Five Greek Easter Traditions

Greek Easter isn’t only about red eggs and sweet bread called tsoureki and koulourakia. Timeless traditions, some dating to pagan times and others from the revolution against the Turks dot the Greek countryside and islands. But if you’re not in the mood to burn effigies of Judas or partake in rocket wars, try cooking up some traditional greats. We like the California Greek Girl’s Easter recipes. (Koulourakia photo from the California Greek Girl’s blog)


On the island of Crete, it is customary to burn an effigy of Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus. The effigy is often hanged by the neck before the burning on the Friday or Saturday before Easter. For an added touch, some celebrants stuff the effigy with fireworks or give it the face of an unpopular politician.


The residents of the village of Saint Isidoros in Rhodes Island maintain a tradition called Vourna that lasts for 3 days, starting from the Saturday before Easter. Only single men of the village can participate and must obey to some rules that are watched over by a board of “secret police” who follow the participants. Rules include attending Church services and other requirements. Those who break rules have a tsoukopana (a special cloth) hung on the chimney of their home indicating their offense.Following a court haring on Easter Monday the “judges” will charge the participants who have not respected the rules of this tradition and impose the fines that they must be charged with. Those who refuse to pay their fines are thrown in the cold water of the Vourna (a basin) without any warning and doused with water. The money raised is given to charity.


In the village of Vrondados, on the Greek island of Chios, the annual war of the rockets is staged between two churches, Agios Marcos and Erithiani. Residents spend all year preparing thousands of rockets containing fireworks. On Saturday night before Easter, the rockets are fired between the churches for hours. The custom goes back to the Turkish occupation of the island.


On Holy Saturday at 11 am the First Resurrection and the “Pot Throwing” custom take place. The philharmonic orchestras and the choirs of the town take part in the litany of the epitaph/funeral biers’ of the town’s patron saint, St. Spyridon, in procession with the Saint’s relics. The litany is followed by the celebration of the “Early Resurrection” where balconies in the old town are decked in bright red pieces of cloth. Then the residents throw down large clay pots (the co-called botides) that are full of water to smash on the street pavements. There is no clear explanation of this odd tradition. Some people claim that by throwing pots out of their homes they reject Judas, while others believe that this tradition will help them to get rid of evil.


Saitopolemos is a customary celebration that take place in the region of Messinia during Easter. According to legend, its roots can be traced back to the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s, and especially to a battle the Greeks fought against the army of the Egyptian Sultan Ibrahim Pasha. The biggest celebration takes place in Kalamata Metropolitan Stadium where the participants are divided into 10 to 15 teams, consisting of 15 to 30 people, mainly young boys. A saita is a circular object filled with flammable material. When the celebration begins the players light up their saites and the stadium glows with flame. The dangerous custom is controversial and the Greek media have been highly critical of it, and there have been calls for its termination. But the locals insist that the custom is a tradition they inherited from their ancestors.


On Easter Tuesday, in the village of Ierissos in Chalkidiki, residents dance in memory of of the massacre of 400 locals by the Turks, at “Mavro Aloni”. The tradition recalls an incident in 1821, during the revolution, when the Turks promised general amnesty to those who would surrender. After they surrendered, the Turkish pasha asked the residents to dance. At every turn of the dance, the swords of the Turks slaughtered one dancer. Dancers must pass through an arch of laurels and, scary as it sounds, swords too. They double back on themselves and pass one before the other in an impressive final farewell.


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