Greek Traditions - Spring and
Spring, in Greece, is the time
of year that we celebrate quite an array of Holidays. It all
starts with the Season of ‘Apokries’ or what you would call
Carnival and Mardi Gras.
The season of the Great Lent
begins with Clean Monday and ends with Good Saturday. It lasts
for 7 weeks, including Holy Week for the Greek Orthodox
Church, different from the Roman Catholic Church, which
celebrates Lent for 6 weeks.
Clean Monday marks the start of
the great 48-day fast for Lent or ‘Sarakosti’ and Holy Week –
‘Megalo Eudomada’. All this builds up into the feast of
Easter, ‘Lambri or Pasca’, which is determined by the Julian
Calendar and is the most celebrated holiday for the Greek
Greek traditions and customs
vary not only from Island to Island but from village to
village as well. I’ve given you just a taste of what goes on
here in Rhodes. Many of these rituals this time of year, are
religious ones, closely related or have roots to the teachings
of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Kales Apokries, Kali Sarakosti,
ke Kalo Pasca (Happy Carnival, Good Lent, and Happy Easter)
on this Page
On March 1st, it is
customary for mothers to braid bracelets for their children.
These bracelets are called ‘Martis’. They are made of red and
white string and are tied onto the wrists of the children.
The superstition is that the
children wear these bracelets so that the sun of early spring
doesn’t burn their cheeks. The bracelet is red and white,
symbolic of rosy cheeks yet a white complexion.
The bracelets are worn until
the Midnight Mass of the Greek Orthodox Easter. When the
traditional bonfires are lit, the bracelets are removed and
thrown into the fires.
All Soul’s Day - Psihosavato
The Saturday before Pentecost
is called ‘Psihosavato’ or ‘All Soul’s Day’. It is the day
that the dead are remembered in Church services and memorials.
Families will give the priest lists of names of the deceased
and he will read them out loud in church as part of the
service. During the special services ‘Koliva’ are handed out
to all those in attendance.
On this evening, people will
dress up in their masquerade costumes and go from house to
house as this also marks the eve of the Apokries or Carnival.
Carnival - Apokries
Before the season of Lent,
there are the Apokries. For the duration of Lent through Holy
Week, weddings, parties, festivals and celebrations come to a
stop. Because there are many days of deprival through the
fasting season, and Greeks being the party people that they
are, they use the three weeks prior to lent to ‘lift up’ their
The three-week period of
Apokria consists of three feasts that are most celebrated on
the Sunday of the week. The first one is called ‘Protofoni’ or
‘First Voice’. It’s given the name because some one in Greek
Lore kept saying or voicing that the Apokries are here. The
only day of fasting this week is Friday since it precedes
‘Psihosavato’ – ‘All Souls Day’ and Lenten dishes are
The second feast is ‘Kreatini’
or ‘Meat Filled’ because during this week, it is allowed to
eat meat on Wednesday and Friday.
The Third feast is called
‘Tirini’ or ‘Cheese Filled’. As the name suggests, cheeses are
eaten throughout this week and in most villages, lots of pasta
too. On the Sunday of this week – the last day before Clean
Monday, we fast from meats but can still enjoy the Cheeses and
Through the entire Apokries,
people go to visit each other at their homes, playing games,
singing songs and telling jokes. Prudity and modesty are put
aside and good fun with good company prevails. Balloons and
streamers are decorated everywhere and it’s not uncommon to
walk down the street and get a face full of paper confetti.
It’s a time of happiness and celebration.
Adults and children alike,
dress up in costumes of one kind or another. You will even
find old women that will hang veils over their faces or smear
themselves with ashes from the fireplace just to spook the
younger children. At night, the maskers take to the streets,
singing, playing practical jokes and just plain having fun.
The bars, clubs and restaurants this time of year, are full of
people in costumes and quite often you won’t recognise who
you’re talking to.
The last night of Apokria is
the most celebrated and bonfires are lit in the streets. The
maskers sing songs and dance around them. When the flames die
down, some of the braver folk will jump over the fire to ‘burn
the fleas off’.
Some villages hold the
tradition that the man of the house secure a boiled egg on the
end of a string and rhythmically swing it into the open mouths
of the family members. This is done so that ‘ With the egg we
close our mouths and with the egg we open them again’ – the
coming of Easter and Easter eggs.
