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Since its origins, Easter has been a time of celebration and feasting and many Traditional Easter games and customs developed, such as egg rolling, egg tapping, Pace egging and egg decorating. Today Easter is commercially important, seeing wide sales of greeting cards and confectionery such as chocolate Easter eggs, marshmallow bunnies, Peeps, and jelly beans, as well as other Easter foods. Even many non-Christians celebrate these aspects of the holiday while eschewing the religious aspects.
Customs around the world
Easter is the most sacred observance in the Greek Orthodox faith. Preparations and customs remain some of the most traditional in modern Greek life.
(Sample traditional Easter menu) 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 to make red Easter eggs (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.
Crowds are so big that churches fill to overflowing as anticipation mounts. Shortly before midnight, all lights are extinguished and churches are lit only 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, and it isn't long before the church and courtyard are filled with flickering candlelight. The night air is filled with the singing of the Byzantine Chant "Christos Anesti," and the "fili tis Agapis" (kiss of Agape) and wishes are exchanged. As is the custom, as soon as "Christos Anesti" is called out, church bells ring joyously non-stop, ships in ports all over Greece sound their horns, floodlights are lit on large buildings, and great and small displays of fireworks and noisemakers are set off.
Traditional Easter Wishes
Once the Priest has called out "Christos Anesti," friends and neighbors exchange the same, saying "Christos Anesti" and, in response, "Alithos Anesti" (truly, He is risen) or "Alithinos o Kyrios" (true is the Lord).
Christos Anesti say: khree-STOHSS ah-NES-tee Alithos Anesti say: ah-lee-THOHSS ah-NES-tee Alithinos o Kyrios say: ah-lee-thee-NOHSS o KEE-ree-yohss It is the custom to carry the Eternal Flame home and use it to make the sign of the cross on the door frame in smoke. The smoke cross is left there throughout the year, symbolizing that the light of the Resurrection has blessed the home. The candles are used to light icon candelabra, and are put on the table for the midnight meal. The sight of hundreds of candle flames moving from churches to homes on that night is beautiful, indeed.
Once home, everyone gathers around the table for a traditional meal to break the fast, which includes the mayiritsa soup, tsoureki (sweet bread), and the red eggs. But before the eggs are eaten, there's a traditional challenge: "tsougrisma." 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. Eggs are often made in very large quantities since the game continues on the next day with more friends and family.
At dawn (or earlier) on Easter Sunday, the spits are set to work, and grills are fired up. The customary main attraction of the day is whole roasted lamb or goat (kid) to represent the Lamb of God, however many prefer oven and stovetop lamb or kid dishes. Ovens are filled with traditional accompaniments and all the trimmings. Great Greek wines, ouzo, and other drinks flow freely, and preparations for the meal turn into festive celebrations even before the eating begins. These high-spirited gatherings often last long into the night.
Another national holiday.
GREEK ORTHODOX EASTER
Considered the most important holiday on the Greek calendar, the celebration of Orthodox Easter (Pascha, Greek: Πάσχα) is unique in almost every corner of Greece. Special traditions mark not only the mourning of Christ’s Crucifixion and the celebration of Resurrection, but also the passage from winter to spring.
The uniqueness in celebrating Easter the traditional Greek way lies more in the week leading up to the event (Holy Week) rather than the actual religious holiday.
The word "Pascha" derives from the Jewish "Pasah" which means "Passover". Jewish people celebrated "Pasah" to commemorate their liberation from the Egyptians and the passage of the Red sea. While in the ancient Greek years, Easter time coincided with the month of Anthesterion (the flowering month), a celebration of spring and the rebirth of vegetation.
ORTHODOX HOLY WEEK
Saturday of Lazarus
Holy Week is the last week of Lent, the week immediately preceding Easter Sunday. The week of Easter begins on the Saturday of Lazarus with children going from door to door singing the hymn of "Lazaros" and collecting money and eggs.
Palm Sunday observes the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem that was marked by the crowds, who were in Jerusalem for Passover, waving palm branches and proclaiming him as the messianic king. The branches of the palm trees symbolize Christ's victory over the devil and death.
