Rick Steves’ European Easter: Greek Orthodox Celebrations

By | September 4, 2019


In Greece,
in the city of Nafplio, the warmth of spring
is in the air and crowds of people
are out enjoying the weather and preparing
for the big Easter holiday. Here, Easter is celebrated
with a distinct style. For Greek Orthodox Christians, it’s the most celebrated holiday
of the year. Because Eastern Orthodox
Christians use a different calendar
than Western Christians, Orthodox Easter usually falls
on a different Sunday. The Greek Orthodox ritual
may feel exotic and mystical to many Western eyes and ears. But the storyline is the same,
with a few mesmerizing twists. While worshipping, Orthodox Christians believe
standing empowers prayers, and incense helps involve
all the senses. The priest typically has
a long beard, a sign of wisdom,
experience, and respect. He periodically retreats behind an icon-covered wall
called an “iconostasis.” Then, to involve all gathered, he circulates
among the faithful. [ Man singing in Greek ] In the Greek Orthodox tradition, the events of Good Friday
start the night before. For hours people gather,
eventually packing the church. As candles flicker, all generations
chant and pray together, awaiting each step of
the Easter story as it unfolds. The cantors
blend music and prayer to heighten the atmosphere
of reverence. [ Men singing in Greek ] Eventually, the priest
brings the crucified Christ out from behind the iconostasis. [ Priest singing in Greek ] After being carried
around the church, Jesus is lovingly decked
in flowers. The passionate congregation then crowds around
to kiss the feet of Jesus. The ritual of mourning
continues through the night. Around midnight,
as Good Friday arrives, women decorate
what’s called the “epitaph,” or symbolic tomb of Jesus,
while the choir chants. Well into the wee hours, it’s a family affair
filled with tenderness as flowers create
a fragile and beautiful monument to their loss and love. [ All singing in Greek ] [ Man singing in Greek ] After dawn,
a Good Friday service is held. Christ is removed
from the cross. His body is then carried
behind the iconostasis. Eventually,
the priest re-emerges, carrying a shroud representing
the crucified Christ. He reverently leads it through
the congregation of mourners. Eventually,
the shroud is laid out flat in the ceremonial coffin, and blessed with flower petals. As in any funeral, loved ones
pay their last respects. Here, either with a kiss,
or, if you’re small enough, a trip beneath the epitaph. Once again,
the Orthodox mysticism, enhanced by music, incense, and intensely felt prayer,
heightens the emotional impact. [ Bell tolling ] On Good Friday evening,
the funeral procession starts as the epitaph is carried
out of the church. Even as a visitor, I felt
as one with those gathered, sharing a familiar holiday,
but in a new way. Churches
from three neighborhoods all perform the same
ritual funeral procession as they carry their individual
epitaphs through town. The three parades converge
on the main square, and the epitaphs gather
on a stage with the bishop overlooking what seems like the entire
population of Nafplio. The bishop,
flanked by the town’s priests, gives an Easter message, reminding his flock
why Jesus died, and why there’s reason for hope. [ Bishop speaking Greek ] Holy Saturday is the day
Christ’s body lay in the tomb while his followers mourned. In Western Christian traditions, it’s a time of thoughtfulness
and waiting, of vigils. But in the Orthodox Christian
world, like here in Greece, Holy Saturday is a celebration of what Jesus’ soul accomplished
on that day. On Saturday morning, the Greeks pack
their church yet again to remember how, while his disciples
were mourning on Earth, Jesus descended into Hades, bringing salvation
to the souls of the dead. That’s why Greeks call this
Saturday the “First Resurrection.” Worshippers venerate
an icon of Jesus pulling Adam and Eve
out of the fires of hell. This is the pivotal moment when Christ has defeated
the devil and death. The priest has changed out
of his mournful black vestments and into hopeful white ones. Much happier
and more animated now, he tosses dried flower petals representing
the broken chains of hell over all gathered. Late Saturday night, the people spill
from their churches and fill the main square
yet again, this time, with a palpable sense
of expectation. [ Indistinct conversations ] It’s almost midnight, and Easter Sunday
is just a couple minutes away. Here in Greece, people can hardly wait
to celebrate the Resurrection. On this day, Christians everywhere fill
the churches and the squares, and they declare with great joy,
“Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.” [ Fireworks exploding ] When midnight strikes,
fireworks light up the sky, and finally
Easter Sunday is here. The Holy Flame, which literally travels
from Jerusalem to Athens, and then to towns
throughout Greece, is shared, along with the ritual
Easter “kiss of love.” And it’s not over yet. Everyone then heads home for
the biggest party of the season. People carry the Easter flame
home as a burning candle. Raising it above their heads, they make a cross
above the doorway, symbolizing that the light
of the Resurrection has blessed their home
for another year. A long table awaits
as the extended family gathers. They have a competition to find out whose Easter egg
will be the strongest. Sighs of disappointment
from losers are mixed with the laughter
of winners, until the proud victor, who’ll enjoy a particularly
blessed upcoming year, is declared. Traditional holiday dishes,
like a thick lamb entrail soup, are devoured. It’s a joyous family gathering. The feast continues into
the wee hours of Easter Sunday with lots of meat and eggs,
and no shortage of Easter bread.

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