It is also said that on this
last night of Apokria, the younger members of the family
should genuflect before the elders and ask for forgiveness for
whatever sins they might have committed. This leaves their
hearts ‘Clean’ to celebrate the next day, which is Clean
All areas of Greece hold
parades that are lavish extravaganzas. Perhaps the most famous
is the Carnival of Patra on the mainland. Some people say that
the rituals of Apokries or Carnival have Pagan roots. I don’t
know about that, but I will say that Apokries in Greece are a
wonderful, magical time for the young and old.
‘Burnt’ Thursday - Tsikno Pempti
The Thursday of the second week
of Apokries is known as ‘Tsikno Pempti’ or ‘Burnt Thursday’.
It is traditional on this day to cook foods and let them char
or burn so that the smell is carried out through the village.
Charcoal pits burn bright on this day as most homes have
barbecues and maskers of all ages visit each other. It is also
a night filled with laughter and practical jokes.
Clean Monday - Kathari Deutera
Clean Monday is the first day
of ‘Sarakosti’ or the season of Lent. For a Greek Orthodox
observer, it marks the beginning of the great fast. On this
day, families will picnic in the country or beaches. The
picnics are simple affairs with everyday utensils and
colourful tablecloths laid next to pits that have been dug to
house hot charcoals to cook over.
The foods for this day are
‘Nistisima’ or Lenten and contain ‘no blood’. Fresh and
pickled vegetables, salads of all kinds, Laganes (a bread),
shellfish, octopus and squid as well as Halva make up the
menu. Meat, fish and dairy products are not allowed. Children
and adults play games and fly kites, as it is the tradition
for Clean Monday. (See Recipes Fasting Back To Carnival )
Feast of Lazarus – Toy Lazarou
The day before Palm Sunday is
the feast of Lazarus. It memorialises his resurrection and
special church services are said on this day. It is also
celebrated as a symbolic day for the coming of spring.
In the villages, children will
dress as ‘Lazarus’ in white sheets and wear daisy garlands
around their necks and in their hair. They go through the
streets singing traditional songs for the day and go house to
house with baskets, collecting gifts of cookies, cheese,
Easter eggs and candy.
This is also the Name Day for
all those named Lazarus.
The season of Lent and Easter
is a time when all village housewives will ‘spring clean’
their homes and properties. Houses and streets are given new
coats of white wash and homes are cleaned from one end to the
other. This is also the time of year that the men will begin
the chore of tilling their land, pruning their fruit and olive
trees as well as sowing their summer vegetables.
In days gone by, Easter was one
of the holidays that every member in the family got a new
outfit and a new pair of shoes – Christmas being the other.
Although we now live in times of abundance, it is still
customary for families to buy new outfits and shoes for Easter
and wear them to Church for the Resurrection and on Easter
The Godparents of children will
also purchase them gifts of clothing and bring them to the
house at the end of Holy Week. The mothers will make the
Godparents or ‘Koumpari’ Easter Baskets filled with home-made
Easter cookies, Tsourekia, Avgoules and dyed eggs. (See
Palm Sunday – To Vagion
‘ To Vagion’ or Palm Sunday
precedes Holy Week and commemorates Jesus Christ’s entrance
into Jerusalem. After the liturgy, pieces of palm leaves that
have been braided and tied into crosses are handed out to all
those in attendance. These crosses take their place in the
Iconostasio when they get home. Palm Sunday is day of fasting
from meats and dairy products. Traditionally, fish are eaten.
This is also the Name day
celebration for all those named ‘Vagianos’. I’ve tried to find
the English/Latin equivalent and the name ‘Palmer’ seems to
have the same meaning as ‘one bearing palms’.
Holy Thursday - Megali Pempti
Early on this day, the Greek
women will begin their Easter preparations by dying their
eggs. Traditionally, Greeks dyed only red coloured eggs to
symbolise Christ’s blood, but as modern times have come, we
too dye an assortment of colours.
On Holy Thursday Night the
Church will read twelve excerpts of the four gospels relating
Christ’s Passion in a long and solemn mass. After the first
six are read, a large wooden cross with a carved statue of
Christ is brought out and placed in front of the altar. With
this symbol of Christ’s hanging, the next six excerpts are
Since this day is symbolic of
Christ’s death, the village women will mourn all through the
night. Spending the night in church, in silent prayers until
Good Friday - Megali Paraskevi
Throughout Greece, Good Friday
is known as the day of mourning. It is the only day of the
year that the Divine Liturgy will not be celebrated.
