For those of you that aren't aware, my background is Greek, and with Easter just around the corner, I decided that this post should be about my family's Greek Easter Traditions. I’m not a hugely religious person, however i really enjoy the lead up to Easter and the traditions (old and new) that brings my family together every year.
Easter or Paska is the most celebrated feast in Greek culture.
The date of Greek Orthodox Easter is based on a modified Julian calendar (the Western world uses a Gregorian calendar). This is why our Easter celebration doesn't always occur at the same time as Christian celebrations. This year, we celebrate Easter on April 12th, a week later than most of you are celebrating!
Great Lent officially begins on "Clean Monday", seven weeks before Paska and runs for 40 continuous days. This fast does not end until midnight Easter Saturday.
Observance of Great Lent is categorized by fasting and abstinence from certain foods, intensified private & public prayer, self-examination, confession, personal improvement, repentance and restitution. The foods that are traditionally abstained from are meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, wine and olive oil. My grandmother is 78 and still does this every year for 40 days. She is amazing! Although I think the older she gets, the harder it is for her to stick to such a strict fast, as her body is probably not able to hold onto nutrients as it used to. For the rest of my family, we only fast for Holy Week, although I would like to give it a go for the whole 40 days one year!
Holy Week (Megali Evthomatha - literally meaning Big Week) begins on Palm Sunday. For my family, on this day with my mother and grandmother, we get together and bake our traditional Easter biscuits - koulourakia. Traditionally these are made to be eaten after Holy Saturday. Between the three of us we make well over 350 biscuits! This normally takes us about 4 hours. My mum and I first started making koulourakia with my grandmother for Easter back in 1997 and it’s something that I hope we continue to do with my children. This is also a day where fish is permitted to be eaten, so after our day of baking, we sit down all together and eat a meal of fish and vegetables.
On Holy Thursday, Easter bread (Tsoureki) is baked. My husband’s grandmother makes these and they are normally given out to family members on Easter Sunday. I would love to learn how to make this one day, as no one in my immediate family bakes it. On this day, eggs are also dyed red. The red represents the colour of life as well as the blood of Christ. From ancient times, the egg has been a symbol of renewal of life and the message of the red eggs is victory over death. In the evening, church services include a symbolic representation of the crucifixion, and the period of mourning begins.
Good Friday (Megali Paraskevi) is considered the holiest day of Holy Week. It is a day of mourning, and not of work (including cooking). Many devout do not cook on Good Friday, but if they do, foods are simple. Women and children take flowers to church to decorate the Epitaphio (symbolic of the coffin of Christ). In the evening, we gather at church for the Service of Lamentation, where the Epitaphio is carried on the shoulders of members of the faithful, in a precession around the block with members of the congregation following behind carrying candles.
On Holy Saturday we gather at church in the morning to take communion. The midnight service of The Resurrection is attended by everyone who is able to go, including children, who each hold a white candle. These special candles (lambathes) are made especially for Easter. Traditionally they are given to children by their Godparents. They are decorated lavishly and are only ever used for midnight mass at Easter. Just before midnight, all the lights are turned out in the church and the only light comes from the Holy Flame on the altar. When the clock strikes midnight, the priest calls out Christos Anesti (Christ has risen) and passes the Holy Flame to those closest to him. My cousin Phil always makes sure he is at the front of the church to receive the Holy Flame from the priest for my grandmother. The flame is then passed from person to person where wishes of Christos Anesti and Alithos Anesti (truly, He is risen) are exchanged. It is custom to then carry the flame home (can't you just imagine all of us trying not to catch anyone on fire in the car trying to take this flame home?!)
We always go back to my grandmother's place after midnight mass to "break the fast" which includes magiritsa soup (though she doesn't make the traditional soup - made from lamb offal - eww), tsoureki and the breaking of the red eggs.
On Easter Sunday we gather for lunch with my husband’s side of the family for a massive feast. But we have to be mindful not to eat too much because dinner time we head back to my grandmothers place where another feast awaits!
Easter is a big deal to my family... and I’m sure most Greeks would agree, it’s a bigger deal than Christmas. I’m really glad I could share some of our traditions with you... What are your Easter traditions?