This Is How We Do It: “Greek” Easter

I’ve always sort of cringed at the words “Greek Easter” for the simple fact that it’s not “Greek” Easter, it’s “Orthodox Easter”.  It is celebrated the exact same way (save cultural traditions), and has been for thousands of years, in not only Greece, but Russia, Serbia, Armenia, Syria and in every other Orthodox church around the world.

I was recently sent this article by actress Rita Wilson (wife of Tom Hanks) and I wanted to share it with all of you.

I’ve added some of our personal photos below, for those of you who may not be familiar with some of the things mentioned in the article.

Why Easter is Greek to Me: Xristos Anesti!

by Rita Wilson

From the Washington Post.com

(Actress Rita Wilson, whose mother and father both were born in Greece, is widely credited with landing Nia Vardalos a movie deal for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Wilson and her actor husband Tom Hanks had their own “Big Fat Greek Wedding” in 1988. They have two children.)

Why Easter is Greek to Me: Xristos Anesti!

Once every few years, Greek Easter falls the same week as “American Easter,” as it was called when I was growing up.

In order for “Greek Easter” to be celebrated the same week as “American Easter,” Passover has to have been celebrated already. We Greeks don’t do Easter until after Passover, because how can you have Easter BEFORE Passover? Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, after all. Unless it is one of the years when the two holidays align. Like this year.

Here are some of the things that non-Greeks may not know about Greek Easter: We don’t do bunnies. We don’t do chocolate. We don’t do pastels.

We do lamb, sweet cookies, and deep red. The lamb is roasted and not chocolate, the sweet cookies are called Koulorakia and are twisted like a braid, and our Easter eggs are dyed one color only: blood red. There is no Easter Egg hunt. There is a game in which you crack your red egg against someone else’s red egg hoping to have the strongest egg, which would indicate you getting a lot of good luck.

Holy Week, for a Greek Orthodox, means you clear your calendar, you don’t make plans for that week at all because you will be in church every day, and you fast. Last year, in addition to not eating meat and dairy before communion, my family also gave up sodas for the 40-day Lenten period. (Editor’s Note: Read why our eggs are dyed red here.)


During one particularly stressful moment, there were many phone calls amongst our kids as to whether or not a canned drink called TING, made with grapefruit juice and carbonated water was, in fact, a soda and not a juice, which our then 10-year-old decided it was, so we had a Ting-less Lent.

No matter where I find myself in the world I never miss Easter, or as we call it, Pascha. I have celebrated in Paris, London, New York City, Los Angeles, and in Salinas, California at a small humble church that was pure and simple.

When we were kids, our parents would take us, and now as parents ourselves we take our children to many of the Holy Week services including the Good Friday service where you mourn the death of Jesus by walking up to the Epitaphio, which represents the tomb and the crucified body of Christ, make your cross, kiss the Epitaphio, and marvel at how it was decorated, on Friday afternoon by all the women and children, with a thousand glorious flowers, rose petals and smells like incense.

Some very pious people will crawl under the Epitaphio. I have always been so moved to see this. There is no self-consciousness in this utter act of faith and love. There is no embarrassment to show symbolic sorrow at the death of our Savior.


At a certain point in the Good Friday service, the Epitaphio is carried outside by the deacons of the church, as if they are pall bearers, followed by worshippers carrying lit candles protected from dripping on your clothes and on others by having a red plastic cup that sits below the flame to catch the wax drippings. Every Greek person knows all too well the smell of burning hair.


One time, in London, I smelled something and turned to look at where the smell might be coming from, only to be horrified that it was coming from me and my head was on fire. But I digress.

It is somber and quiet as we follow the Epitaphio, in candlelight, from the altar to the outdoors, in order for it to circle the church before it returns back to the altar. We sing beautiful lamentations that make your heart break with their pure expression of sadness and hope.

One of my favorite services during Easter is Holy Unction. This happens on the Wednesday of Holy Week. Holy Unction is a sacrament. It is for the healing of our ills, physical and spiritual. It is preparing us for confession and communion. This sacrament has always been so humbling to me.

When you approach the priest for Holy Unction, you bow your head and as he says a prayer and asks for your Christian name, he takes a swab of blessed oil and makes the sign of the cross on your forehead, cheeks, chin, backs of your hands and palms. It is a powerful reminder of how, with faith, we can be healed in many ways.

The holy oil is then carefully dabbed with cotton balls provided by the church so you don’t leave there looking as if you’re ready to fry chicken with your face, and before you exit the church, you leave your cotton balls in a basket being held by altar boys, so as not to dispose of the holy oil in a less than holy place. The church burns the used cotton balls.

There have been times when I have left church with my cotton ball and have panicked when I am driving away. At home I take care of it. Imagine a grown woman burning cotton balls in her sink. But that is what I do.

Midnight Liturgy on Saturday night, going into Sunday morning is the Anastasi (Resurrection) service. We will arrive at church at around 11 p.m., when it starts, and listen to the chanter as he chants in preparation for the service. My kids, dressed in their suits and having been awakened from a deep sleep to come to church, groggily sit and wait holding their candles with plastic cup wax catchers.

As the service progresses, the moment we have all been waiting for approaches. All the lights in the church are all turned off. It is pitch black. It is dead quiet. The priest takes one candle and lights his one candle from the one remaining lit altar candle, which represents the light of Christ’s love (I believe).

From this one candle, the priest approaches the congregation and using his one candle he shares his light with a few people in the front pews. They in turn share their light with the people next to them and behind them. In quiet solemnity, we wait until the entire church is lit with only the light of candles; the light that has been created by one small flame has now created a room of shared light. (Editor’s Note: See Miracle of the Holy Light that takes place in Jerusalem at the tomb of Christ every year.)