On Holy Monday the Church tells us the parable of the barren fig tree.The first days of Holy Week remind us of Christ's last instructions with his disciples. These teachings inspire the readings and hymns which are consisted of Great Compline, Matins, Hours and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts with Vespers.
The need for true repentance is the concern of Holy Tuesday evening's service. The Gospel tells Christ’s prophecy of His second coming and the Last Judgment.
On Holy Wednesday afternoon the Orthodox Church administers the sacrament of Holy Unction for the bodily and spiritual health of the participants.
Holy Thursday celebrates the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with the Apostles. In the evening, the Holy Passion service of the reading of the Twelve Gospels is conducted and the crucifixion is re-enacted. In these readings Christ's last instructions to his disciples are presented, as well as the prophecy of the drama of the Cross.
Friday of Holy Week, traditionally been called Good Friday, is a day of mourning in church. It commemorates the execution of Jesus by crucifixion. The drama of the death of Christ is followed with great devoutness. Early in the morning, parish girls collect spring flowers for the epitaph (bier). Vesper evening on Good Friday, is followed by the procession of the bier. Mournful dirges are heard all day and culminate in the evening with the spirtitually uplifting candlelit procession of the epitaph through the streets.
On Holy Saturday evening, the Resurrection mass takes place. At midnight the ceremony of lighting of candles is the most significant moment of the year. People, carefully, take home their lighted candles with the holy light of the Resurrection. Before entering their houses they make a cross with the smoke of the candle on top of the door, they light the oil candle before their icon-stand, and try to keep this light burning throughout the year.
The Lenten fast ends on Easter Sunday when friends and family gather in homes, eating lamb on the spit and dyed eggs. This day is also called "Lambri" (Brightness) because the day of the Resurrection of Christ is a day full of joy and exhilaration.
If you Know little of the history or theology of the Greek Orthodox Church and wish to learn more, Timothy Kallistos Ware’s, "The Orthodox Church" (Penguin, 1993) is a good start. Bishop Ware's approach covers virtually all aspects of Orthodox Christianity - history, theology, and church organization. His approach is ecumenical, addressing issues that unite and divide Christianity.Due to his background as an Oxford academic who embraced Orthodoxy, Kallistos Ware is particularly qualified to fully explain Orthodox Christianity to the English Speaking world. Moreover, you may browse through the Church of Greece "Myriobiblos" e-text library for views on Orthodox Christian theology and culture. Kallistos Ware interview... A Critique of "The Orthodox Church"...
From Fasting to Festive Dishes
The traditional services and customs of Orthodox Easter are inevitably linked with both fasting and festive foods. When the Christians began to celebrate Easter, they retained some of the features of the Jewish Passover, such as eating lamb. In Byzantine times, it was the custom to bake ring-bread with a dyed red egg in the middle. The egg is a symbol of life, while red is the color of life.
During Holy Week complete fasting is to take place. Palm Sunday, which is the first day of the Holy Week, is a day when only fish and fish courses are served. On Good Friday, sweet things are not eaten - for the love of Christ, who was given vinegar to drink. Soup made with sesame-paste, lettuce or lentils with vinegar is the food eaten on this day.
Following 40 days of fasting, the traditional Pascha meal is a banquet of meat, eggs and other long - forbidden animal products. Cheese, eggs, and richly scented breads play an important part on the table, but the meal is always centered around meat. On Easter Sunday celebration begins early in the morning with the cracking of red eggs and an outdoor feast of roast lamb followed by dancing.
The Easter table reflects the culinary differences around Greece. Recipes have evolved based on the lie of the land, on what is available place by place, and on the tastes and origins of local populations.
"Mageiritsa" made almost universally from any variety of chopped, sauteed innards, herbs and lettuce, and bound with avgolemono, the country's well-known egg-and-lemon sauce-is not the dish of choice with which to break the fast.
"Lamb" (or goat on the islands) is the traditional Easter meat served throughout Greece, although how it’s cooked varies from region to region. Spit-roast lamb, which originated in Roumeli, is now the prevalent tradition, but many areas preserve their distinctive way of preparing the Easter dish. On many islands–including Andros, Samos, Naxos, and Rhodes–lamb is stuffed with rice and herbs, then baked in the oven.
