Tis the season to be jolly – Easter is to Cretans, what Christmas is to the Brits. Easter is the most important holiday in Greece and is the most important date in the Greek Orthodox Calendar. This year, Easter according to the Orthodox calendar falls on the weekend of 13-15 April 2012.
Easter is a festival to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after his crucifixion. The period before Easter is characterised by Lent, a time when people will fast to show their penance. The final week of Lent, also known as Holy Week, is when the customs and festivities really begin. To commemorate Holy Week, the wider public will show their respect through a strictly controlled diet where meat, fish and dairy products are completely prohibited. Most Taverna’s will have a special Easter menu on offer, whilst some will close altogether.
Good Friday is marked by a day of mourning to commemorate the death of Jesus Christ. The church bell is rung with a tone of sadness and following the evening prayer, a quiet procession begins with a congregation of worshippers carrying a make-believe coffin through the town. In our hometown of Agios Nikolaos in Eastern Crete, processions will take off from churches around the town to congregate for a communal prayer in the centre square.
Easter Saturday is the home stretch for breaking the fast. The day centres on a celebration of the life of Jesus Christ and a denunciation of Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus. The midnight service is the most important day on the entire Easter calendar. At midnight all the lights are extinguished in the church and the priest emerges from behind the doors on the altar carrying a candle. He then walks to someone in the front row and lights their candle – the person receiving the light of the resurrection will in turn pass the light from candle to candle and the light fills the church. Everybody leaves the church together in a procession led by the priest just before midnight, singing a song the words of which mean, Jesus Christ has risen from the dead.
In Agios Nikolaos, the priest will lead the procession of worshipper’s who are all carrying candles which light up the streets, to the centre square beside the lake. Here, there is an effigy of Judas hanging in the centre of the lake – the priest will board a boat and travel to the effigy where he will set Judas alight with the flame from the church.
As the effigy of Judas comes to light, a series of fireworks erupt in the background – lent is now officially over and families can celebrate the end of the fast. Lamb is the dish of the day and all of Greece is surrounded by families enjoying barbequed lamb. Taverna’s are open for business and the streets are swamped with live music, dancing and the usual mix of local food and drink.
If you plan to visit Crete, you should consider visiting during Easter as it is a unique and fun experience, which you won’t forget in a hurry!