All of you may know Greece for its fantastic summers full of sea, sun, great food, and partying but for me a visit for Greek Easter (Pascha in Greek) is an absolute must.
The grandest religious holiday, Easter for the Greeks is the most important time of the year and comes exactly at the start of spring.
You won’t regret planning a trip for Greek Easter, which I promise you will be an experience of lifetime. Age-old customs and traditions combined with religious rituals deeply rooted in faith and symbolism, a feast of foods, and a connection with family, friends, and the outdoors mark the country’s biggest celebration which is a mystical experience like no other.
For the Greeks, Easter is all about escape and welcoming spring in the forest, the fields, or on the beach – anywhere near Mother Nature. It’s also about family, friends and sharing. One of the greatest pleasures for the Greeks is guests paying an unexpected visit during Easter Sunday’s cookout.
Greek Easter is also about fresh beginnings as this is symbolized by Christ’s Resurrection (“Anastasi”) but also the reawakening of nature which comes to life with its blossoming flowers, blooming trees, and returning birds chirping their way into our hearts.
For all of you thinking of visiting Greece, I suggest you seriously consider Easter, and to make it easier, in today’s post I recommend three destinations to immerse yourself into the genuine Greek Orthodox Easter experience and celebrate Easter like a Greek.
Leonidio: Greek Easter in the Village
At the bottom of towering grey boulders at the foot of Mt Parnonas with a view to the Myrtoan Sea stands the picture-perfect town of Leonidio in the eastern Peloponnese. This scenic town located on the mainland in Arcadia is a two-and-a-half hour drive from Athens and celebrating Greek Easter here is all about color, tradition, and food.
Leonidion is also the capital of the Tsakonia region and despite its small size, is internationally known for its vivid Easter celebrations.
For months, some 7,000 people, the town’s permanent residents (this figure almost doubles in the summer months) combine rods, colorful paper and wire to create hundreds of colorful air balloons for their parish.
At midnight on Holy Saturday, and once the church bells joyously ring in Christ’s Resurrection (Christos Anesti), look up into the stunning starry Leonidio sky and you’ll see hundreds of beautifully handcrafted balloons carrying the Holy Light into the heavens.
There is even a competition with the finest balloon of the night winning the prize.
Legend has it that the Leonidio Easter balloon custom dates back to the early 1900s and to a local priest. Others say it was brought to the village by traveling sailors. Whatever the explanation, I love it!
On Easter Sunday, stroll through the town’s cobble-stone streets to the main square and enjoy the “kerasma” of food and wine as local musicians perform traditional demotika songs. Don’t miss the “Gospel of Love” read at noon in the almost extinct Tsakonian or Tsakonic Language, a dialect which dates back to ancient Doric Greek and is still spoken in the region.
Besides its vivid Easter customs, Leonidio is also known for its distinctive stone and wood architecture, pristine beaches, popular climbing park, and of course, its very own locally-grown (and famed) eggplant, the “Tsakoniki Melitzana” – PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) product and celebrated every year during a local food fest.
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Folegandros – A Genuine Greek Easter in the Cyclades
Easter on Folegandros is an absolute must for those of you who want to live like the locals. The genuine Folegandros Easter experience begins hours after Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday. For three whole days the island pays tribute to its very own patron, the Virgin Mary (Panagia), whose silver-plated icon is carried by hand from north to south and east to west into every single home, boat and chapel on the island amid shooting, bells, and incense.
The longstanding tradition comes to life on Easter Sunday. A procession of islanders and visitors follows the priest from the island’s historic church at the top of the hill in Hora. For three days the island’s villages and villagers put on their best to welcome and be blessed by the Virgin, and in turn follow the procession to the next home. Even fields and boats are blessed. And in recent years, the Panagia icon is also carried on board the ferry to bless its voyages.
After the Panagia is carried by boat around the island she is returned accompanied by the flock to her home, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary church overlooking the Aegean Sea and watching over the island, where she will remain until next Easter.
If you follow the procession across the otherwise dry and barren fields of Folegandros you will be welcomed by the blossoming wildflowers and treated to all sorts of homemade goodies including the island’s famous Easter melopita pie made of local cheese and honey.
Like in much of Greece, Easter arrangements begin after Clean Monday (Kathara Deftera) during the 40-day Sarakosti Lenten period and include whitewashing with limestone, the preparations of Easter sweets and foods. The traditional goat (kid) here is cooked in wood ovens with potatoes.
