Easter or Pascha in Greek, is the most sacred and celebrated of all Greek holidays, taking on a bigger significance even than Christmas for many Cypriots. It is not always celebrated on the same date as the Catholic or Protestant Church as the Greek Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar when calculating Easter. This year Greek Easter is one week later than the Catholic and Protestant Church.
Around the island, build up to Easter has been very important, and following the carnivals of February and the 50 day period of ‘Triodion’, for strengthening faith to the Lord, Easter with its associated ‘mourning’ and then ‘glorification’ of the Resurrection commences. The 50 days following Easter are signified by the ‘Pentecostarion’, and are dedicated to the spiritual enjoyment of the participants in the deep belief that God is with all men in their everyday spiritual life. The total number of 100 days that are dedicated to Easter, 50 before its actual preparation and another 50 after it, thus commemorate the glorification of the Lord.
The word Pascha means Passover in Greek, the eternal Passover from death to life and from earth to heaven, and begins with a 40-day fasting, ending within the Holy Week during which a complete fasting diet is followed. No meats, dairy, fish, poultry or dishes that are prepared with these foods can be eaten. Many restaurants around the island also adapt their menus for the convenience of customers who may wish to follow a fasting diet.
The solemnity of Holy Week, the week before Easter, ends with the commencement of Easter celebrations, where it glorifies the Resurrection of Jesus. During this week, the women bake the special Easter breads ‘Tsourekia’ and ‘Flaounes’, dye the Easter eggs and decorate their houses accordingly.
Church services and parades are held on Good Friday ‘Epitaphios’ and the Saturday Resurrection midnight mass which is called ‘Anastasis’. On Good Friday, the day when Christ was taken down from the cross, most shops and businesses are closed and flags are flown at half-mast in commemoration to Christ. On Friday evening, services are held, and the bier of Christ is decorated with gold cloth and fresh flowers, where the faithful bow and stoop to kiss the symbolic body of Christ. After this follows the procession of the ‘Epitaphios’ which is carried out of the church and paraded through the streets in a lengthy funeral procession.
Easter Saturday, is the day of ‘Anastasi’ or resurrection and is the most important day of the Orthodox calendar. Most of the Cypriot people (and many others) attend a service held on this evening. At midnight all the lights are extinguished in the church and the priest comes from behind the doors of the altar carrying a candle. Walking to somebody in the front row and lighting their candle, this person and so on then pass a light from candle to candle and the light fills the church, symbolizing the Resurrection. Everyone then kisses one another and exchanges the words ‘Christos Anesti’ – Christ has risen, ‘Alithos Anesti’ – truly He has risen. Each person then carries the candle back home, taking care not to let the flame go out. Once home, 3 crosses are made with the flame above the entrance door, in order to bless the house and its inhabitants by the light of Christ’s resurrection. It is also customary to light a huge bonfire in the churchyard to symbolize the burning of Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus.
After the mass, people traditionally go home to sit and eat ‘mageiritsa’ a soup made of lamb’s innards bringing the fasting to an end. After the ‘mageirista’ dyed red, hard-boiled eggs are brought to the table. The red color signifies the blood of Christ, and these decorated eggs are a symbol of Resurrection, representing the emergence of Christ from His tomb to everlasting life. Traditionally people then rap their eggs against their relatives’ eggs, a bit like conkers, and the owner of the last uncracked egg is considered lucky.
Good Sunday is a special day, when all families get together and a lamb is roasted on a spit in their yards or gardens. Early Christians associated the sacrifice of the lamb with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. As the whole island tends to take part in this particular tradition, you are likely to find a very thick smoke and smell almost throughout the island. If you are lucky enough to be invited to join a Cypriot family in this their most important holiday celebration of the year, please do so, it is a wonderful experience, and believe me the taste of a spit-roasted lamb beats foil wrapped chocolate eggs any day.
Truly a wonderful time of the year !