One of the nicest Greek customs is the use of "red eggs" for the Easter celebration Greeks mainly color eggs red (scarlet) to signify the blood of Christ. They use hard-boiled eggs, painted red on Holy Thursday. People rap their eggs against their friends' eggs and the owner of the last uncracked egg is considered lucky.
There are many other delicacies included in the Paschal feast depending on the region of Greece. Included in these are cheese pittes, regional fresh cheeses and yogurt served with honey. As previously mentioned the sweets include special tsoureki and of course, the koulouria tis Lambris (Paschal cookies).
THE HOLY LIGHT
On Holy Saturday at the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Patriarch enters the Holy Sepulchre alone to pray. Moments later he emerges with burning tapers to proclaim that Christ has risen, and the bells ring out. The "holy fire", he miraculously receives, in this annual, centuries - old ritual, from the entirely darkened chamber surrounding Christ's place of burial, is later flown to Athens Airport. From there it is received by a guard of honour and it is taken to distant parts of Greece. The flame arrives in Athens at the church of Ayioi Anargyroi in Plaka, seat of the representative of the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem to the archbishop of Athens, from whence it is distributed to the churches of Attica for the midnight service.
These are customs related to the religious holiday of Easter which is the biggest celebration of the Orthodox Christians and the one richest in folklore. All over the country a plethora of customs and traditions are observed during the week prior to and during Easter. There is a festive atmosphere everywhere and people eat and dance usually until late into the night.
Many places in Greece celebrate Easter in their own way. A few examples:
On the island of Patmos the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet takes place on Holy Thursday morning. It is based on the New Testament and can be compared to corresponding Byzantine customs. On the island of Tinos, on Good Friday, Jesus Christ’s Holy Sepulchres (of both Orthodox and Catholic churches) meet at the port of the island. The members of the clergy chant together and the portable Holy Sepulchre of the church of Aghios Nicolaos goes into the sea. In Vrodathos on the island of Chios, once the psalm commemorating the ascension of Christ begins, on Holy Saturday, fireworks light up the midnight sky.
On the island of Corfu the patron saint Spyridon is celebrated. His body, that has not decomposed, is carried around and is believed to perform miracles. On Easter Saturday ceramic pots are thrown out of people's windows to throw away Evil.
On the island of Crete, as well as in any places around Greece, a doll is made of old clothes from each house hold and burned symbolizing the burning of Judas.
In Central Greece, in Nafpaktos, on the evening of Good Friday, large crowds of people who accompany the epitaph, pass through the town's harbour where lighted torches have been placed for this purpose on the fortress surrounding it. In the centre of the entrance to the fortress, the torches form a large cross, which lights up the harbour, creating a scene of unforgettable beauty.
In Leonidio in Peloponnese on the night of the Resurrection the sky is filled with hot-air balloons released by the faithful of each parish.
In Thrace and Macedonia young women in traditional clothing called the Lazarins go around the villages singing traditional Easter songs.
The official information gate to Greek rural tourism: Easter Celebrations Around Greece
Greek National Tourism Organisation: Easter Customs
As well as the common painted easter egg bump, in Cyprus it is customary for people to light great fires (Greek: λαμπρατζια) in schools or church yards. The fires are made up of scrap wood, gathered usually by over-enthusiastic young boys which scour their neighborhoods for them, in order to make their fire as great as it can be (and bigger than the neighboring one). More than often this competition leads to fights happening over scraps of wood and the police or fire department being called to put out the fires that have gone out of control. It is customary for a small doll representing Judas Iscariot to be burnt.
Central and Eastern Europe
Many central and eastern European ethnic groups, including the Albanians, Armenians, Belarusians, Bulgarians, Croats, Czechs, Georgians, Germans, Hungarians, Latvians Lithuanians, Macedonians, Poles, Romanians, Russians, Serbs, Slovaks, Slovenes, and Ukrainians decorate eggs for Easter.
