Saturday, April 18, 2020

Remembrances of Greek Easters Past


Tomorrow is Easter in Greece, by far the main event in Orthodoxy.  It is preceded by more than a week of significant religious and cultural observations.  And on Mykonos, Easter literally brings the island back to life.  But this year, protecting life is the order of the day. Not just on Mykonos, but across the nation.

The Greek government—but more importantly the Greek people—have received great praise for their rapid response to battling the Covid-19 pandemic.  Staying locked down at home and strict social distancing is an anathema to the Greek way of life, but the people have accepted it. 

Both were imposed early on by the government, but perhaps its most significant decision was what it did to gain and maintain the confidence and support of the Greek people.  It did so by selecting a low-key scientist, Dr. Sotiris Tsiodras, to lead the nation’s response to the crisis, and to serve as the spokesman giving daily briefings to the nation on where things honestly stood.

Dr. Sotiris Tsiodras

As of April 17, Greece had managed to keep its number of cases to 2,240 (of 2,240,768 worldwide), and deaths to 108 (of 153,871 worldwide).  The biggest test of the nation’s commitment to following its government’s recommendations comes this Easter weekend, with places of worship ordered closed, traditional mass gatherings banned, at home celebrations severely limited, and travel around the nation sharply curtailed. 

But, rather than ruminating on what this weekend may bring, or on the plague that haunts us all, I’d rather think about what life will be like once we return to celebrating the Easter holidays in all their glory. So, let me take you back to those days on Mykonos as a guide to our return to the future.

In the winter, Mykonos is a sleepy island village with virtually no tourists, no business, few open bars, fewer restaurants, and no clubs.  But come Easter Week everything changes.  Red and yellow springtime poppies burst to life all over the island’s hillsides, and those and still more varieties of flowers embroider the blanket of green covering the nearby holy island of Delos.  There are Church services every day of Holy Week, as well as daily preparations for the feast to come at the end.  Breads and cookies are readied on Monday and Tuesday, baking is done on Wednesday, and eggs are dyed red on Thursday, the day before Christ was put up on the Cross.

By Thursday, Mykonos is filled with mainland Greeks flocking to their vacation homes and others looking to participate in a perfect example of spiritual and temporal coexistence: Easter church rituals strictly observed during the day, followed by the island’s as nearly hallowed party traditions through the night.  But that taste of the coming mid-summer craziness is short lived, for if you don’t catch the action that weekend come by in June, because Mykonos is back in hibernation come Tuesday. At least that’s how it’s been up to this year, but with local and EU Parliament elections coming at the end of May, and tourists already streaming onto the island, we shall see.

Evening services on Good Friday start at seven in the old town’s three main churches, Kiriake, Metropolis, and Panachra.  At precisely nine, each church’s clergy and worshipers leave their church in separate processions carrying their church’s epitaphios (the painted or embroidered cloth representation of Christ on a bier elaborately adorned in spring flowers and symbolizing his tomb) along a prearranged route, winding past the other two churches before ending up back at their own to complete the service.  It represents the funeral of Christ, and Mykonians and visitors line the route, some standing on balconies and sprinkling the participants below with a mixture of rose water and perfumes, the rodhonoro used on Christ’s body when taken down from the cross.

The same three churches serve as the scene of the following night’s Holy Saturday services.  Most generally start heading off to church around ten, but for certain everyone is there by midnight.  For that is the high point of Easter, when church bells ring out across Greece and even total strangers exchange the traditional Christos Anesti and Alithos Anesti greetings that Christ has risen, kiss each other, and light each other’s candles to share the light and joy of the occasion—a light brought to Greece for just this purpose from the Holy Flame of Christ’s nativity cave in Jerusalem.  Worshipers carry the light back into their homes or their favorite restaurants, except for the hearty souls who remain in church for the balance of a service that lasts hours more into the morning.

Now it is time to challenge each other with the customary one-to-one smacking of those dyed-red eggs for good luck to the winner (mine always cracks first) and devour the traditional mayiritsa soup (made from parts of a lamb you may ask me about if you really want to know), fluffy tsoureki easter bread, and salads to break the forty-day fast leading up to Easter.

But the big feast, the one everyone looks forward to, comes on Sunday.  That’s when all the work of the week and all the spring lambs find their purpose.  There is church, too, of course, but this day is more about celebrating with family and friends.  And eating.

Dieting starts Monday.  Kalo Paska, God Bless, and STAY SAFE.



  1. As I also wrote of Greek Easter this week, past and present, this year will be remembered for 'the sounds of silence' -- that lack of church bells, and the sound of the villages returning to life. It is an eerie time, especially when remembering how Easter used to be and how -hopefully - it will, one day be again. Kalo Paska! And you stay safe and healthy as well! (Your book arrived from Book Depository -- six weeks after it began 'winging its way' to me from London!)

  2. It is folk like you, Jackie and Joel, that keep the spirit of Greece alive in the souls of non-Greeks and filotimo spreading across the globe. Thank you for that. On the subject of my book finally making it to you, I guess that's another Easter miracle. :) Stay safe!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing. I would love to be able to experience this celebration one day.

  4. How I miss Greek and Romanian Easter - generally, because I live in the UK now, but especially this year. But the good times will come again.

  5. Easter was weird for me this year with no family gathering. I do want to say, though, that my Siracusan grandmother made that Easter treat of sweet bread with an egg baked in. My gift was shaped like a baby wrapped in a blanket. My brother's like a basket with an egg in it. Our eggs were not dyed. Food coloring, Nonna thought, was bad for your health.