Easter is the most sacred observance in the Greek Orthodox faith. Preparations and customs remain some of the most traditional in modern Greek life.
Preparations for Easter come to a climax toward the end of Holy Week, between Palm Sunday and Easter. While there are many local customs associated with Easter, there are several observed by all.
Holy (or Great) Thursday
Easter preparations begin on Holy Thursday when the traditional Easter bread, tsoureki, is baked, and eggs are dyed red (red is the color of life as well as a representation of the blood of Christ). From ancient times, the egg has been a symbol of the renewal of life, and the message of the red eggs is victory over death. (More on the history of red eggs at Easter.)
- In times gone by, superstitions grew into customs that included placing the first-dyed red egg at the home's iconostasis (place where icons are displayed) to ward off evil, and marking the heads and backs of small lambs with the red dye to protect them.
Holy Thursday evening, church services include a symbolic representation of the crucifixion, and the period of mourning begins. In many villages - and in cities as well - women will sit in church throughout the night, in traditional mourning.
Holy (or Great) Friday
The holiest day of Holy Week is Holy Friday. It is a day of mourning, not of work (including cooking). It is also the only day during the year when the Divine Liturgy is not read. Flags are hung at half-mast and church bells ring all day in a slow mournful tone.
Many devout do not cook on Holy Friday, but if they do, traditional foods are simple, perhaps boiled in water (no oil) and seasoned with vinegar - like beans - or thin soups like tahinosoupa, a soup made with tahini.
Traditionally, women and children take flowers to the church to decorate the Epitaphio (the symbolic bier of Christ). The Service of Lamentation mourns the death of Christ and the bier, decorated lavishly with flowers and bearing the image of Christ, is carried on the shoulders of the faithful in a procession through the community to the cemetery, and back. Members of the congregation follow, carrying candles.
Holy (or Great) Saturday
On Holy Saturday, the Eternal Flame is brought to Greece by military jet, and is distributed to waiting Priests who carry it to their local churches. The event is always televised and if there's a threat of bad weather or a delay, the entire country agonizes until the flame arrives safely.
On the morning of Holy Saturday, preparations begin for the next day’s Easter feast. Dishes that can be prepared in advance are made, and the traditional mayiritsa soup is prepared, which will be eaten after the midnight service, to break the fast.
The midnight Service of the Resurrection is an occasion attended by everyone who is able, including children, each holding a white candle.
- Special candles made for Easter are called “labatha” (lah-BAH-thah) and are often given as gifts to children from their parents or God-parents. These candles can be lavishly decorated with favorite children’s heroes or storybook characters, and may be as much as three feet tall, but the candle itself is usually white. These candles are only used for one Easter midnight service.