In Bulgaria the Easter eggs are decorated on Thursday before Easter or at Saturday before Easter. Widespread tradition is to fight with eggs by pair and one's egg become last surviving is called borak (Bulgarian: борак, fighter). The tradition is to display the decorated eggs on the Easter table together with the Easter dinner consisting of roasted lamb, a salad called Easter salad (lettuce with cucumbers) and a sweet bread called kozunak.
In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, a tradition of spanking or whipping is carried out on Easter Monday. In the morning, men spank women with a special handmade whip called a pomlázka (in Czech) or korbáč (in Slovak), in eastern regions of foremer Czechoslovakia Moravia and Slovakia they also throw cold water on them. The pomlázka/korbáč consists of eight, twelve or even twenty-four withies (willow rods), is usually from half a meter to two meters long and decorated with coloured ribbons at the end. The spanking may be painful, but it's not intended to cause suffering. A legend says that women should be spanked with a whip in order to keep their health and beauty during the whole next year.
An additional purpose can be for men to exhibit their attraction to women; unvisited women can even feel offended. Traditionally, the spanked woman gives a coloured egg (kraslica) prepared by themselves, invites to eat and drink as a sign of her thanks to the man. If the visitor is a small boy, he is usually provided with sweets, and a small amount of money.
In some regions, the women can get revenge in the afternoon or the following day when they can pour a bucket of cold water on any man. The habit slightly varies across Slovakia and the Czech Republic. A similar tradition existed in Poland (where it is called Dyngus Day), but it is now little more than an all-day water fight.
In Germany, decorated eggs are hung on branches of bushes and trees to make them Easter egg trees. Eggs also used to dress wells for Easter, the Osterbrunnen, most prominently in the Fränkische Schweiz (Franconian Switzerland).
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia, a basket of food is prepared and covered with a handmade cloth, and brought to the church to be blessed. A typical Easter basket includes bread, colored eggs, ham, horseradish, and a type of nut cake called "potica".
The butter lamb (Baranek wielkanocny) is a traditional addition to the Easter Meal for many Polish Catholics. Butter is shaped into a lamb either by hand or in a lamb-shaped mould.
In Hungary, Transylvania, Southern Slovakia, Kárpátalja, Northern Serbia - Vojvodina and other territories with Hungarian-speaking communities, the day following Easter is called Locsoló Hétfő, "Watering Monday". Men usually visit families with girls and women. Water, perfume or perfumed water is sprinkled on the women and girls of the house by the visiting men, who are given in exchange an Easter egg.
Throughout the English-speaking world, many Easter traditions are similar with only minor differences. For example, Saturday is traditionally spent decorating Easter eggs and hunting for them with children on Sunday morning, by which time they have been mysteriously hidden all over the house and garden. Other traditions involve parents telling their children that eggs and other treats such as chocolate eggs or rabbits, and marshmallow chicks (Peeps), have been delivered by the Easter Bunny in an Easter basket, which children find waiting for them when they wake up. Many families observe the religious aspects of Easter by attending Sunday Mass or services in the morning and then participating in a feast or party in the afternoon. Some families have a traditional Sunday roast, often of either roast lamb or ham. Easter breads such as Simnel cake, a fruit cake with eleven marzipan balls representing the eleven faithful apostles, or nut breads such as potica are traditionally served. Hot cross buns, spiced buns with a cross on top, are traditionally associated with Good Friday, but today are often eaten well before and after.
In New Zealand, the Auckland Easter Show is an annual tradition.
In Louisiana, USA, egg tapping is known as egg knocking. Marksville, Louisiana claims to host the oldest egg-knocking competition in the US, dating back to the 1950s. Competitors pair up on the steps of the courthouse on Easter Sunday and knock the tips of two eggs together. If the shell of your egg cracks you have to forfeit it, a process that continues until just one egg remains.
In the British Overseas Territory of Bermuda, historically famous for growing and exporting the Easter lily, the most notable feature of the Easter celebration is the flying of kites to symbolize Christ's ascent. Traditional Bermuda kites are constructed by Bermudians of all ages as Easter approaches, and are normally only flown at Easter. In addition to hot cross buns and Easter eggs, fish cakes are traditionally eaten in Bermuda at this time.