During the Lamentation Service,
the priest and choir chant Byzantine hymns around the
‘Epitaphio’ or ‘Tomb of Christ’. This is used in the Greek
Orthodox Churches to symbolise the bier of Christ and is
adorned with a multitude of flowers on this day.
During this service, the priest
will remove the symbolic wooden figure of Christ from the
wooden cross in front of the altar. This figure is then
covered with a sheet and kept in sanctuary for 50 days when it
will be taken out for the Pentecost and returned to it’s
The Epitaphio is taken out of
the church and carried by men through the village to the
cemetery and back, with a slow procession of priests and altar
boys carrying gold crosses and Icons. The church congregation
follows, holding lit candles symbolising the mourners. The
chants are sad and solemn and the Church bells will ring slow
and rhythmically as they do when signalling a funeral.
After the procession returns to
the church, the followers walk past (and under) the
Epitaphios, kissing the image of Christ which is laid upon it.
|Holy Saturday "Megalo Savato
If you watch Greek Television on
Holy Saturday afternoon, it is most likely that you will see
the arrival of a Greek Military Jet carrying the Eternal Flame
from Jerusalem. Multitudes of Priests wait with their lanterns
at the airport for its arrival to take this ‘light’ to their
Everyone in Greece, young
through old, attend the Resurrection service for Easter.
Shortly before midnight, the churches are filled to
overflowing and most of the congregations stand outside in the
courtyards. Facing the altar, they silently pray while holding
Just before midnight, the
church will turn off all it’s lights - except for the Eternal
Flame that is inside the Altar. Everything is dark and the
congregation is silent, symbolising the darkness and silence
of the tomb.
When the clock strikes
midnight, the priest lights his candle from the Eternal Flame
and sings out ‘Christos Anesti’ - ‘Christ is risen’. Holding
his lit candle out, he offers the flame to the congregation
that is closest to him. After lighting their own candle, they
pass the flame back to others so in a few minutes the entire
church and courtyards are filled with flickering candle light.
While doing this, the Byzantine Chant ‘Christos Anesti’ is
sung by all in attendance.
At midnight, everything around
comes alive. Buildings are floodlit, sirens wail from the
ships and the church bells begin to ring continuously.
Villagers fire their shotguns into the air and the more modern
city folk set off fireworks. As the congregation leaves the
church, with their candles still lighted, the priest gives
each one of them a dyed red egg.
Near the church courtyards,
huge bonfires are lit, where the people mingle around saying
‘Christos Anesti’, which the reply to is ‘Alithos Anesti’ –
‘He is truly risen’. The children joyously throw their ‘March
Bracelets’ into the fires as the adults talk and cheer. And
it’s common to be challenged to ‘Tsoungrisoume’ the Easter egg
that you got from church. It is one fantastic celebration.
The candles are handled
carefully so they stay lit until the people get home. Before
entering their homes, the Greeks make the sign of the cross
with the lit candle over the doorframe. The smoke will leave
the mark of the cross. This sign stays there all year through
and means that the spirit of the Resurrection has been brought
into the house.
The burning candles are then
used to light the lantern at the ‘Iconostasio’ and set on the
table to enjoy with the late dinner. The Resurrection Meal
traditionally consists of Mageritsa Soup, Tsourekia and Easter
Cookies. (See Recipes)
|Pascca Lmbri " Pasca
Easter Sunday is a holiday that is
spent with family, relatives and friends. The meal is usually
a communal affair with roasting lamb turning over open
pits.(See Recipes) Some women will bring pots of
‘Lambriotis’. This is a dish of stuffed goat or lamb that has
been cooking overnight in the village wood coal ovens.
Tables are decorated with
colourful cloths and fresh spring flowers as well as baskets
of dyed eggs for ‘Tsoungrisma’. Since this is the biggest
celebration of the year for the Greeks, there is lots of Ouzo,
Retsina and village Suma or Raki (Greek Moonshine) to drink.
Of course, no Greek party would be complete without the
traditional Bouzouki music and the Greek dancing.
Greeks celebrate life to it’s
fullest and Easter is a very good example of that. It would
not be uncommon for a tourist couple or passers by to be
invited to join in the meal and festivities, as this culture
is very generous and open hearted. And even though she
probably doesn’t speak your language, you would find some old
Greek village woman motioning for you to come and enjoy a
glass of Ouzo with her.
