Easter in Agios Nikolaos
The Orthodox Easter
This is the greatest festival in spring and of the Orthodox world, a movable feast celebrated annually on the first Sunday after the spring equinox, as decided by the First Ecumenical Council of 352 A.D. The Christian Easter has its roots in the Jewish Easter, which was a sequel to the Egyptian festival of "Pissax" meaning "passage", the Festival of the Spring Equinox. This festival was adopted by the Jews during their stay in Egypt and they continued to celebrate it on their return to Palestine on the anniversary of their crossing of the Red Sea.
The Christians took this festival and gave it new content by connecting it to the unprecedented event of the Resurrection of Christ, and associating it together with the hope and anticipation of the resurrection of the dead. It is the most important milestone of the spring season and from this point the religious calendar of the Christian is determined.
From the next day after the revelry of Carnival (Apokries), measures which contrast sharply to the crowning event of Easter are put into place, a period which lasts for forty days, called "The Great Lent". During this period, Christians fast and abstain from products of animal origin, and each Friday evening participate in the "Hail Mary" at the church as part of the preparation of the body and soul for Easter, the highlight of which are the preparations for Holy Week.
Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday. The triumphant entrance of Christ into Jerusalem in celebrated. The churches are decorated with branches of palm, laurel and myrtle arranged in crosses made from palm, which are distributed together with the Holy Eucharist amongst the faithful at the end of the Liturgy. On this day, the fasting is somewhat relaxed, and people usually eat fish or seafood.
On Great Holy Monday the "Service of Nymphios" is chanted at church.
Fasting becomes more severe during all of the following week, attendance at religious ceremonies becomes more frequent, while at the same time the more practical preparations for the celebration of Easter begin.
On Great Holy Tuesday, during evening prayer, one of the most beautiful of Byzantine musical creations, "The Hymn of Cassiane", is heard.
On Great Holy Wednesday, a day of strict fasting and general church-going, the "Mystery of the Holy Unction" is celebrated at churches, and the priest anoints the foreheads of the faithful, who have followed the liturgy, with Holy Oil.
Great Holy Thursday is the day of The Last Supper and the Nailing of Christ to the Cross. During the night, following the reading of exerts from The Twelve Gospels which describe The Holy Passion of Christ, a mock reconstruction of the Nailing to the Cross and the procession of the Crucifixion is staged.
It is on this day that the Easter sweets are usually made such as sweetbread and "kalitsunia" (a local sweet whose principal ingredient is a type of unsalted cheese called "mizithra"), and eggs are dyed red. Many people say that the red colour represents the blood of Christ and is associated with the Crucifixion and The Holy Passion of Christ. Others claim it is the colour of joy and symbolizes The Resurrection, whilst some more believe it to represent the power to avert the force of evil, each belief according to the traditions of the races of the East.
Good Friday is the day of the burial of Christ and the Funeral Lament. The church bells intone mournfully, and inside the churches priests re-enact the removal of the body of Christ from the Cross, and symbolically place the dead Jesus inside a carved wooden flower-decorated sepulcher called the "Epitaphios", representing the bier or tomb of Jesus, to which subsequently the laity make pilgrimage during the entire day.
In the evening the "Odes of Lamentation" (eulogy) are chanted, hymns which are the most moving and melodic of the Orthodox Church. A procession of the "Epitaphios" is made through the streets of the town, escorted by members of the faithful.
On Holy Saturday in the morning, the Resurrection of Christ is announced in the churches. The greatest celebration of the anniversary of this joyous news however, happens late in the evening.
A little before midnight, the church bells ring out joyously and Christians gather in the churches carrying with them large candles and lanterns. They will take light for these candles and lanterns from the "Holy Light" when the psalm "Come, Receive The Light" is heard, and will then transfer this light to their homes.
The celebration of the Resurrection, which reaches its peak when the priests chant the jubilant news "Christos Anesti" or "Christ is Risen", takes place in the yards of churches or in nearby open spaces and is accompanied by noisy demonstrations of joy and great enthusiasm. It is a brilliant celebration with thousands of firecrackers, fireworks and an enormous burning pyre where "the traitor" (Judas) is being symbolically burned.
During this celebratory atmosphere people give one another the "kiss of friendship", exchange good wishes and then leave to join the family dining table where they chink the red eggs and eat an Easter soup called "mageiritsa".
On Easter Sunday the majority of people celebrate out of doors in the countryside, with an abundance of food, slow-roasted lamb on the spit, and with "raki" and wine.
In the evening, churches celebrate the "Second Resurrection" which in some villages still has a festive character, as it was in older times.
To this short description of the Easter customs of the Orthodox religion we must add that for many days after the announcement of the Resurrection, the words "Christos Anesti" or "Christ is Risen", and the response "Alithos Anesti" or "Truly He is Risen" are exchanged as an everyday greeting.
The Orthodox Easter can be celebrated in any of the parishes of Aghios Nikolaos, from the smallest village to the great spectacular festival at the lake of Aghios Nikolaos which is surrounded by thousands of lighted candles, with a blazing fire at its centre.