Easter in Crete

Despite the Greeks celebrate Christmas together with Catholics on December 25; the date of Orthodox Easter always coincides in Russia and in Greece. Why? The fact is that all the non-moving holidays (every year celebrated on the same days) are celebrated by the Greek Orthodox Church according to the new Gregorian calendar and the other ones according to the old Julian calendar. Since Russia did not switch to a new calendar at the time of the beginning of the last century, we celebrate some holidays with Greece together.

Therefore, if you want (or do not want) to come to Crete on the eve of one of the most significant holidays in the Orthodox world, just search the Internet for information about the date of Easter celebration in Russia.

Of course, the question is more rhetorical: “Do you want to see the Orthodox Cretans preparing for Easter and how they celebrate this joyful holiday, and spend the following days?” However, there are indeed some awkwardnesses for tourists.

The first of them is related to the fact that the cost of the trip during the upcoming holidays will be significantly higher. If this does not bother you, consider that you have to plan your trip very much in advance. The Great week before Easter and the festive week after Easter are the time of school holidays. Additionally, since Great (Holy) Friday and until Monday-Tuesday of Easter week many institutions and offices are closed: the Greeks use this weekend to visit their relatives. There are many travelers from the continent to the islands, so tickets for domestic flights on airplanes and ferries from Athens and Thessaloniki are bought up half a year before the upcoming holidays. From this brisk movement arises a second not very pleasant awkwardness on the island of Crete—the density of traffic on roads and cities increases, as well as the load on public transport. These days will not work either banks, or travel agencies, or supermarkets, so you have to do all the important things and buy products in advance. Only then you can completely relax and join the celebration of Easter with Cretans.

As a rule, even the most of not affiliated to a Church Greeks try to keep the fast at the last of its Great Week. Fortunately, the Lenten fast on Crete is transferred much more easily than in Russia, because in April already appear the first harvests of ground cucumbers and tomatoes, zucchini, new potatoes, artichokes, strawberries and many other delicious gifts of nature. Large amounts of nuts, honey, olives and a huge variety of Lenten dishes in the daily diet of the Cretans makes the lentil meals pleasant and varied. The realization that everyone around you is fasting also gives moral strength and a feeling of unity within the Orthodox people. If you wish to join the Lenten fast (νηστεία [nistia] in Greek), then in any tavern or restaurant when ordering food, ask to be advised to Lenten dishes – νηστίσιμα (nistisima). They are a lot on Crete: yamista (vegetables stuffed with rice and wheat, flavored with herbs), spanakorizo (a dish of a large amount of spinach with rice and olive oil), fakes (lentil soup), fasolada (vegetable soup with beans)—one can list them endlessly!

In a sacharoplasteio (it is so-called Cretan patisserie), during this time, customers are offered a large assortment of Lenten pastries and sweets; and in almost all supermarkets you can find milk from herbal products: coconut, almond, soy, so that you do not need refuse your usual morning cappuccino with cookies!

Of course, the sense of fasting is not in replacing some products with others. This is not a diet, but a time when we should try to tame our passions, anger, should learn more patience with others and ourselves, try not to use bad language, avoid condemnation and deception, more often think on the soul, and visit the temple to offer a heartfelt prayer as a sign of the humility.

In the Great Week, the Greeks try as often as possible, to visit a temple, where at the time stands decorated Epitaphios (Holy Sepulcher). It is a construction, similar a bed, with high legs and high carved walls. Inside the Epitaphios is the icon of Jesus Christ, wrapped in linen cloth (symbolizing the shroud in which the body of Christ was wrapped). Every person visiting the temple must pass (crawl) under the Epitaphios—this is a symbol of humility before the Lord. The temples themselves and their courtyards are decorated with fresh flowers and garlands of Byzantine and Greek triangular flags; the special atmosphere of the upcoming feast of the Resurrection of Christ is in the air.

On Good Friday evening, parishioners gather for περιφορά του επιταφίου—a procession symbolizing the funeral of Jesus Christ. People dressed in mourning clothes bear at the head of the procession a cross with a crucifix, followed by men carrying the Epitaphios, around which girls dressed in black clothes sing prayers –the same ones that are read at the funeral – followed by the rest of the procession. In the villages, they stop in front of each house, residents come out to kiss the cross and make donation to the church. The procession also stops in front of the houses in which there was a funeral last year, and the priest commemorates in prayer those who left. On Holy Saturday, the Cretans complete the preparations for the celebration, and late in the evening the families go to churches and monasteries for festive worship. Lambada—an elegant candle for a festive service—is a mandatory attribute on this night. Almost from the beginning of the Lenten fast, these Easter candles are beginning to appear on sale. They are more like works of art and most often are bought as a gift, taking in account liking, hobby or profession of the person to whom they are intended. So, for girls the candle can be “dressed” in the costume of the beloved princess and have key-ring with her image, for women who are fond of sewing—a set of needles, a centimeter and a thimble, for men engaged in carpentry work—miniature tools and pieces of wood. All these candles are exclusively handmade, and the imagination of their creators is limitless. Often, candles are sold by charities, and all sales are transferred to help people in need. Therefore, if you have an opportunity to help, do not pass by and choose a candle for Easter service or as a souvenir.

Right at midnight, the priest says, “Christos Anesti!” This means “Christos is Risen!” Easter has begun! People gladly pass on the good news to each other and answer: “Alithos Aneste!” So Cretans will greet each other throughout Easter week. They try to bring to their houses still lighting candles and lamps, lit from the sacred fire: it is considered a good sign. Another custom on Crete is to paint a cross on the ceiling above the threshold to consecrate his housing with the sacred fire before to bring it in.

In the villages of mountain Crete, there is one more midnight tradition. Exactly at midnight huge bonfires are lit, symbolizing the burning of Judas. Moreover, there is a constant competition between the villages: whose fire will be the highest, brightest and long burning this year. For this, one month before Easter, teenage boys from villages together start collecting dry logs and branches. The most terrible thing in the competition is to see your fire lit before the onset of the holiday: young boys from other villages try to lit bonfire of neighbors to eliminate their rivals. Therefore, closer to Easter, around-the-clock duty is arranged around the bonfire sites: the guys watch and watch day and night, and their parents help the children as they can, because honor of the village is at stake.

At home on this night, after a long fast, is waiting Mageritsa soup—the first modest meal after the onset of the holiday. At Easter on Crete, it is customary to cut a goat or a lamb and fry it in a special way called Antichristo. The animal carcass is cut lengthwise and then half in half across. Each part is strung on a metal or wooden rod (a long sturdy skewer) and roasted around the fire, occasionally turning each side towards the fire. The process lasts about three hours, and the meat turns out unusually juicy, tender and tasty. But from the giblets of animals, special Easter dishes are prepared: Mageritsa soup and kokoretsi. Mageritsa is a soup, approximately similar to Russian green soup with spinach and sorrel, but the first one is with rice. Kokoretsi contains all lamb’s giblets with salt and spices, strung on a skewer and wrapped in lamb’s intestine. In this form it is baked on a spit. The result is already just a matter of taste.

In the morning, preparation for a feast begins. Men fry Antichristo, women cut salads and set the table, relatives gather. Like us, the Greeks make egg tapping competition on the winner, and a noisy feast begins! If you find yourself by chance next to such a feast, be sure, you will be fed and given to drink like a native, because the guest on Crete—both welcome, and unexpected—is always welcome!

Olga Morozova