In Greece, the biggest religious holiday of the Christian calendar is Easter (unlike in the US and other western nations, where it’s Christmas). Children have a full two weeks off of school and most adults have Good Friday and Easter Monday off from their jobs to celebrate.
I didn’t do much during Holy Week itself leading up to Easter, except for roaming around the town a bit more and watching as it transformed before my eyes into a spring wonderland with Easter decorations aplenty.
For Good Friday, I attended the church service at the Evangelical Church in Katerini, the congregation that I’m closest to. I met my boss and her family at their house and walked over to the service with them where a translator was made available so I could actually understand the whole service. The choir sang beautifully and put me in a great state of mind to reflect on the cycle of death and rebirth in my own life – I took the time to mull things over and be in my own head; I’m lucky to have found a space conducive to that kind of discernment.
Following the service, I returned to my boss’s house for tea and snacks with a missionary couple from a Protestant church in South Korea. We talked for hours about the current political climate in Korea, the mother’s shock when she visited her daughter in the US and found out that public prayers are not specifically dedicated to Jesus Christ, and their long-term calling to work with the Roma population in the Thessaloniki area. They were an adorable couple and we had some amazing conversations. Even though we didn’t agree on all the theological topics that came up, everyone shared their own theological takes and we all gained a deeper understanding of one another.
Saturday evening I was invited by an acquaintance to attend a midnight service at an Orthodox church across town. At around 11:40pm everyone gathers at their local congregation (usually the Orthodox church that’s closest to them) and stands outside with their Easter candles. These are long tapered candles bought specifically for this time of year and are given by Godparents to their Godchildren – even if they’re all adults. Some candles are simple, while others can be quite ornate (especially the ones for kids that sometimes have action figures or cartoon character figurines attached haha they’re intense). After the religious leaders of the church have sung their prayers and given a blessing to the crowd, they pass out the flame of Christ to everyone. The clergy light their candles and everyone then shares the light with their neighbor and it soon spreads throughout the whole crowd until everyone is holding a beautifully lit candle. At midnight (when it is officially Easter Sunday), the religious leader then exclaims that, “Christ is risen!” and everyone responds by yelling back that, “Christ is risen, indeed!” Then fireworks go off over the crowd and random people start shooting off bottle rockets and it’s delightful mayhem – which I was not warned about or prepared for at all honestly haha but it was fabulous.
After this brief late-night church service (the whole thing only takes 15-20 minutes) families then head home for a big Easter dinner – equal in preparation to what we in the US might prepare for a family Christmas dinner. The family’s best dishes are set out, wine is served, and there’s usually much more food than everyone can eat. Because I didn’t have any Easter dinner plans of my own, I was invited to go eat with a family I met at the church service – imagine their surprise when a random American woman joined their family celebrations! They welcomed me with open arms though and were eager to teach me all about the food I was eating and the game of tsougrisma that we played at the end (which I won, by the way, three times– ya girl is a champ!). By the time I was on my bike to head home it was almost 3:00am.
Tsougrisma is a Greek Easter game played with red eggs, dyed to represent the blood of Christ. Sometimes the eggs are baked into a loaf of Greek Easter bread, and other times they’re used as table decorations. The word tsougrisma means “clinking together” or “clashing” in Greek and the goal of the game is to crack your opponent’s egg without cracking your own, which symbolizes Christ rising from the tomb. Everyone takes one egg and holds it firmly, then taps one end of their egg lightly against the other person’s egg (top to top, or bottom to bottom). You want to be the one with the strongest egg that doesn’t crack. I won playing against three different people, all with my same egg. I didn’t win anything tangible, but I feel like I gained a bit of respect from the Greeks at the table.
Easter Sunday itself is a big family affair filled with a whole lamb on a spit and lots more food. I spent the day recuperating from my late night by napping in the sun on my balcony, drinking delicious fruit smoothies, and reading The Hobbit. It was an ideal day.
On Easter Monday I could be found doing pretty much the same thing – napping, tanning, eating, and reading. It was bliss. My landlords also brought me up a full tray of food from their holiday feasting because they worried that maybe I didn’t have enough food. I swear, I’ll never have to worry about going hungry so long as I’m in Greece.
Living in a place where people are so spontaneous and welcoming, even on major holidays, is such a reassuring feeling. My heart is happy in Katerini in a way that I never could have anticipated.