Easter in Greece

The narrow, cobblestoned alleys of the medieval town of Rhodes are filled with people waiting for a funeral procession. There is no casket, no body or funeral urn. This is a funeral procession for Christ, an age-old part of the Greek Orthodox celebration of Easter. Easter is the most important day of the year in Greece, where 95% of the population is Greek Orthodox.

The Setting

Gigantic stone walls surround the old town of Rhodes. Except for a few modern conveniences, the city feels the same as it might have when a group of Christian knights (the Knights Hospitalier) built the fortifications in the 1500’s. In fact, Rhodes is the best preserved medieval city in the world. Narrow streets still bear crests of different groups of knights, and old archways still span the alleys where buildings used to cross overhead.

Near a small church we were astonished to find a series of 13 archways with painted wood plaques depicting the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, with the last one reading “H Anastasis,” meaning Christ is resurrected. When we came back in the evening, we were even more surprised to see that the plaques had come alive with special lighting, sound effects, even animation.

{video} A few of the animated plaques.

Easter Eggs

While picking up our usual baklava and other sweets from the wonderful bakeries, we noticed something strange. Bread with what looked like a red ball embedded in the middle. The bread is called Tsoureki, and the red ball is a hard boiled Easter egg. 

Red is the only color of Easter eggs here, and that tradition dates back to ancient Mesopotamia where early Christians stained eggs red in memory of the blood of Jesus. The eggs are dyed on the Thursday before Easter, in commemoration of the Last Supper.

Good Friday Candlelit Procession

We returned to the narrow alleys of old Rhodes on Good Friday to find people laying fragrant branches on the ground. A bit confused, we watched as people emptied big plastic bags of the branches onto the cobblestone streets in preparation for the evening procession. Good Friday is the day they mourn the death of Christ on the cross. Many people head to the evening mass wearing all black. A bier is decorated with flowers, and a solemn procession carries it from the church to the graveyard and back.

On the now fragrant streets, people with lit candles lined up to watch, and then join in the procession. Led by a group of children with lanterns and crosses, the procession was followed by a group of singers with a large cross bearing a wreath, followed by the funeral bier decked with flowers and candles. Hundreds of people followed the procession singing hymns and carrying candles. From the doorways and rooftops people lit incense and sprinkled holy water. Beth and I joined the followers and it was incredible to wonder how many different people may have walked the same route over the centuries.

{video} The procession and singers.

{video} On our way back from the old town, we also saw the procession in the new town.

Holy Saturday Resurrection Mass

I have never been to a mass before that ended in literal fireworks. After the solemn funeral procession of Good Friday, the Saturday midnight mass is a celebration of light and life.

It began with the loud ringing of the church bell at 11. Slowly people gathered outside and inside the church with their decorated Easter candles. Inside, the priests read/sang the Easter mass, which was broadcast to those gathering outside. 

A few minutes before midnight a lamp inside the church was lit with the flame brought from the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem. The priest then spread the flame to the candles of the nearest members of the congregation, who further lit the candles of those nearby. It was really cool to see as the light spread around and a little boy turned to light Beth’s candle.

Finally at midnight, the church bells rang and fireworks went off in celebration of the resurrection. People made the sign of the cross and then turned to their family and friends to kiss each other and say “Christos Anesti!”

{video} Midnight fireworks at the end of mass.

Among the candles, many people brought small lanterns to carry the flame home. It is considered good luck to keep the flame burning all year long, until the next Easter celebration. People use the flame to make an ashen cross on their doorways. On the way home, we even saw a few shop owners blessing their shops in this way.

Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday is a day for family, friends and a feast. People gather in their homes and fire up the grill for the traditional spit roast lamb. They enjoy their Tsoureki and children play Tsougrisma, a game in which they try to crack each others red Easter eggs. 

Before we head out in search of some roasted lamb, We’d like to wish a happy Easter to all of our friends and family back home. We miss you!  

[Update] On the way out of our hotel, we found some, but might have to wait a bit!