Easter Monday / Deutera tou Pasca
The entire week of Easter
Monday through Friday is a holiday. Each day a different
Monastery is visited honouring a different Saint. Friends and
families gather together for dinners and dances. The
celebration of the Resurrection continues until the Holiday of
the Virgin Mary on Friday night, when the biggest parties are
‘Tomb’ of Christ - Epitaphios
The Epitaphios is used to
symbolise the bier of Christ during the Holy Week services of
the Greek Orthodox Church. It resembles a large table with a
domed canopy built over it and it is adorned with intricate
filigree that carpenters have painstakingly carved out. In
each of its four corners, wooden handles extend so that it can
On Megali Paraskevi - Good
Friday, the Epitaphios is decorated with hundreds and hundreds
of flowers, usually carnations. Their stems are pushed through
the filigree, inside and out and they are secured next to each
other so no wood is seen. It really is a beautiful sight and
the fragrance is unbelievable.
Laid in the center of the
Epitaphio is a special cloth that has been elaborately
embroidered with the image of Christ, symbolising his dead
body. The parishioners file past the symbolic tomb and kiss
You may also see some young and
maybe some not so young, children and folk crawling under the
Epitaphio to the other side. This is done because it is
considered a blessing to pass under it.
Easter is a time that all the
dead are memorialised. From the time of Carnival and All
Soul’s Day through Good Saturday and the Resurrection, all
Greeks go to the cemeteries to visit their deceased loved
ones. It is customary to take flowers and light the lanterns
on the memorials of the dead.
You will find that the Greek
village cemeteries are filled with Pine trees. Pine is
considered a holy tree for its beauty and respect to the
sleeping dead. It stands straight and it’s leaves or foliage
makes no noise.
In every Greek home, you will
find a corner – most likely in the master bedroom, with an
Iconostasio. This is a shelf that houses Icons, various holy
items and an oil-candle, which is never left to go out.
The Icons are usually of the
Saints’ whose names are in the family and of Christ and the
Virgin Mary. You will find sprigs of dried basil, olive or
rosemary, burnt candles, vials of holy water and holy oil as
well as ‘Stefania’ or ‘wreaths’ from the owners’ wedding. Any
item that is considered blessed and holy takes its place here.
The ‘Kantili’ or lantern is
usually nothing more than a glass filled with water and olive
oil with a ‘fitili’ or wick floating on it. The Kantili is lit
with the ‘Light of the Resurrection’ from Good Saturday, and
is never left to go out. The Greek housewives diligently check
the oil level and refill it as needed.
In the more modern houses, the
Iconostasio as a shelf is non existent, but you will find that
there is a wall somewhere in the house that is dedicated to
this purpose and has the Icons hanging on it.
Fasting - Nistia
There are different kinds of
fasts for the Greeks. Some are days of no meat while others
strictly prohibit eating dairy products as well. There is also
some confusion when it comes to fasting. Villagers have told
me that it’s all right to eat olives but you shouldn’t eat
olive oil. Also, as in Clean Monday, you can eat shellfish and
molluscs and fish roe, but you can’t eat fish.
The Greek Orthodox Church
prescribes fasting for the entire duration of Lent. Most of
the newer generation Greeks fast only during the last two
weeks before Easter, Holy Week being the most severe.
Fridays and Wednesdays are the
exceptions. Most Greeks will fast on those days year through
not eating meat or fish.
Carnival Palm Sunday
Memorial Wheat - Koliva
The Greeks honour their dead
with memorial services throughout the year, but Easter is a
time when all the dead are remembered. Cemeteries are visited
and the names of the deceased are read out loud in church.
When a memorial service takes place, Koliva are blessed by the
priest and given out to the congregation in memory of the
Koliva are whole-wheat kernels
that have been boiled and sweetened. Fruits, nuts, Jordan
almonds and spices are added to it and it is mounded onto a
silver tray. The sign of the Cross is made with silver dragees
in the center. On one side of the Cross, you will see the
Which means, ‘Jesus Conquers’
and on the other side of the Cross, are the initials of the
The eating of Koliva at church
is to remember the departed soul and to pray for their
forgiveness. Wheat, raisins and pomegranate seeds are usually
amongst the ingredients. They symbolize the resurrection and
the sweetness and abundance of life.
The Memorial services are
usually performed at the end of the Sunday liturgy and the
blessed Koliva are put into small bags and handed out to the
parishioners as they leave.
