Crete is one of the most popular destinations for summer holidays, but from autumn through winter to spring, Crete is a place of tranquility that few travelers visit.
But also these seasons have their own special charm and whoever participates in one of the eventful festivities on the occasion of Easter can delve deep into the traditions and the way of life of the local population. The hospitality and warmth with which people approach visitors is almost limitless.
The Easter time in Crete is always a special time, with many old traditions, delicious food and most important with the whole family! When the Cretan family celebrates, also guests are very welcome to join the Paska feast.
The Christian Orthodox Easter is one of the most important traditions and the biggest event of the year in Greece. The religious feeling at the period of Easter in Crete is quite intense and the celebration does not include only the Sunday of the Resurrection, but also the week before, which is called Holy (great) Week. During that week, many customs are performed. If you have decided to spend your Easter holidays in Crete, just leave the capital cities beside and visit the small villages of the island. There you will meet the genuine Easter tradition of Crete.
‘No one should be alone at Easter’ is a popular saying in Crete. That the well-known for their hospitality Cretans take this proverb very seriously, you can feel ubiquitous in these days. Be inspired by the traditional celebrations and experience an Easter, which you will remember for all you life.
The Orthodox Church is based on the Julian calendar, which is why the Greek Easter celebrations in many years differ from the Easter holidays of the Catholic and Protestant churches.
The Easter season in Greece begins forty days before the actual Easter feast. In these forty days, the strict believers among the Greeks fast and refrain from meat, which gets replaced by seafood, greens and fresh vegetables.
Megáli Evdomáda – the Great Week
On Palm Sunday, the “Megáli Evdomáda”, the Great Week, begins in which the suffering of Jesus is remembered, who sacrificed his blood for humanity. Now the church bells ring every evening and call for worship. But even outside of the church service, there are plenty of preparations for the most important festival of the year.
From Monday onwards, a worship service is held daily in almost every church in Greece, young and old meet there and pray to God.
On the great Tuesday, the women start with the traditional baking of Easter bread and delicious Easter pastry. For generations, it has been commonplace in many places for the pastry to be prepared at home and later baked in the oven of the local bakery. The churches and chapels of the island are now cleaned and decorated with palm leaves, so the whole village is busy with the Easter preparations.
In addition to meat abstinence, no milk or oil-containing products may be eaten any longer (not even olives). However, in recent decades and with the increasing modernization of Crete, the forty-day Lent loses more and more importance. For the most part, it is the women living in rural areas who spend the long Lent. Many Cretans, and especially the younger generations, begin fasting only last week (children are excluded from the fasting).
On the morning of Holy Thursday, housewives boil eggs and dye them red. The first red egg is placed on the iconostasis of the house to ward off the evil. The red color symbolizes the blood of Jesus and the egg represents the beginning of life.
Others start kneading to make “Kalitsounia”, handmade pies with Cretan soft cheese, Easter cookies and buns in circular shape. Normally, in the middle of the circular bun are placed three red eggs, symbolizing the Holy Trinity. Generally, Easter treats are made of milk, eggs and cheese.
In the evening a symbolic representation of the crucifixion takes place in the services with reading of the twelve Gospels describing the suffering of Christ. After the lecture of the first sixth Gospel, all lights are extinguished and a cross is carried through the darkness to the church. People commemorate the oil-soaking of Christ just before His crucifixion, creating a very poignant and noticeably emotional atmosphere in the room. Flowers and wreaths are laid in from of the altar, followed by the recitation of the last six gospels. In many villages and towns women sit in the church in traditional mourning all night long.
The Good Friday
It’s a day of grief and not a day of work, including cooking. It is also the only day of the year when the Divine Liturgy is not read. Flags are hung at half-mast and church bells ring the whole day in a slow, sad tone.
Many religious people do not cook on Good Friday. If so, the traditional foods are simple and only those that can only be cooked in water without oil and seasoned with vinegar.
On the morning of Good Friday, the pastor symbolically takes the figure of Christ from the Cross. Wrapped in a sheet and lying on a wooden shrine, Jesus is sprinkled with flowers by several women. In the evening, people carry the so-called Epitaphios, a cloth bearing the image of Christ, through the streets in a candle.
The evening church service starts at 19.00 PM and after the service, at around 20.30 PM, there is a subdued procession through the streets carrying the epitaph, or coffin, with the congregation following behind, usually all dressed in black. During the service, it is carried on the shoulders of the faithful in a procession that leads through the churches to the cemetery and back.
Easter Saturday (Megalo Sabbato)
The Anastasi, the Resurrection, takes place at midnight and is the culmination of Holy Week. Churches across Crete, Greece are packed from 23.00 PM onwards for the service and the lighting of the Holy Flame at midnight.
The ‘Megáli Evdomáda’ ends in the night from Saturday to Sunday with the resurrection celebration. From 22 o’clock the people arrive in the church, but most of them arrive after 23.00 and since only a small part of those present fit into the church, a large crowd gathers on the church forecourt. With loudspeakers, the chants from the church building are transmitted outside.
The service reaches its peak at midnight with the exclamation of the priest ‘Christos Anesti’, which means ‘Christ is risen’. He steps out of the church with the holy Easter fire. The crowd replies the exclamation with the words ‘Alithós Anesti!’ – ‘He is truly risen!’
From that moment on, the tension gives way to relief. As a sign of reconciliation, people are exchanging kisses, and everywhere in Crete and throughout Greece, the great celebration begins! The priests pass on the Easter fire, which is flown directly from Bethlehem, to the people. Everyone has brought a decorated candle (λαμπάδα – Lampada) and the place is transformed into a breathtaking sea of lights. So do not forget to bring yourself a candle as well.
In this contemplative moment one feels clearly the emotions of the Greeks and even if one does not understand the language during these services.
To see the church begin to glow brighter as each candle is lit and then the masses of people walking through the streets is an unforgettable moment.
Everybody lights his candle or lantern. Leaving from the church, they carry the holy light walking to their house in silence. They believe that, in this way, the “bad” demons will leave their household and they will have luck for the whole year.
In all Cretan villages children spend their day preparing a bonfire and an image of Judas outside the church to burn after the midnight service. They make a large pile of woods and at the top they place a scarecrow symbolizing Judah.
At midnight when the priest sings the hymn to the “Risen Christ”, the bell of the church rings and fireworks create a spectacular scene in the sky. If you like it more quite, you can visit one of the monasteries in the area for this ceremony.
The burning candles are carefully carried to their own four walls to draw a lucky cross from soot over the front door before it goes out.
In most families at home is already prepared Easter soup with offal (gr.: Μαγειριτσα) ready, with the extensive feasting after the long Lent begins. After the meal, the red eggs are pushed against each other and whose egg survives the shock undamaged is the winner and can count on good luck this year.
On Easter Sunday, the whole family celebrates together, traditionally, families meet with children and go to their original villages to celebrate this very special day.
A large table is set up in the garden and the main course, the grilled lamb, is served with homemade salads and potatoes as a side dish. In addition to the Easter lamb, there are other grilled specialties where the ‘Kokoretsi’, which is prepared from the intestine and the offal of the lamb.
The usual main course of the day is the whole, roasted lamb or a little goat to represent the Lamb of God.
They eat, dance, drink and talk until late at night – fortunately, Easter Monday is also a holiday in Greece.
Another Greek national holiday is also Easter Monday. It’s the day to slow things down to tackle Siga-Siga. It is more casual and it is the delicious leftovers of the day before eaten.