In Jamaica, eating bun and cheese is a highly anticipated custom by Jamaican nationals all over the world. The Jamaica Easter Buns are spiced and have raisins, and baked in a loaf tin. The buns are sliced and eaten with a slice of cheese. It is a common practice for employers to make gifts of bun and cheese or a single loaf of bun to staff members. According to the Jamaica Gleaner, "The basic Easter bun recipe requires wheat flour, brown sugar, molasses, baking powder or yeast and dried fruits." Easter egg traditions and the Easter Bunny activities are not widespread in Jamaica.
In Florence, Italy, the unique custom of the Scoppio del carro is observed in which a holy fire lit from stone shards from the Holy Sepulchre are used to light a fire during the singing of the Gloria of the Easter Sunday mass, which is used to ignite a rocket in the form of a dove, representing peace and the holy spirit, which following a wire in turn lights a cart containing pyrotechnics in the small square before the Cathedral.
The Netherlands, Belgium and France
Church bells are silent as a sign of mourning for one or more days before Easter in The Netherlands, Belgium and France. This has led to an Easter tradition that says the bells fly out of their steeples to go to Rome (explaining their silence), and return on Easter morning bringing both colored eggs and hollow chocolate shaped like eggs or rabbits.
In both The Netherlands and Flemish-speaking Belgium many of more modern traditions exist alongside the Easter Bell story. The bells ("de Paasklokken") leave for Rome on Holy Saturday, called "Stille Zaterdag" (literally "Silent Saturday") in Dutch.
In French-speaking Belgium and France the same story of Easter Bells (« les cloches de Pâques ») bringing eggs from Rome is told, but church bells are silent beginning Maundy Thursday, the first day of the Paschal Triduum.
Netherlands and Northern Germany
In the northern and eastern parts of the Netherlands (Twente and Achterhoek), Easter Fires (in Dutch: "Paasvuur") are lit on Easter Day at sunset. Easter Fires also take place on the same day in large portions of Northern Germany ("Osterfeuer").
In Norway, in addition to staying at mountain cabins, cross-country skiing and painting eggs, a contemporary tradition is to read or watch murder mysteries at Easter. All the major television channels run crime and detective stories (such as Agatha Christie's Poirot), magazines print stories where the readers can try to figure out "Whodunnit", and new detective novels are scheduled for publishing before Easter. Even the milk cartons are altered for a couple of weeks. Each Easter a new short mystery story is printed on their sides. Stores and businesses close for five straight days at Easter, with the exception of grocery stores, which re-open for a single day on the Saturday before Easter Sunday.
In Finland, Sweden and Denmark, traditions include egg painting and small children dressed as witches collecting candy door-to-door, in exchange for decorated pussy willows. This is a result of the mixing of an old Orthodox tradition (blessing houses with willow branches) and the Scandinavian Easter witch tradition. Brightly coloured feathers and little decorations are also attached to birch branches in a vase. In Finland, it is common to plant rye grass in a pot as a symbol of spring and new life. After the grass has grown, many people put chick decorations on it. Children busy themselves painting eggs and making paper bunnies.
For lunch or dinner on Holy Saturday, families in Sweden and Denmark traditionally feast on a smörgåsbord of herring, salmon, potatoes, eggs, and other kinds of food. In Finland, it is common to eat roasted lamb with potatoes and other vegetables. In Finland, the Lutheran majority enjoys mämmi as another traditional Easter treat, while the Orthodox minority's traditions include eating pasha (also spelled paskha) instead.
In the western parts of Sweden, bonfires have at least since the 18th century been lit during Holy Saturday. This tradition is claimed to have its origin in Holland. During the last decades though, the bonfires have in many places been moved to Walpurgis Night, as this is the traditional date for bonfires in many other parts of the country.
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- Woolery, Marsha N. (March 27, 2013). "The Good Old Easter Bun And Cheese Tradition". Jamaica Gleaner (Gleaner Company). Retrieved March 24, 2014.
- Geographia.com accessed March 22, 2008.