Back To: All
Fanouropita - St. Fanourios’ Cake
One rather common superstition
that is closely followed here in Rhodes, is that when you have
a problem or a question you can ask for St. Fanourios for help
and to ‘Fanerose to’ or to ‘show you’ the answer. It is
generally used in cases when you need to see or find
something. For instance finding lost keys, seeing a good
report from a doctor or having a lost love come to redeem
I’ve tried to get more
information about St. Fanourios himself, but not much is known
about the Saint. His Icon was found in Rhodes in the 14th
century. He was dressed in military clothing and carrying a
cross. I can only assume that he was one of the Crusaders of
the era that protected the Mediterranean. His Name Day is
celebrated on August 27th.
According to Greek lore, he
will show you the answer to your problem or question if in
return you offer him a cake and ask God to forgive his mother
and rest her soul in peace. It is unclear as to why we ask for
his mothers’ forgiveness. Some stories say that she was a
sinner of some sort, others that its only spoken out of
respect as Greeks always ask God to forgive and rest a soul in
peace when they refer to the dead.
The Fanouropita is not just any
cake. It is made completely out of fasting ingredients and
contains no dairy products. While you’re making this cake you
keep in mind the problem at hand or the question that you wish
an answer to.
After it is baked, the cake
must be given to at least 7 different houses. In other words,
people from at least 7 different families have to eat it. Of
course, after meeting the 7-house requirement, you and your
family can have some too. None of this cake can be thrown
away; all of it has to be consumed.
When you have given your 7
different friends a slice of this, each individual has to say
these words out loud before taking the first bite. "May God
forgive St. Fanouris’ mother and rest her soul in peace". This
is the only prayer that has to be said, and after those words
are spoken, you can enjoy the cake. You will get an answer to
your problem or question within time.
I have also been told that some
villages have a variation to this superstition. The 7
different houses have to be women by the name of ‘Mary’ or a
derivative of it. I’ve always just kept the 7 house standard,
but if you do know 7 different ‘Marys’, it couldn’t hurt.
Easter Eggs – Pascalina Auga
On Holy Thursday, eggs are
traditionally dyed a deep red colour. They are used for
decorating the Easter breads and a bowl is kept for the house.
I have been told that beets were used in the old days to boil
with the eggs to get the red colour. In some of the more
creative villages, onions and dandelions were used for yellow,
and grasses were used for greens, though that strayed somewhat
from tradition. In our modern times, most of the Greeks use
the packets of store bought dyes and don’t stick to just red
During Easter week, housewives
make their Greek Easter baskets, which consist of dyed eggs,
traditional cookies and maybe a few candies. These are given
to friends, relatives, Godparents and neighbours.
After the Resurrection Mass and
on Easter Sunday, children and adults will challenge you with
the question ‘Na Tsoungrisoume?’ - ‘Shall we crack them?’ This
tradition is still very much enjoyed throughout Greece. You
can use the egg that you got from the Church service or you
can choose one from the basket of dyed eggs that is left for
the house. You hold the egg in your fist with one end exposed.
The other person does the same, and then you tap them
together. Who ever ends up with the cracked egg is the loser.
I have seen families go through
dozens of eggs in a matter of minutes, smashing one end and
then the other. Greeks are always hunting for the ‘hardest’
egg to ‘Tsoungrisoune’ with each other and it’s not uncommon
to end up with a basket of cracked and smashed eggs.
Carnival Easter Preparations
Annunciation of the Virgin Mary – O Evagelismos
Greek Independence Day
March 25th marks the
celebration of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary or ‘O
Evangelismos’. Special church services are performed in
tribute of the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel.
It is also Greek Independence
Day. After the liturgy, special prayers are said to God for
liberating the Greeks from the Ottoman Turks in 1821. Although
this day falls within the Lenten period, the church allows
fish and seafood to be eaten because of the celebration of
Day - Proto Magia
The 1st of May is
traditionally seen as a celebration of spring and fertility
and it’s considered ‘Labor Day’ for the Greeks. Greek families
will take their picnics out to the country where the children
will play and pick wild flowers – the first spring blooms. The
flowers are then braided carefully into wreaths of all sorts
of sizes to be taken home and adorn their front doors. Some
Islanders, particularly Taxi drivers’ even hang them on the
grills of their cars. The wreaths remain in place until the
Feast of St. John on August 29th, when they are
burned in the great bonfires of the festival.