Easter in Crete
Spiritual as much as festive, Easter in Crete brings together the religious, the theatrical, the social and the metaphysical to unite communities with a joyfulness that is heart-piercing.
With a whopping 95% of Greeks claiming membership to the Greek Orthodox church, Pascha (Easter) is lavishly celebrated throughout the country and Crete is no exception.
In many ways connected to pre-Christian pagan rituals that are associated with the rebirth of nature and the arrival of spring, Easter extends over 48 days.
It all starts with the beginning of the Lent after Ash Monday.
Commemorating Christ’s fast in the desert, in early Christian times, this was dedicated to the preparation of catechumens, who were to be baptized on Easter day.
Nowadays the Lent’s devout observers are significantly fewer. In the big cities, most will just abstain from meat during Holy Week. The Cretan diet, however, is in any case rich in greens and vegetables. So during this period, Cretans traditionally eat snails, beans and wild greens cooked in a variety of delectable ways. As the custom mandates, fish consumption is also allowed on Palm Sunday. On the same day, churchgoers are given a cross made from palm fronds, which they are to keep on their icon-stands at home for the whole year.
The theatrical element is quite pronounced during Easter in Crete: On the Saturday before Palm Sunday, the resurrection of Lazarus occurs. Children pick up flowers and go from door to door singing the hymn of “Lazaros”: “Lazarus, tell us what you saw in Hades where you went? I saw terrors, I saw suffering and pain!”.
With the commencement of the Holy Week, the tone becomes markedly more solemn. Souvlaki-shops and bars are less busy, as people go through the time-honoured rituals of Easter in Crete.
Easter in Crete: The customs of the Holy Week
Tradition has it that you must not listen to music, whistle or play games of chance, to avoid tempting fate. Also, throughout the week, boys and men alike shall amass thatches and bushes and deposit them at the churchyard. On the eve of the Resurrection, they will create a bonfire for the burning of Judas.
But before that, on Holy Wednesday, the day that Judas betrayed his teacher, children build an effigy of the Iscariot, dress it up in rags, and parade it around the streets zestfully encouraging everyone to “Spit on him! Injure him!”
Holy Thursday is dedicated to dyeing eggs in the colour of the red poppy: This is to honour Christ who shed blood on account of the Romans as well as to signify the rebirth of nature in spring. It is also the day for making Easter sweets: kalitsounia, lyhnarakia, avgokouloures, tsourekia and Lambrokouloura. Late at night, following the reading of the 12 Gospels, unmarried girls shall decorate the Bier of Christ (Epitaphios) with garlands of white and purple flowers. Neighbourhood churches then compete for the most beautifully adorned Bier.
Good Friday is a day of intense sorrow and mourning. Locals partake in the
drama by refusing to use hammers or nails as this would be a great sin. For the love of Christ, who was given vinegar to drink, they also refrain from eating sweet things. Instead, they shall consume a soup made of sesame paste, lettuce or lentils with vinegar.
In the evening, church service is followed by the procession of the bier of Christ. This is a deeply moving occasion with choirs and the faithful singing beautiful hymns and holding lit candles as the procession takes into the streets. One of the most magical epitaphs is in Panagia Trimartiris church, at the Metropolis of Chania. You may also opt to witness this awe-inspiring experience at one of Crete’s historic monasteries, like Agias Triados Zangarolon, easily accessible with your Europeo Crete Car Hire at 15 km northeast from the town of Chania.
There is one notable exception to the solemnity surrounding Good Friday. And it is no other than the famous bazaar in the village of Voukolies that takes place on this day too. Dating back to Ottoman times, the trade fair largely retains its traditional character and function: A meat, as well as meet market, it hosted the sale of various goods and livestock, but it was also where young women from the neighbouring villages came to find their spouse. Nowadays the Voukolies folk fair is lively, characterful and popular among the locals. Pick up your vehicle of choice from Europeo Crete car rentals and drive 27 km north of Chania Town, for a taste of authentic Cretan culture and to try the delicious lenten snails at the fair.
The Resurrection, Anastasi, takes place on Easter Saturday. At the stroke of midnight, lights are extinguished and the congregation is plunged into darkness. Then there is a faint glimmer of light behind the altar before the priest appears holding upwards a lighted taper and chanting “this is the light of the world”. He touches his flame to the candle of the nearest
worshiper: “Come take the light”, he intones, “Hristos Anesti”- “Christ has risen”- the receptor replies. And so it goes round, this affirmation of the miracle until the entire church is ablaze with burning candles. The church bells ring, and the sky is lit with fireworks. Everyone (theoretically even the greatest enemies) kiss each other and start making their way back home to feast on traditional magiritsa (a kind of lemony tripe soup with lamb and greens) since the lent is officially over. However, they have to make sure that their candle is not extinguished on the route and do this in total silence. According to popular belief, this helps to rid their houses of demons and bring good luck.
This is also the time for the burning of the effigies of Judas. Flames and fireworks turn night into day. Light and traditional mpalothies ( shooting guns in the air) exorcise the evil spirits Life, once again, conquers death. This spectacular custom, a staple of Easter in Crete, takes place throughout the island. Some of its most zestful versions are to be found at the village of Gagalon, 48 km from Heraklion Town and in Agios Nikolaos, the capital of Lasithi, 65 km east of Heraklion. On Crete’s other side, it’s well worth witnessing the dramatic ceremony at Gavalochori: A historical, quaint village 25 km east of Chania, that also merits a visit for its particularly interesting and well-preserved folk architecture.
Sunday brings about the culmination of the Easter period, with massive family and friends gatherings in every home. Lamb on the spit is customary throughout Greece and has also become popular in Crete in recent decades. Traditionally however Cretans would have lamb or goat, cooked in various ways: in the oven, boiled, with tomato sauce or lemon and eggs sauce. The festivities involve drinking and dancing and everybody is invited to partake, strangers too!
Brimming with surprises and wonders, Crete is magical at any time of the year. But it is perhaps at its most breathtaking in spring when the landscape undergoes a renewal with a burst of wildflowers and scents. This is also when the community sees a resurgence of faith with Pascha, the most important holiday in the Greek Orthodox Calendar. Easter in Crete is intense, soul-stirring and truly authentic. It also provides a prime opportunity to combine this one of a kind, pious as much as jubilant experience with a reviving escapade in glorious Cretan nature. Take advantage of our Europeo Cars Seasonal Offers and start wandering!