Greek Orthodox Easter
Greek Orthodox Easter in Greece (Credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis from Santorini, Greece, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Twelve spectacular destinations to celebrate Greek Easter

Athens, Chalkidiki, Chios, Corfu, Crete, Folegandros, Hydra, Leonidio, Meteora, Patmos, Rhodes, Syros

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Undoubtedly, the most important holiday in Greece is Orthodox Easter, or “Pascha” in Greek. Each corner of the country celebrates this religious holiday with zeal, grandeur and enthusiasm. Greek Easter stands out as a vibrant and captivating celebration that blends religious devotion with age-old customs. Holy Week, or as it is known in Greek “Megali Evdomada” is the week from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. It institutes the sanctity of the whole calendar year of the Eastern Orthodox Church and Greeks immerse themselves in the profound spiritual significance of the occasion. Here’s a rundown of what it all means. Keep in mind that Holy Friday and Easter Monday are public holidays.

Easter liturgies

Holy Monday: liturgy commemorates the blessed and noble Joseph and the fig tree which was cursed and withered by the Lord.

Holy Tuesday: Commemorates the parable of the Ten Virgins which aims to teach people to be full of faith and charity. On this evening is sung the beautiful “Hymn of Cassiane.” 

Holy Wednesday: The sacred ceremony of the Mysterion of the Holy Unction takes place in the evening, following an old custom. At the end of the service, the priest anoints the people with Holy Oil, the visible carrier of the Grace of God.

Holy Thursday: The day marks the Last Supper that Jesus shares with his disciples, his betrayal by his disciple Judas Iscariot, and his arrest at the Garden of Gethsemane. On Holy Thursday’s evening mass, the reading of the Twelve Gospels takes place.

Holy Friday: Commemorates Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, his sentence of death, his torture, and his crucifixion and burial.

Holy Saturday: In the morning, psalms are read and Resurrection hymns are sung which tell of Christ’s descent into Hades. The priest follows the custom of tossing of laurel, saying: “Arise, O God, and judge Thou the earth. A late-night Easter Vigil service is held, which is really two parts.

Easter Sunday (Saturday midnight): The life-giving Resurrection of Jesus Christ is celebrated. In many churches, the priest leads the people outside the church, where he reads the Gospel which refers to the Angel’s statement: “He is Risen; He is not here.”

Easter Sunday (afternoon): The Gospel according to John (20:19-25) is read in various languages, proclaiming the Good News of Resurrection all over the universe without discrimination. The faithful gather once more for prayer with lighted candles. All sing the hymn, “Christ is Risen from the Dead.” The people greet one another joyously, saying: “Christ is Risen,” the Easter salutation which is answered, “Truly He is Risen.” 

Here we will take you on a journey to 12 Greek destinations with unique Easter traditions and customs.
Mark your calendars for Orthodox Easter Day (May 5, 2024) and get ready for an unforgettable experience full of spirituality, sacred rituals, ancient-old traditions, gastronomical and musical celebrations.

ATHENS

The midnight Resurrection Mass on Holy Saturday, Metropolitan Cathedral Athens (Credit: dogma.gr)

At this time of year, many Athenians head for their ancestral homes on the islands or in the countryside to visit relatives and loved ones. The Easter Exodus, makes the Greek capital an ideal destination for someone to visit at a more relaxed pace. In Athens, an important tradition is the arrival and distribution of the Holy Fire, brought in by airplane from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to the Church of Aghioi Anargyroi on Erechtheos Street in Plaka on the night of the Holy Resurrection. Agioi Anargyroi has functioned as an embassy church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem since the 18th century and is a focal point for the Orthodox Easter celebration. From there, the Holy Fire is taken to the Metropolitan Cathedral and then distributed to churches throughout Attica and rest of Greece. Fireworks burst and bang into the sky above the Acropolis, while bells ring frantically from every church in Athens. Streets fill up with pedestrians returning home with their lit candles.

CHALKIDIKI

The old custom of “Koutsmanos” takes place in Arnaia, Chalkidiki (Credit: newsbeast.gr)

At Ierissos , the a small town located near the border with Athos in the peninsula of Chalkidiki , the joy of the Resurrection is connected with an event that has left its mark on this place: the massacre of 400 people by the Ottoman Turks during the Greek War of Independence in 1821. On Easter Tuesday, at the location Mavro Aloni, locals honor the victims’ memory with a slow dance called “Kageleftos.” At the last part of the song, the first two dancers join hands, creating an arch, representing the sword of the Turks. From this arch pass all the dancers twice. The line of dancers starts off with just the elderly locals, but soon everyone joins. Also on Easter Tuesday, at the chapel of Prophet Elias in the village of Arnaia revives the old custom of “Koutsmanos.” Participants dressed in traditional costumes head to the chapel. When they arrive, the chapel’s icons are being processed and the dance “Koutsmanos” begins.

