Though lavishly celebrated throughout the country, Easter in Chania is extra magical, with a host of dramatic, time-honoured traditions at play.
Easter is the grandest celebration in the Greek Orthodox Calendar but it in fact predates the Christian religion. Rooted in ancient spring rituals that are associated with the rebirth of nature at the end of the winter, Easter merges the spiritual, the metaphysical and the ceremonial with elation and joy. Though piously observed throughout Greece, it is at its most authentic in Crete: A solemn as much as buoyant occasion, Easter in Chania is accompanied by a host of age-old rituals that serve to reinforce community bonds.
The fascinating customs of Easter in Chania
From the long period of lent to the sombreness of the Holly Week and the ensuing celebrations on Resurrection, our home town’s veneered Easter customs and traditions are nothing short of fascinating.
Commemorating Christ’s own fast in the desert, the lent lasts for 48 days. It might seem long and tedious but lenten food in Crete is quite delicious, including delicacies such as snails. Locals also traditionally eat fish on Palm Sunday after visiting the church to get a cross made of palm fronds: They shall store these in their icon stands to keep them safe for the rest of the year.
The Holy Week is surrounded by a flurry of activity, as homemakers clean their houses, bake sweets and dye eggs red. The atmosphere becomes melancholic (in many instances the bizarrely whimsical weather lends a hand too!). You are also not supposed to listen to music, whistle or play games of chance to refrain from tempting fate.
The saddest day of them all is Good Friday. Locals partake in the drama by refusing to use hammers or nails. This would be a great sin on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. For the love of Christ, who was given vinegar to drink, they also refrain from eating sweet things. Instead, they shall consume a soup made of sesame paste, lettuce or lentils with vinegar.
In the evening, church service is followed by the procession of the bier of Christ: Carried by the sturdiest of the flock, the epitaph takes into the streets, with choirs and the faithful following behind, singing soul-stirring hymns and holding lit candles. This deeply moving sight is especially magical at Panagia Trimartiris church, in the Metropolis of Chania, and at Chrysopigi Monastery, 3 km away from the city.
Sadness follows elation during Easter in Chania
Throughout the week, boys and men will gather thatches and wood for the creation of a bonfire on Easter Saturday. This will be the time for the burning of the Judas in the courtyard of the church, along with fireworks and traditional mpalothies (shooting guns in the air) to exorcise the evil. This theatrical, albeit somewhat hair raising custom, these days, tends to disappear.
However, as a staple of the celebrations of Easter in Chania, it is still going strong in Gavalochori: A historical, quaint village 25 km east of the capital’s prefecture.
As tradition mandates, on the morning of Easter Saturday, the children create an effigy of the great traitor, dress it with rags and parade it on the streets. On the rest of the island, the kids would urge bypassers to spit on and injure the Judas, but in Gavalochori they prompt them to bless him! And indeed they do by giving eggs, sweets and various other treats. Of course, these are not meant for Judas but for his castigators: The children who apart from perpetuating a long-standing custom, also assume the role of the community’s avengers. This strange procession in the streets of the village acquires a festive dimension. The local community who on the previous day would mourn during the Epitaph, are now zestfully laughing. After the gloom and doom of Holy Friday, Holy Saturday marks release and deliverance. This Judas is nothing but empty clothes, old, and worn out. Wrapped together they make a human caricature, a funny construction that brings about ridicule, laughter and mirth. The local society, which considers betrayal as a miasma, has the opportunity to expel the traitor shortly before handing him over to the flames to bring about purification and exorcise the evil.
The sense of elation on Holy Saturday indeed precedes the ceremonial resurrection that takes place at midnight. But this is when it all culminates: The church is plunged into darkness moments before the priest re-appears holding aloft a lit candle. He shall then pass his flame to the nearest worshipper and in turn, they shall pass it on to the next one, until the entire church is ablaze with burning candles. The miracle is thus affirmed: Christ has risen, life has once again conquered death.
After fervently embracing each other, the attendants shall slowly make their way back to their homes, holding their lighted candles in absolute silence. As soon as they arrive, they shall make a cross on their doorsteps with this flame, signifying Christ’s resurrection, to banish the demons. Then it will be time for the traditional magiritsa (a lemony tripe soup with lamb and greens) since the lent is officially over. In effect, this soothes and prepares the stomach after the long fast for the meat-loving extravaganza that will follow the next day. Easter Sunday is celebrated with friends and family gatherings and involves copious amounts of eating and drinking. Though customarily Cretans would have lamb or goat cooked in various ways- in the oven, boiled, with tomato sauce or lemon and eggs sauce- the prevalent throughout Greece, lamb on the spit, has gained popularity on our island too.
More than just another holiday, Easter in Chania is an experience to remember: A celebration of life and love; and the perfect prelude for the glorious summer ahead. All of us at the Oscar Suites & Village, can’t wait to once again welcome you, our dear friends and guests at our apartments and studios in Platanias, Chania. Until then we’ll keep regaling you with stories and insights about extraordinary Crete. Stay tuned for more!