Last updated 26 March 2021
Whenever I think of Easter, my mind goes to red eggs and twisted bread, midnight church services and spit-roasted lamb. I spent a decent amount of my childhood in Greek communities and when I think of Easter, my mind goes to Greece.
As you may have realised, Easter is one of Greece's most important festivals and is celebrated throughout the country. Greeks celebrate Orthodox Easter, which is usually a couple of weeks after the Catholic festival. At its heart it is, of course, both a religious and a Spring festival, with the usual symbols of rebirth and the victory of life after death. And, of course, Easter traditionally marks the end of Lent.
In Greece, Easter activities start a week before Easter and, in the lead up to Good Friday, church services are held each night. More and more people attend throughout the week, with the largest turnout for the Anastasi mass on Holy Saturday, which marks the night of Christ's resurrection. The mass is timed to finish at midnight and there is a definite feeling of anticipation.
A crowd with candles of Holy Saturday
Just before midnight, all the lights are turned off and the priest holds up the light of the eternal flame and lights the candles the congregation are holding. In some parts of Greece, especially on the islands, people take their candles home and draw a cross over their doors with the soot, in a prayer for good luck and blessings.
Following mass, there are often fireworks and, in some places (like Crete), an effigy of Judas is burned. Then people eat, with many taverns open for a post-mass meal. Otherwise, people go home and have a late meal there.
In the lead up to Easter (traditionally Holy Thursday), families dye eggs red. Children are often involved in this process and it's a fun activity, with a touch of religious symbolism. The red dye symbolises the blood of Christ, while the egg has been a symbol of rebirth from ancient times. In short, the red egg symbolises the triumph of life over death.
The eggs are used for decorations and cracked against each other in a game called tsougrisma. The point is to crack the other person's egg while keeping your own intact and involves a mixture of strategy and luck. The winner is the one with the unbroken egg, which is said to bring good luck.
Food, of course, is critical to Greek Easter celebrations. Tsoureki is a type of plaited bread which is usually made in the week before Easter. The three strands symbolise the Holy Trinity and the bread itself is delicious. Spiced and slightly sweet, it's often served with coffee.
After mass on Holy Saturday, the Lent fast is traditionally broken with Mayiritsa, a soup made from the offal of lamb or goat. It's usually only eaten once a year, when an animal would often be killed for lunch on Easter Sunday. This would ensure no bit of the animal went to waste. Nowadays, it's becoming more common for people will head to a local tavern post-mass.
The highlight of Easter is the long lunch on Sunday, when a lamb is slow-cooked, often for at least six hours. It's then served with salads, bread and a range of accompaniments, and the family lunch is a long, leisurely affair, usually starting at around 2pm. If you find yourself in Greece for Easter, many hotels offer Easter lunches for their guests.
If you want to experience a Greek Easter yourself, head to Greece in early Spring. For a rustic, traditional experience, head to the Greek Islands. Corfu and Crete are both popular choices for Easter, with a number of local festivals and hotels which will make the experience special for guests.
Fireworks as seen from Mt Lycabettus in Athens. Photograph: Nikolai Sorokin
On mainland Greece, staying in Athens is always fun, if a bit more impersonal than the islands. Head to the church for the 11pm mass on Holy Saturday and enjoy the fireworks afterwards. Just be aware that may people head away for Easter weekend, so the city will be quieter than usual - which may actually enhance your trip to Athens.
Wherever you choose to spend Easter in Greece, you'll enjoy the food and ambiance you'll find. It's a time of year when the old traditions are dusted off and it's easy to imagine how the villages and towns must have celebrated Spring hundreds, even thousands, of years ago.