Holy week started yesterday. To give you a little bit of an education, here is some data about what this entails.
At least 95 percent of all Greeks claim membership in the Greek Orthodox church, part of the Eastern Orthodox church. Until 1054, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches were one body. Theological, political, and cultural differences split the church in two, and those differences were never completely reconciled. Despite the power religion holds over everyday life, most younger Greeks are not devout churchgoers. Aside from the special Easter celebrations, services are attended mainly by old women and young children. And the Greeks often defy their church's teachings by clinging to beautiful old symbols, rituals and customs of pagan origine. Many Easter traditions originated long before the beginning of the Christian era.
The Greek Orthodox Church does not always celebrate Easter on the same date as the Catholic and Protestant countries. The reason is that the Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar when calculating Easter. This is case even in the churches that otherwise use the Gregorian calendar. When the Greek Orthodox Church in 1923 decided to change to the Gregorian calendar (or rather: a Revised Julian Calendar), they chose to use the astronomical full moon as seen along the meridian of Jerusalem as the basis for calculating Easter, rather than to use the "official" full moon.
Many Easter traditions originated long before the beginning of the Christian era. Like Christmas, which is related to pre-Christian winter festivals, Easter is connected in many ways with pagan rituals that accompanied the arrival of spring. It is possible that the name "Easter" stemmed from that of Eostre, an Anglo-Saxon goddess of springtime. Easter is also associated with the Jewish festival of Passover, or Pesach. The term "paschal", meaning "of Easter", is derived from the name of the Jewish festival, as are the names of Easter in some foreign languages. In Greek, Easter is called Pascha, meaning passover: It is the eternal Passover from death to life and from earth to heaven.
One of the most common Christian symbols, especially associated with Easter, is the lamb. It is often depicted with a banner that bears a cross, and it is known as the Agnus Dei, meaning "Lamb of God" in Latin.
The origin of the symbol is related directly to the Jewish Passover. In ancient times the Jews sacrificed a lamb in the course of the festival. The early Christians, most of whom were Hebrews, associated the sacrifice of the lamb with Christ's sacrifice on the cross. They connected the joyous Passover festival, which commemmorates the liberation of the Hebrews from their years of bondage in Egypt, with the liberation from death represented by the Resurrection.
The popularity of lamb as an Easter food is undoubtedly related to its importance as a symbol. During the middle ages roast lamb became the traditional main course of the Pope's Easter dinner, and it is still customarily served on Easter Sunday in many European countries.
The Easter Egg is associated with beliefs of particularly ancient origin. The egg was an important symbol in the mythologies of many early civilizations, including those of India and Egypt. It was commonly believed that the universe developed from a great egg and that the halves of its shell corresponded to Heaven and earth. The egg was also connected with the springtime fertility rituals of many pre-Christian and Indo-European peoples, like the old Cretans, and both the Egyptians and the Persians made a practice of coloring eggs in the spring.
Greeks mainly color eggs red (scarlet) to signify the blood of Christ. They use hard-boiled eggs (painted red on Holy Thursday) which are baked into twisted sweet-bread loaves or distributed on Easter Sunday; people rap their eggs against their friends' eggs and the owner of the last uncracked egg is considered lucky.
The 50 days which follow Easter are signified by the Pentecostarion, which are dedicated to the spiritual enjoyment of the participants in the deep belief that God is with all men in everyday life and thoughts.
Easter begins on the Saturday of Lazarus (the Saturday before Palm Sunday, 1 week before Easter Sunday) with children going from door to door singing the hymn of "Lazaros" and collecting money and eggs.
On the morning of Palm Sunday people gather in church and are given a cross made from palm fronds, which they put on their icon-stands at home and keep it for the whole of the coming year.
Every evening throughout Holy Week, people gather in church to follow with devoutness the Passion of Christ.
On Holy Tuesday, housewives make sweet rolls, the koulourakia, and the following day they do the housework, while in the evening they follow the blessing of Holy Oil that takes place in church.
Holy Thursday is the day for dyeing eggs. In the evening, after the reading of the 12 Gospel, the girls undertake the decoration of the bier of Christ (epitaphios) with garlands of white and purple flowers, so that in the morning of Good Friday it is ready to receive the image of the body of Christ when He is taken down from the cross.
Good Friday is a day of mourning. The drama of the death of Christ is followed with great devoutness. Sweet things are not eaten-for the love of Christ, who was given vinegar to drink. Soup made with sesame-paste, lettuce or lentils with vinegar is the food eaten on this day. It is considered a great sin to work with a hammer or nails or sew on Good Friday.
Vesper evening on Good Friday is followed by the procession of the bier (representing Christ's funeral). A band or choir playing or singing solemn music precedes the procession; they are followed by the cantors, the clergy, women bearing myrrh, the altar boys carrying the liturgical fans, scouts and guides, and the people of the region, who sing the hymns throughout the procession. All along its route, people scatter flowers and perfumes on the epitaphios (bier), holding lighted candles in their hands.
On Holy Saturday evening, the Resurrection mass (Anastasi =resurrection, the Resurrection of Jesus) takes place. At midnight the ceremony of lighting of candles is the most significant moment of the year. People, carefully, take home their lighted candles with the holy light of the Resurrection. Before entering their houses they make a cross with the smoke of the candle on top of the door, they light the oil candle before their icon-stand, and try to keep this light burning throughout the year.
The Midnight service is without a doubt the most important day on the calendar. At midnight all the lights are extinguished in the church and the priest comes from behind the doors on the altar carrying a candle. He walks to someone in the front row and lights their candle and these people who receive the light of the resurrection, the light is a symbol of the resurrection, pass the light from candle to candle and the light fills the church. Everybody leaves the church just before midnight, singing a song the words of which mean, Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. Through death conquering death. At midnight at the moment of the resurrection all the families have gone to church together, all standing sort of huddled in these little insular units and everybody kisses everybody and say, 'Christos anesti, Christos anesti, Christ has risen, indeed He has risen. And it's a very touching moment. In the moment of conquering death, it has a certain meaning to kiss your grandparents at that point, who you know you'll be burying soon. And to be kissing the children who are coming up, who will be replacing you in the next generation. And there's a feeling of the weight of centuries. People have been saying these prayers unchanged for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years.
In Crete it's a custom to carry this candle back home, taking care the flame is not extinguished. At the house 3 crosses are made with the flame above the entrance door: the black soot 'paints' the crosses, in order to bless the house and its inhabitants by the light of Christ's resurrection.