And at a moment that can only be described as glorious, the priest cries out, “Xristos Anesti!” “Christ is Risen!” We respond with “Alithos Anesti!” “Truly, He is Risen!” We sing our glorious Xristos Anesti song with the choir. That moment, which happens about an hour, to an hour and half into the service and seems as if the service is over, actually marks the beginning of the service. The service then continues for another hour and a half.

When I was a kid, after the service was over, we would go to the Anastasi Dinner that the church would throw in the church hall, where we would break our fast, drink Cokes at 2:30 in the morning, dance to a raucous Greek band and not go home until our stomachs were full of lamb, eggs, Koulouraki, and we saw the sun rise. Or was it the Son rise?

But usually now, after Midnight Liturgy, we drive home with our still-lit candles. I always love seeing the looks on people’s faces as they pull up to our car seeing a family with lit candles calmly moving at 65 m.p.h. down the highway. When we get home, we crack eggs, eat cookies, drink hot chocolate (so not Greek) and I burn a cross into our doorways with the carbon from the candle smoke to bless our house for the year. (Editor’s Note: This tradition is in remembrance of the mark made on top of the Israelites doors during Passover.)

There have been many times when painters touching up the house have wondered why there was this strange black cross burned into our doorways.

The next day is usually followed by a late sleep in, then getting up and doing the same thing you just did but in the daytime at the Easter Picnic, usually held at a local park.

I have to say, the Greeks know how to do Easter. Make no mistake. This is the most important holiday in our church. It is a beautiful week. I haven’t even begun to touch on what the week is really like. This is a sampling of a sampling of what it is like. It is so much deeper, so much richer than I have written here.

But one thing is clear. It is a powerful, beautiful, mysterious, humbling, healing and moving week. It is filled with tradition and ritual. It is about renewal and faith. And even though it is still too early to say, Xristos Anesti! Alithos Anesti! Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

Comments

  1. How beautiful! God speaks to me so clearly through symbolism and parables. Thank you for sharing this beautiful observance of our Savior's most beautiful Sacrifice and Victory!

  2. That was such a wonderful explanation!

  3. Mrs Tom Hanks is Orthodox! Wow! I didn't know that!Russian Orthodox Easter is pretty much the same in every respect – except that we're a bit sloppy, so we don't get our children (8 years and under) dressed up. We tend to bring them in their pyjamas with a soft blanket or a pillow, and they snooze on the floor through the readings. There's some thing very "family" about being in a church full of people who have travelled through Lent with you.Wishing you and yours (and all Orthodox Christians) a very blessed Pascha!“Христос Воскрес!” (“Christ has risen!”), “Воистину воскрес!” (He has risen, indeed!)

  4. Exactly! Funny, in Canada we call it the 'other Easter' or 'Canadian Easter'. Thank you for sharing the article & photos!

  5. Thanks for posting this wonderful and funny article by Rita Wilson otherwise I would have missed it! I couldn't agree more with you that Orthodox Pascha traditions around the world are just as vibrant and steeped with meaning as what you will find in the Greek Orthodox Church. Actually, I just started my own blog, "The Orthodox Classroom" at http://orthodoxclassroom.blogspot.com where I touch on the symbolic significance of the foods included in the Pascha basket prepared by Russian Orthodox Christians and there are many similarities to the Greek tradition. My blog includes a Sunday School lesson around this and in particular the significance of the red Pascha egg.

  6. Great article indeed and I am glad that you have pointed out that Greek or Romanian, her explanation was of the Orthodox Christian faith and not just the Greeks'. I wish she could sway her husband from making such a mockery of the Christian faith in general with his movies!

  7. Christ is risen! Χριστός Ανέστη!

  8. Χριστός Ανέστη! Reading this blog and all the posts is so inspiring and displays the true essence of Orthodox Christianity, that Christ is love.

  9. I've never heard of the crosses- beautiful tradition

  10. It was wonderful to read of your traditions. It is such a good and valuable thing for others to get a taste of different traditions than their own. We too have certain Easter traditions in our United Methodist Church. Praise God for Easter! He is risen indeed!

  11. Christ is Risen!Rita Wilson donated to our church a few years ago, wish I could meet her and thank her…I love how you sprinkled such nice photos throughout her article!

  12. Χριστός Ανέστη!Great article indeed!

  13. I love your blog, and gave you an award! Stop by my blog and accept it! :)

  14. Χριστός Ανέστη!!! Keep up the great posts!

  15. So, no Easter baskets? I never did like this tradition here. Now that i have six kids and less money, I dislike it even more. Seems like every holy day has turned into a chance ti spend more money. My kids always feel bad when they watch around and see their friends baskets overflowing. I grew up without baskets, we had food on our table to give to the neighbors when they would stop by to exchange their food goods.

  16. Parthena Wollen says:

    One thing that I didn’t see mentioned was the Sunday morning service. It is a beautiful service of love spoken in several languages. Our church is usually packed with small children. So sweet and one of my absolute favorites.

  17. Paul Gorsky says:

    I am Russian Orthodox and we do almost everything that Rita wrote about. very well written! Thank You for sharing!

  18. Edward Growney says:

    the sweet cookies are called Koulorakia and are twisted like a braid !!!

  19. Areti Sfaelos says:

    thank you a million thanks Mrs Wilson, for explaining so accuratly the most important religious holliday for us greek orthodox, i am touched and mouved that those traditions are still being respected ( i am not alone),now days every body seems to be making excuses in order not to fallow them, unfortunatly I know people that can’t even respect Good Friday,asking them to fast 1 day out of 365 days a years is to much let olone one whole week. The fact that you have mad your children fallow also, bravo and thank you again.
    Καλλη Ανασταση!!!

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