Greek Easter, or Pascha, is the most important holiday for Greeks – even more so than Christmas! Pascha celebrates Jesus Christ’s resurrection and is different from the Christian Easter. Greek Easter uses the Julian calendar to calculate the date and is celebrated one to two weeks after the Christian Easter. Great for us when buying chocolates and Easter goodies!
Greek Easter is a time of great religious and cultural significance, with week-long church services and a midnight mass on the eve before Easter. According to religion, Jesus was crucified and buried on Good Friday, and he rose from the dead on the third day, celebrated on Easter Sunday. For Greeks, this event represents the victory of life over death and hope over despair. During the week preceding Easter, we fast to cleanse our bodies and spirit in preparation for communion on Easter Day. Fasting excludes any foods that contain animals with red blood (meats, poultry, game) and products from these animals (milk, cheese, eggs, etc.). In a sense, this Holy Week turns every Greek into a vegan.
Many religious Easter traditions have been passed down from generation to generation, such as lighting candles during the Holy Saturday Service of the Resurrection. At midnight, when it becomes Easter Sunday, the first candle lights at the church pulpit, and the flame passes from person to person. Tradition says that the first person who has their candle lit by the priest will have luck all year. While this flame goes candle-to-candle, we sing Xristos Anesti (God has risen.) It is quite a breathtaking view to see all the candles lit by the community members at this service. This light symbolizes the light of Christ throughout the world, and after the service, you bring the light to your home and make a symbol of the cross on the top frame of your front doorway. Only then can you extinguish the flame and step into your home (with your right foot first, of course.) The light you bring home is a blessing for you and your family. I am not overly religious, but days like this do move me.
Most religions had their basis on fear – fear of the unknown and fear of what will happen after you leave this world. We have come a long way since people believed the earth was flat and created in seven days. Greek Easter reminds me what faith should be about – goodness, sacrifice, and love. If you believe in the story of Christ (or not), what you can at least take away from it is the meaning behind Easter – that even in the darkest moments of life, there is always hope.
The Roots of Easter
Christians did not invent Easter, but rather the pagans who celebrated the spring equinox. The earliest recorded observance of Easter comes from the 2nd century, although it is very likely that early Christians (along with churches) adopted this pagan celebration into Easter. Painted eggs, an inherent part of Christian and Greek Easter, were a symbol of fertility and rebirth, just as springtime brings new life and rebirth. Greeks dye the eggs red to symbolize the blood and sacrifice of Christ on the cross, a practice that dates back to the early days of Christianity in Mesopotamia. The first egg dyed is for the Virgin Mary and saved in the home for protection against the evil eye. (You bury the previous year’s egg in your garden.)
Today, those bright red eggs are part of another tradition – “tsougrisma” (pronounced tsoo-greez-mah). It means “clinking together” or “clashing” and involves cracking one egg against another. The person with the remaining uncracked egg will have luck throughout the year.
As is evident, bringing luck and good fortune and warding off evil is ingrained in Greek Easter traditions. Superstitions are rooted in historical circumstances, supported by religion, and date back to ancient Babylonia. So, it is no surprise that Easter embraced the idea that certain actions will result in a positive and good outcome. Since the dawn of time, mankind has always been afraid of evil and evil spirits, and the Greeks are no different.
Greek Easter Today
Aside from the religious and superstitious undertones, Greek Easter is truly a time for culinary delights. There are many dishes prepared for the occasion, the most important of which is a lamb roasted on a spit. Greek Easter becomes an all-day celebration, with one family hosting and all coming together to prepare the lamb, the side dishes, and appetizers, and then finally sit and eat. Once cooked, the lamb literally falls off the bone, with guests gathering around the spit for pieces.
Another traditional dish prepared is magiritsa, a lamb tripe soup with greens and herbs. Traditionally, this soup is a meal for after the Holy Saturday service, but it is sometimes also served on Easter day. One of my father’s specialties, this soup is a dish I remember from my early childhood. Another dish is kokoretsi, a skewer of lamb organs wrapped in intestines and seasoned with salt and pepper. Kokoresti is slow-roasted on the spit alongside the lamb and served as an appetizer. A very time-consuming dish to prepare as the intestines need thorough washing and are often difficult to obtain. Both dishes are only for the adventurous eater but are worth a try at least once.
Of course, we must remember the sweets. Traditional Greek Easter bread, tsoureki, is made with plenty of sugar and eggs and served with painted eggs while the lamb slowly cooks. Koulourakia, Greek butter cookies, finish the day’s festivities with a nice cup of coffee. Both are usually prepared beforehand, with all family members bringing a tsoureki, some koulourakia, and some painted eggs as a gift for the host.
Celebrating in Greece
If you ever want to get a true sense of Greek Easter, visit Greece during Easter. Springtime is an excellent time to be in Greece. The comfortable temperatures make it ideal for sightseeing, and Easter celebrations include many beautiful celebrations that you can witness. And we don’t need to talk about the days of feasting that follow. Greeks believe in philoxenia – generosity and hospitality to both friends and strangers. You may find yourself a part of a big Greek Easter food fest!