What are the Greek Orthodox Easter Traditions?

In the Greek Orthodox faith, Easter is sacred and celebrated with religious customs, traditional foods and large feasts. While each region in Greece may have its own local customs associated with Easter, there are several traditions that are observed by everyone.  Lent, (fasting) begins 40 days before Easter. In commemoration of the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the dessert.  The fasting involves a strict vegan diet. 

Holy Thursday

Easter preparations begin on Holy Thursday. This is when the traditional koulouria (shortbread biscuits), and Easter bread, tsoureki, is baked.  Eggs are dyed red to represent the blood of Christ shed on the Cross, and the hard shell of the egg symbolizes the sealed Tomb of Jesus.

The red eggs have been a symbol of the renewal of life, carrying the message of the victory over death. For some, the morning of the Holy Thursday, is when they go to Church and receive the Holy Communion.

On the evening of Holy Thursday, church services include a symbolic representation of the crucifixion and the period of mourning begins. In many villages and cities, women will sit in church throughout the night in traditional mourning. 

Holy Friday

The holiest day of the week is Holy Friday. It is a day of mourning.  It is also the only day of the year when the Divine Liturgy is not read. 

Traditionally, women and children take flowers to the church to decorate the Epitaphio (the symbolic bier of Christ). It is the day for the Service of Lamentation, which mourns the death of Christ.

The bier is decorated lavishly with flowers and bears the image of Christ or the Cross. On Friday night, many people go to church to walk in a procession behind the Epitaphio (bier)  which is often carried around the block once and then taken back into the church.

Holy Saturday

On Holy Saturday, the Eternal Flame is lit in the church.

Traditionally, people that have been fasting go to the Church on Saturday morning to receive the Holly Communion. It is common to see lines of people spilling outside the church waiting to receive the communion.  

The main Church service is at midnight.  Everyone who is able, also attends the midnight service. Each person brings a white candle that will be lit at midnight.

There are also special candles that are made for Easter called labatha. They are often given to children as gifts from their parents or Godparents. The lambatha itself is typically white larger than most candlestics, and is often lavishly decorated with crosses, trinkets and small toys.

The Church attendance at Midnight Mass is so large, that the crowds overflow onto the street. Shortly before midnight, all lights are extinguished and the church light is lit by the Eternal Flame on the altar.

When the clock passes midnight, the Priest calls out "Christos Anesti"  "Christ is risen") and passes the flame (the light of the Resurrection) to those nearest him. The flame is then passed from person to person, candlestick to candelstick, and it isn't long before the church and courtyard are glowing with flickering candlelight.

The night air is filled with the singing of the Byzantine Chant "Christos Anesti," and Friends and neighbors exchange "Christos Anesti". In response, they will say "Alithos Anesti"  "truly, He is risen".

It is the custom to carry the Eternal Flame home and use it to make the sign of the cross in smoke on the door frame. (safely).  The smoke cross symbol is left there throughout the year, symbolizing that the light of the Resurrection has blessed the home. The sight of hundreds of candle flames moving from churches to homes on that night is indeed beautiful.

Once home, everyone gathers around the table for a traditional meal to break the fast. This includes the mayiritsa soup or chicken soup, tsoureki (sweet bread), and red eggs, which were prepared earlier. There is a traditional challenge with the red eggs, called tsougrisma (to clash). Holding your egg, you tap the end against the end of your opponent's egg, trying to crack it. It's a game enjoyed by children and adults alike. The cracking of the egg symbolizes Christ resurrection from the dead.

Easter Sunday

Families, neighbours, all get together on Easter Sunday to feast and drink on the resurection of Christ. It is a joyous day.

The customary slow cooking lamb on the spit becomes the main attraction of the day, however, many prefer oven and stovetop lamb dishes.

Ovens are filled with traditional foods such as patates sto fourno (potatoes roasted with lemon and oregano) and spanakopita and tyropita (spinach and cheese pie) and salads.

The meal is a lengthy affair, often lasting long into the night. There is always music, in depth discussions, laughter, lots of love and food shared.  There is always too much food as Greeks tend to overcook, and any leftovers are often given to guests to take home.  Or enjoyed the following day.

Source:  The Spruce Eats