Sharing the Light at Pascha
The Hellenic world was at its prime when the Byzantine was just rising, and it was in this era in the first centuries Ano Domini, that the traditions fuelling Greek Orthodox Pascha were fused. It was in later centuries that the season of Resurrection and renewal became known as Easter in the Western Roman Empire – and ever since, even though there is a shared liturgical basis in Christianity, how Greeks celebrate the season is V different – and a lot more enjoyable!
First off, the dates generally differ – only every few years do the Julian and Gregorian calendars coincide with the Vernal Equinox to determine the date of Easter/Pascha. The Orthodox Church determines Pascha via the Julian calendar, which often differs from the Gregorian calendar that is used by many Western countries. Therefore Orthodox Pascha often occurs later than Easter – which tends to fall closer to the time of the March equinox. Orthodox Pascha also always falls after Passover to coincide with the Biblical timeline. Western Easter sometimes falls weeks before Passover – which is kind of illogical don’t you think? Especially if you believe in the Passion of the Christ.
Orthodox Pascha, also Easter, is considered a “moveable feast” i.e. an observance in the Christian liturgical calendar that occurs on a different date relative to the dominant solar calendar in different years. The most important set of moveable feasts are a fixed number of days before or after Easter Sunday, which varies since it depends partly on the phase of the vernal spring moon. In Eastern Christianity, these moveable feasts form what is called the Paschal Cycle.
The cycle and spiritual preparation for Pascha begins with Great Lent, which starts on Kathari Deftera, aka Clean Monday and lasts for 40 continuous days. The last week of Great Lent, beginning with Palm Sunday, is known as Holy Week, and ends with the Paschal Vigil with the bringing out of the Holy Fire at Midnight of Pascha/Easter Sunday. It’s absolutely brilliant!
The lighting of the Holy Fire is an annual event that is almost a 2000-year+ ritual in the holiest site of all Christianity: the Church of the Sepulchre, in Jerusalem. The Church is built on the site where according to Christian tradition Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. The ceremony is the holiest event for Orthodox Christianity. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre rests in the Old City (east Jerusalem), and the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic denominations share custody of the church – but only the Orthodox are allowed to participate in the Ceremony of Holy Fire in a ritual dating back at least 1,500 years. Worshipers crowd into the Church during the annual ceremony, as top Eastern Orthodox clerics enter the Aedicule, the small chamber marking the site of Jesus’s tomb.
They then emerge to reveal Lambades said to be miraculously lit with “holy fire” as a message to the faithful from Heaven. The details of the flame’s source are a closely guarded secret steeped in mystery and mysticism. Which calls to my mind the ancient Oracles. Thousands more of the faithful stand in the square outside the Church ready to receive the flame, representing the resurrection of Jesus, which is passed from candle to candle and is then taken back by trains, boats, automobiles and airplanes to Orthodox churches worldwide.
Moving from the liturgical and mystical, Greek foods and traditions mark the season as uniquely Hellenic. The history of Greece traces back far past the beginnings of Christianity, but from the very earliest days of the Christian faith the Islands of Greece and the Greek mainland and diaspora have embraced these beliefs and made them part of our Hellenic heritage. Of all the Christian feast days, Pascha is the greatest time for foods, feasting and celebration to people steeped in the Greek Orthodox faith.
The celebrations for Pascha truly begin two months before with Apokries, aka Carnival. The Apokria season starts on the Sunday of Tiriani (last day to eat dairy before Lent), marks Tsiknopemti, aka Thursday of Grilled Meats (so much meat & so much fun as tavernas across Greece smell like the land of the best BBQ ever!); and ends on Shrovetide Sunday with the Burning of the Carnival King...
The next day, Kathara Deftera is known as Clean Monday – when my mom makes my favourite Greek treat, known as tiganites, which I call Greek “pancakes” but way better!
For Greeks in Greece, Kathara Defterais one of the most festive holidays of the year. It’s a national holiday and perfect for a picnic as the land blooms with colourful local almond trees and mimosas bursting, nature invites children and their parents into the hills of Athens and the Greek countryside.
Flying kites and feasting at local tavernas is how Lent begins in Greece. Grilled octopus, calamari and prawns; tarama, cuttlefish stewed in wine, rice pilaf with mussels; varieties of bean stews and salads; Lenten/vegan dolmades; halva (semolina puddings) and lagana (a yeast-less bread) are some of the unique tastes of the day to be enjoyed accompanied by joyous music.
