holy Friday, or Good Friday, is a profoundly mournful day in Greece which commemorates the Passion of Christ with the traditional Epitaphios processions.
A nationwide affair, it recalls the moments leading up to and including the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, as told in the New Testament of the Bible.
Even the most remote churches honor the tradition of the Epitaphios (Bier of Christ), creating a pious atmosphere full of tradition.
The word ‘epitaphios’ is an adjective meaning “funerary, happening on a grave;” it is the Greek title for Thucydides’ famous “Pericles’ Funeral Oration,” and the origin of the word epitaph.
Within a liturgical context, this is also the name of an icon, usually made of cloth and richly embroidered, depicting the body of Christ being laid in the grave, often by the Virgin Mary and several disciples.
On the morning of Good Friday, the Epitaphios is decorated with spring flowers—mostly white, red, and purple—until it is entirely covered.
The Tomb is often sprinkled with flower petals and rosewater, decorated with candles, and ceremonially censed as a mark of respect.
The priest and faithful then venerate the Epitaphios as the choir chants hymns, called the “Epitaphic Lamentation.”
Epitaphios processions on Holy Friday march into the sea
The epitaph procession begins around the streets of the city with bells ringing the funeral toll, commemorating the burial procession of Christ. Accompanying the solemn procession are the people of the congregation, who continuously chant the Lamentations.
At the end of the procession, the Epitaphios is brought back to the church. Occasionally, after the clergy carry the Epitaphios back into the church, they might stop just inside the entrance to the church and hold the Epitaphios above the door, so that all who enter the church pass under it.
The faithful continue to visit the tomb and venerate the Epitaphios throughout Holy Saturday.
These practices vary according to regional traditions.
Perhaps most impressive is that in some coastal towns, most notably on the islands of Hydra and Tinos, the Epitaphios is carried to the beach and the men carrying it march right into the sea until they are at least waist-deep in water where they may remain for several minutes, often holding the bier over their heads to protect it.
During this time, prayers are said for the welfare and safe return of the many seafarers returning from those communities.
Local Greek traditions on Good Friday
In many Greek towns, women used to clean the streets just before the Epitaph procession passed by, and as soon as the procession arrived, they would stand at their doors holding a roof tile containing a small piece of charcoal and incense.
Meanwhile, on the evening of Good Friday, in Nafpaktos in western Greece, the crowd, comprised of both locals and visitors, follows the Epitaph procession, passing through the port where locals light torches and place them across the castle wall.
Torches are also placed in the middle of the port, forming a large cross and offering a unique and spectacular spectacle to the people following the procession.
In Crete, locals boil snails and drink their juice, which is very bitter. In Koroni in the Peloponnese, people do not eat anything during the whole day while in many other Greek villages, the men refrain from any manual work, especially any involving nails because it reminds one of Jesus’ death.
In Naxos, people do not kiss on Good Friday because Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. The women gather to clean churches and decorate the Epitaph before following the procession.
In Syros, Easter is celebrated with great amity. Both religious communities, the Orthodox and the Catholic, commemorate the death of Christ together.
The Cyclades are perhaps the only region across the world where Catholics celebrate Easter alongside the Orthodox. Two religious worlds meet at the island’s main square to celebrate Good Friday with devoutness and mutual respect.