Easter is the biggest celebration and feast of the Greek Orthodox religion. The customs and cuisines of how the Greeks celebrate Easter provide a great opportunity for the traveler to learn more about Greek culture and traditions.
As parts of the world prepare to celebrate Easter this week, it is a great opportunity to learn about the traditions of the Greeks and how they celebrate Easter. First off, many of us would be surprised to learn Greek Easter is not always the same day many countries in the Western world celebrate Easter. This year the Greek Orthodox religion will celebrate Easter more than a full month later. Easter Sunday is May 1 in 2016.
The reason for the difference in the timing of Easter? In the West, we use the Gregorian calendar, while many Orthodox churches use the Julian calendar. Some years Easter is the same date, but in many years it is different. If you are traveling to Greece you need to check when they will be celebrating Easter if you would like to be there for the festivities.
In the Greek Orthodox religion, Easter is the largest of the Christian holidays and is a time for feasting and celebrating. Tradition and food are important parts of the celebration.
Carnival: The Lead up to Easter
The Easter season starts many weeks before with the beginning of Lent. Many Greeks will abstain from eating meat and dairy products during Lent. As with many cultures, the Greeks begin Lent with Carnival celebrations. In some countries Carnival celebrations are huge festivals lasting as long as a month.
In Greece, Carnival is called Apokries. The Carnival lasts the three weeks before Lent Monday, and usually finishes about 7 weeks before Greek Easter. There are some large parades and celebrations for Carnival. You may want to check with a Greek travel agent to make sure you have the dates correct if you would like to time your visit for Carnival.
Celebrate Easter Week in Greece
The week of Easter is an important week for the Greek Orthodox religion. The preparations and festivities begin on Wednesday and continue through Easter Monday. Greeks attend ceremonies at the Church daily during Easter week.
Good Friday is a day of mourning and many government buildings lower the flag to half mast. In some villages and towns, a coffin is carried through the streets.
Midnight Saturday, marks the beginning of Pascha, the Sunday of the Resurrection. Fireworks at midnight mark the occasion. Sunday is a day of feasting (the Lent fast of dairy and meat ends).
Easter Sunday Feast: The Menu
The feast to celebrate Easter has many traditional foods. Lamb would typically be served as the meat. Since it takes a while for the lamb to roast a number of mezethes (small dishes) or appetizers are served during the day. If the lamb is cooked on a spit (rotisserie), these small dishes are served while everyone waits on the main meal. Typical mezethes include olives, cheese, cheese pie, tzatziki (yogurt based dip), dolmades (vine leaves stuffed with rice).
Lamb or goat would typically be the meat. If there is a large group, traditionally it would be roasted on a spit. But these days it may be slow cooked in a wood fired oven or roasted in the oven. The meat is served with potatoes, spinach pie (spanakopita), and a village salad. Raki, an anise-based alcoholic drink, and local wine would typically accompany the meal.
Dessert is tsourekia or tsoureki, a sweet bread which incorporates the red colored eggs which are a symbol of Greek Easter. They are white hard boiled eggs dyed bright red. Red is the color of life and represents the blood of Christ. Eggs symbolize the renewal of life and many view the red egg as a message of victory over death.
Greeks have a traditional game played with the eggs. You tap your egg against those of friends and family, the owner of the last egg to be left uncracked is believed to have good luck for the year.
Other dessert may include spoon sweets or custard pie.
The Easter meal can be a family event or a feast shared with the whole village.