Holy Week is the peak of the Paschal Cycle, beginning with Palm Sunday. On Holy Thursday, the bright red-dyed eggs that are symbolic of Easter in Greece are prepared. The egg is an ancient symbol of new life and rebirth. In Christianity it became associated with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The custom of red eggs originated in Mesopotamia in Hellenic times in honour of Ishtar. The early Christian community also stained eggs red, but in memory of the Crucifixion and the blood of Christ. As such, for Christians, the Easter egg is a symbol of Christ’s empty tomb. Traditionally, we dye chicken eggs red, but a more modern custom inherited from the West, is to substitute with decorated chocolate, or plastic eggs filled with candy such as jellybeans.But we’re still not into the Easter Bunny! That’s just weird.
Also during Holy Week, Greek families are busy baking koulouria – butter twist cookies; and Tsourekia– traditional, somewhat sweet, braided breads for the Paschal feast.
On Good Friday or Great Friday, flags at homes and government buildings in Greece, are set at half-mast to mark the mournful day. The Procession of the Epitafios, with the symbolic decorated coffin carried through the streets by the faithful is the highlight; but also ritual laments that have survived from Homeric times, and mourn the death of Christ.
Holy Saturday is filled with anticipation of the religious celebration of Holy Fire and the Resurrection. People begin to gather in the churches and squares in cities, towns and villages by 11 p.m. for the Liturgical Paschal services. Large white candles are carried by just about all of the faithful.
For the children, their lambades may be decorated with colourful ribbons and flowers. At midnight the churches and squares go dark. Bells begin to toll as the priests emerge with the Holy Fire, and candles are lit one by one until all is alight around you. It truly is an awesome experience. The priest then triumphantly announces “Christos Anesti! Christ is Risen!” Each of the faithful then responds with joyous responses of “Alithós Anésti – Truly He is Risen”.
Fireworks are set off, and in some areas gunshots are fired (especially in the Mani and throughout Crete). The people leave the churches and crowded squares and make their ways to homes of friends and relatives, even though it’s usually past 2am. The candles they carry are placed in each home and burn through the night to symbolize the Light returned to the world. I usually light our Wedding lambada to burn through the night as a tradition in our home.
Celebrations continue with the cracking of red eggs, which has become a traditional game of strategy.
Each person takes an egg and challengers attempt to crack each other’s eggs – so it really depends how you hold the egg and the aim of your strike. The breaking of the eggs is meant to symbolize Christ breaking from the Tomb – but not many of us remember that as we go in for the win! The person whose egg lasts the longest is assured good luck for the rest of the year. Everyone loves this competition – especially the youngest members of the family. All the leftover hard-boiled eggs then make wonderful egg-salad for the rest of the week 😉
Aside from all the egg-smashing tournaments going on, there is food to eat and celebrate the breaking of the long Lenten fast, with traditional foods such as hiroméri – smoked salted pork; cheeses; Magiritsa –a lemony soup made from the lamb sweetmeats; koulouria; tsourekia; Lambropsomo and other Easter breads. Plenty of Greek wine, retsina and ouzo insure a feast which will last throughout the Paschal night.
After the night of feasting and celebration, everyone is still up early on Easter Sunday morning, especially the menfolk who begin preparing the Paschal Lamb. Served in honour of the Lamb of God who was sacrificed and rose again at the Resurrection, a whole, spiced, lamb cooked over charcoal, is the most traditional of Greek Easter foods. There are some differences as to how the lamb is prepared depending on the family and even the region of Greece. By far, the most common way for Greeks to cook the lamb is by placing it whole on a souvla, or spit. Though you can find mechanized spits that turn automatically (we have one of these now), those are fairly rare. Instead, taking turns rotating the lamb is an important part of the feast – and one I remember fondly.
It’s not just about the lamb – though that is the centerpiece for sure! The Paschal Table is truly set as a feast: Salads of beans, greens and seafood; sausages, souzoukakia and kokoretsi; spanakopita; tiropita; breads, cakes, cookies, wines, ouzo and other libations round out the meal.
Wherever you are celebrating, a Greek Orthodox Sunday celebration lasts throughout the day, and again into the night with visits made to family and friends – where every feast is shared with every guest. So wear comfortable pants 😉 You can sleep it off on Easter Monday…