In the past, an Easter Monday courting custom saw swings in the Hora. Girls would swing as the enamored boys sung in local rhyming love couplets.
Corfu – A Musical Greek Easter in the Ionian
Brilliant color and romantic melody best describe Greek Easter on Kerkyra (Corfu), another Greek island. You might be wondering why I’m suggesting one more island, what could be different? Well, unlike Catholic Easter, which is for the most part celebrated in the same way worldwide, Greek Easter traditions differ from one village to the next and from among the islands and from island to mainland.
Of all the Greek Easters, Corfu’s is perhaps the most recognized particularly abroad. The Ionian island brings two very special things to Easter: its long-standing music tradition and its Easter pottery–throwing custom.
As in the rest of Greece, Holy Week is marked by the mournful atmosphere of Holy Friday. Corfu’s three leading marching bands, each accompanying its own parish during the epitaphios procession through town on Holy Friday are a wonderful sight and really set the mood. The Palaia (Old) band performs Albinioni’s “Adagio”, the Mantzaros Verdi’s “Marcia Funebre”, and the Capodistria the “Elegia Funebre”, Mariani’s “Sventura” and Chopin’s “Funeral March”.
But the gloom and sadness of Holy Friday give way to the noon festivities on Holy Saturday. Corfu is the one of the few places in Greece to welcome Easter earlier.
You’ll know because the whole town – visitors and islanders – gathers on Spianada Square, where Corfiots drop their “botides” – clay pots full of water – from their windows and baclonies, which are decorated with velvet red cloths celebrating Christ’s “First” Resurrection (“Proti Anastasi”).
Be prepared to hear a loud ‘chorus’ of people chanting the ‘Christos Anesti’ hymn (Christ Has Risen) amid fireworks, tolling bells, and breaking pots. The pot dropping comes to a harmonious close with the town’s famous bands uniting to perform the once-banned festive “Graikoi” march. Don’t forget to take a piece of broken pottery with you for good luck!
You’ll know Easter Sunday has dawned, when you wake up to the lingering aromas of baked sweets and roasted foods including the traditional egg-lemon soup, the “tsilihourda”, a meat-based soup to sooth the stomach after Lent, and the local sweet “fogatsa” bread.
Maria’s Tips: Visiting Greece for Orthodox Easter
- Greek Easter is not just Easter Sunday but is all about the preparations during Holy Week (Megali Vdomada) leading up to the feast day
- I recommend visiting a church on the evening of Holy Tuesday to hear one of the most moving hymns of Greek Orthodox Easter dedicated to Saint Kassiani known as the “Troparion tis Kassianis”, which is chanted every year. Learn more here.
- Make sure to attend the Holy Friday (Megali Paraskevi) procession at sunset which is very much like a mock funeral. Military bands play a funeral march while the church bells peal mournfully all day. Join the faithful who follow the epitaphios procession holding dark yellow candles used for funerals. Holy Friday is the gloomiest day of Holy Week as it signifies the culmination of Christ’s Passion. Learn more here about the meaning of Greek Orthodox Easter’s Holy Friday.
- Holy Saturday is the big day or night I should say. Most of Greece celebrates the “Anastasi” or Resurrection at midnight. That’s when you’ll see everyone dressed in their best holding white candles this time at the church. Make sure to go and have in mind that lots of fireworks will be going off around you. It’s a wonderful experience
- Easter Sunday is the day of love. At noon the faithful go to church to hear the Gospel of Love (translated into several languages announcing to the world that Christ Has Risen) as bells toll joyously. In the meantime, preparations for the Easter feast have begun at daybreak with the heads of the family preparing the coals to roast the lamb
- make sure to participate in the “tsougrisma” – Easter Sunday eating begins with the customary red egg bouts known as “tsougrisma”. If you’re egg doesn’t crack you’re in for some good luck
- expect to be treated to roasted lamb, spring salad, cheese, dyed red eggs, freshly baked bread with a red egg in the center, oven-baked potatoes, Greek cheese or greens pies, and plenty of wine on Easter Sunday. Traditional sweets include galopita (a creamy milk pie) and diples (honey and walnut covered fritters)
- dancing is a requirement to shed the past year’s negative energy and start anew.
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♫ I end today’s post with an angelic rendering of the “Christos Anesti” (Christ has Risen) hymn chanted on Holy Saturday at midnight here by the Armonia Choir of Preveza conducted by Aneliya Stefanova.