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.
Just before midnight, all the lights are turned off and the priest holds up the light of the eternal flame (first lit in Jerusalem the Saturday before Easter) 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.
In mainland Greece, consider staying in Athens for Easter. While it's a bit more impersonal than the islands, there's are a few Easter activities to add to your Athens itinerary. 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.
If you're after a bit more vibrancy, consider heading south to Kalyvia Thorikou, a town south of Athens. The local tavernas will be full of people and you can try lamb roasted on the spit. Or, if you'd prefer a coastal location on the mainland, consider Nafplio in the Peloponnese or the Halkidiki Peninsula in Northern Greece, a favourite holiday destination for locals.
Be sure to choose a hotel which offers guests some elements of Greek Easter, such as serving Mayiritsa on Holy Saturday or holding a traditional Greek Easter lunch on the Sunday. Some hotels will also provide transfers to local church services on Holy Saturday. Below are some hotels which offer Easter meals, activities or entertainment:
St George Lycabettus Hotel in Athens - good location in central Athens, Ideal for those visiting St George church for the Easter service above Mt Lycabettus. Serves a late dinner on Holy Saturday and a buffet lunch on Easter Sunday.
Divani Apollon Palace & Thalasso in Athens- situated on the coast, with Easter feasts, activities and entertainment. Be aware it's a reasonable distance from the city centre and main attractions.
Elounda Palm Hotel in Crete - experience Crete's festivals and traditions in the week leading up to Easter.
Lango Design Hotel & Spa in Kos - great adults only option. See the fireworks in Kos and enjoy the local Easter specialty - lamb stuffed with rice and giblets.
Pomegranate Wellness Spa in Halkidiki Peninsula - offers midnight dinner on Holy Saturday, transfers to the church service and a traditional lunch on Easter Sunday (including a lamb on the spit).
Secret Paradise Hotel and Spa in Halkidiki - provides candles and red eggs, traditional Greek Easter feast on Sunday.
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.