CHIOS

Rouketopolemos” Chios island (Credit: Dimitris Tachynakos, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Easter at Chios is very special. This North Aegean island is famous for one of the most spectacular customs that take place during this religious holiday in Greece.  Locals from the two largest parishes of Vrontados village, namely Panagia Erithiani and Agios Markos revel in fireworks called “Rouketopolemos” (rocket war), a traditional event that dates back to the Ottoman era. Tens of thousands of homemade rockets, fired from grooved platforms, crisscross the sky, with the goal of hitting the opponent’s bell tower, providing an unrivaled view. While this war is being waged, a significant number of tourists is looking on in awe and the midnight liturgy is still performed inside each church.

CORFU

Botides Easter custom in Corfu (Credit: https://www.corfu-airport-carhire.com)

The Ionian island is extraordinary at any time of the year but during Easter is at its best. There are a lot of spectacular festivities, traditions and customs that make thousands of visitors fall in love with Corfu.
On Palm Sunday (the Sunday right before the Holy Week ), the litany of the Holy Shrine of Saint Spyridon- Corfu’s protector – in which all the 15 Corfiot Philharmonic bands take part – starts at 11 am, in recognition of the miraculous deliverance of the island from the spread of the deadly plague that decimated its people in 1629. Another impressive custom is the throwing of clay pitchers (botides) on Holy Saturday morning. In the town’s historic center, the Corfiotes throw ceramic pots of all sizes off their balconies, yelling “Christos Anesti”  (Christ is risen).  The pots are filled with water to make even louder crashing sounds. At the same time, bands play music throughout the town, and everyone is outdoors taking part in the festivities. The custom is said to be linked to the biblical verse “You will dash them to pieces like pottery” (Psalm 2:9).

CRETE

Cretans use wild orchid species, the famous “violes” of Lambrini or “sweet little eyes” to decorate the Epitaph in the village of Marmaketo in the Plateau of Lassithi (Credit: https://taxidevoumemazi.gr)

The largest island in Greece celebrates Easter by staying true to its traditions. On the evening of Holy Friday in the town of Heraklion, the Epitaph processions of various churches (Aghios Minas, Aghios Titos and Aghios Dimitrios)  meet at the main intersection at Lions Square. Men and women, children, bishops, priests, soldiers and tourists chant with burning candles in their hands, creating a special religious picture. After the procession, Cretans go to taverns to eat fasting delicacies. One of the most unique Epitaphs is that of Saint John the Theologian in the village of Marmaketo in the Plateau of Lasithi. For the decoration of the Epitaph, women gather various wild orchid species, the famous “violes” of Lambrini or “sweet little eyes.” Another tradition is the “burning of Judah” in all the towns and villages from Chania to Ierapetra. A doll in human growth, made of old clothes, is being burned, symbolizing the death of Judah on the evening of Holy Saturday.

FOLEGANDROS

Litany of the icon of Panagia Odigitria, Folegandros (Credit: Municipality of Folegandros)

On Easter Sunday the three-day litany of the icon of Panagia Odigitria (“Virgin Mary Guide Leader”) begins in the Cycladic island of Folegandros. The large silver icon (usually adorned with reddish flowers) descends from the church of Panagia of Folegandros, dedicated to the Assumption of Virgin Mary to bless every home of the island. The icon passes through Chora and the streets of Kastro (the oldest quarter of the island) and the picturesque village of Ano Meria, to end up in Karavostassis, in the port, where all the caique  fishing boats and yachts are also blessed. Delicacies such as tsourekia, milk-pies and honey-pies are offered to the crowd of worshippers accompanying the procession.

HYDRA

Marine Epitaphios” in Hydra island (Credit: Municipality of Hydra)

The cosmopolitan island of the Argosaronic Gulf is the ideal place to visit at this traditionally rich time of year. Renowned for its maritime heritage, Hydra enjoys a unique tradition, the “Marine Epitaphios.” On Holy Friday, the flower-decorated Epitaphios (wooden bier representing the funerary bier of Christ) of the parish of Aghios Ioannis Prodromos literally enters the sea at the picturesque fishing village of Kaminia. This tradition is a way of blessing the island’s waters, vessels and seafarers. Another unique Easter tradition in Hydra is the symbolic Burning of Judas. On Easter Sunday, Hydriots dressed as fireship captains shoot at the effigy of Christ’s fallen disciple until it bursts into flames. The spectacle attracts many locals and foreigners to the port of Hydra.

LEONIDIO

Hot-air ballons tradition, Leonidio, Peloponnese (Credit: Epathlo.gr)

The great Greek playwright Dimitris Psathas wrote “(enjoy the) Carnival in Patras and Easter in Leonidio…”  The charming seaside town of Leonidio in the southeast Peloponnese is home to some spectacular Easter traditions. More than 500 colourful hot-air ballons are released into the sky on the night of the Resurrection. The event dates back to the 19th century when local sailors who, as they traveled across the world, were fascinated by a similar Far East tradition. The festive atmosphere is completed with the merry sound of chiming bells, fireworks, and firecrackers. On Easter Sunday, the Feast of Love ritual is held at the main square. A priest reads the Gospel in the critically endangered
Tsakonian language, which is derived from the ancient Greek Doric dialect, spoken by the ancient Spartans. This is followed by Tsakonian dances and more balloons released into the sky.

METEORA

Monasteries of Meteora, Thessaly (Credit: christianityart.gr)

The imposing rock formation in Thessaly, is hosting the second largest monastic community in Greece after Mount Athos.  The monasteries of Meteora originally numbered 24 and were established atop the rocks between the 13th and 14th centuries. Only six of them are active today (Great Meteoron; the oldest and largest monastery, The Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Rousanou, Varlaam, Saint Nicolaos Anapausas, Saint Stephen; the most accessible of all six). The combination of the raw beauty of Greek nature with religious traditions makes Meteora an attraction for visitors worldwide. Pilgrims attend the services of the Holy Week, particularly the services of Holy Thursday, Holy Friday (when Epitaphios, or funerary procession of the bier of Christ takes place) and on the midnight of Holy Saturday, in a setting of pure devotion as the rituals here reflect the philosophy of monasticism.

PATMOS

The custom of “Niptiras”, Patmos (Credit: Aristeidis Miaoulis https://www.youtube.com/@aristidismiaoulis4812)

The island of the Apocalypse is one of the most spiritual places to visit during this major religious occasion. The most special day is Holy Thursday, when at 11 am, the 400-year-old custom of “Niptiras” takes place. A grand procession begins at the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian and ends at the town hall square in Chora, where the Abbot symbolically washes the feet of the 12 monks. This custom is a reenactment of Christ washing the feet of his disciples before the Last Supper. Other key events take place on Holy Friday when 10 Epitaphs are paraded on the island. The customs and celebrations of Easter are completed on Tuesday after Easter Sunday with the procession of icons and relics of the Monastery on the square of Agia Levias in Chora.

RHODES

(“Kalafounos” in the village of Aghios Isidoros, Rhodes)

The medieval ambience of the South Aegean island provides the perfect setting for Easter. On Holy Friday, the most sacred day of the Holy Week, the most solemn Epitaph procession is that of Agios Fanourios winding through the narrow alleys of the Medieval City. Another unique procession is that of the Epitaph of Panagia Katholiki in the village of Kremasti.  On Holy Saturday, a very special Easter tradition, the “vourna”, takes place in the village of Aghios Isidoros. Only single men can participate, and they need to follow a series of rules and regulations like bring large tree trunks to light the “kalafounos” fire on Holy Saturday, and to hang the effigy of Judas in the village square. The ritual finishes on Easter Monday, with participants who haven’t followed the rules being punished by dunking in a “vourna” (a trough filled with water) with their clothes on.

SYROS

Procession of the epitaphs, Ermoupoli, Syros (Credit: SyrosToday.gr)

The capital of the Cyclades has the largest Catholic community in Greece. Here Catholics and Orthodox celebrate Easter on the same day with the Orthodox Church. On Holy Friday evening the Catholic Epitaph from the Church of the Annunciation and the Orthodox Epitaph from the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary meet in Miaouli Square in Ermoupoli, creating an extraordinary Easter experience. Right there, in front of the  imposing City Hall building, hymns are sung by the choir and the Municipal Philharmonic in a deeply moving atmosphere. The candlelit procession of the epitaphs is one of the most solemn and poignant ceremonies of the Holy Week, touching everyone’s souls.