Why should you spend Easter on the Greek Island of Rhodes?
Greek Orthodox Easter is one of the most colourful (and probably the most delicious) religious celebrations alive in Europe today. Greeks consider Easter the most important religious holiday of the year, and they celebrate it for more than a week with various spectacular customs.
In 2022 the series of Greek Easter rituals starts on the 16th of April (Saturday of Lazarus) and lasts till Easter Monday, the 25th of April. As the fourth largest island of Greece with its 42 villages and the capital city, Rhodes provides plenty of chances to enjoy and observe the most important traditional annual celebration of the local community.
This is a great chance to visit some of the breathtaking medieval and modern churches of the island in their full glory with the Easter decorations and the special atmosphere surrounding these rituals during the Holy Week.
Furthermore, it is an ideal time to visit the precious historic sites of the island without the usual crowds of tourists. Easter is still the low season period on Rhodes with the mild weather of April and a great chance to take advantage of low season prices of both services and accommodation.
And you can even enjoy your first swim of the year at one of the famous (or secret) beaches on the 220 km long coastline of Rhodes – yet without sunbeds and plenty of fellow travellers but with already warming crystal clear water.
If you need a little Greek Easter guidance, continue reading because we’ll explain the most interesting customs of this special time of the year and provide you with a little Easter calendar at the end of the article to save the dates for April 2022.
Greek Easter and the Lenten period – welcoming the light into our life
Humanity’s rituals and celebrations evolved around certain astrological events. More specifically, these events always followed the journey of light on our planet. From the beginning of human history, people felt the impact of cosmic events on their lives (both on body and soul), and they revered these happenings. Greek Easter – a Christian feast – has cosmic reference, similarly to all the springtime festivals and rituals around the world. The timing of Greek Easter is defined by alignment with the movement of both the Sun and the Moon.
Greek Easter’s date changes every year according to the Spring Equinox and the subsequent full moon. In 2022 the Spring equinox is on the 20th of March, and the following full moon is on the 16th of April, which is the first full moon of springtime. Easter Sunday in Greece always takes place the week after the first full moon of meteorological spring.
The symbolism of Spring Equinox is evident: the victory of light over darkness – just as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We call Spring Equinox the first day of spring here in the Northern Hemisphere, and from that date, we start to have more hours of sunlight than darkness each day.
This is the time of growth, extension, rebirth, and rejuvenation in nature. And as we humans are part of nature too, so it is for us. With longer and warmer days and more sunlight, our body awakens, our metabolism becomes faster. The forty days long fasting period before Easter (Greeks call it sarakosti/σαρακοστή) supports and prepares this shift in the human body, which helps the rejuvenation of an individual in a desired spiritual dimension as well.
Sarakosti (the forty days of lent) starts on a Monday (called Clean Monday), when Greek families and friends have picnics in nature (namely: koulouma) and eat fantastic, light Mediterranean lenten food, with seafood being a predominant dish on the menu. From this day on, wine, olive oil, meat, egg and dairy products are forbidden for the faithful. Clean Monday is the day when each church prepares its festive decorations. Sarakosti is the period when farmers prune the olive- and other fruit trees, women clean the whole household, people whitewash buildings, the outdoor ovens, stairs and streets. Traditionally this was one of the two occasions during the year when each member of a Greek family bought a new dress for themselves (the other occasion was Christmas), and they wore them on Easter Sunday.
Greek Easter is full of beautiful symbolism and preparations to cleanse one’s body and soul and welcome the light, the spring, the resurrection force in our life.
The holy week (Megali Evdomada) and its main events
This is the most important week in the Greek Orthodox religion. During this week, faithful people take feasting much more serious, and they have two religious ceremonies each day in the churches. These ceremonies revive the events and suffering of Christ before his death, and his symbolic coffin with his icon (called the epitaphios in Greek) is in the centre of the church during this week.
16th of April – Saturday of Lazarus
The church ceremony of that day remembers the biblical story when Jesus resurrected his friend Lazarus, who was in the tomb on the fourth day. On this day, the church celebrates the miraculous act of Jesus: the resurrection and life in general.
Greek kids walk together from home to home with wreaths made of fragrant spring flowers and herbs and with baskets (sometimes wearing white dresses) while singing the hymns of Lazarus (these songs are called ’kalanda’ in Greek) as messengers of the coming Easter.
The people of each household give special biscuits and fresh eggs in return for the beautiful songs. These special lenten biscuits are called lazarakia, and this is the first biscuit special to the Easter period. They can be decorated with any seeds, dried fruit, or cloves, but the cake is always kneaded into a human shape (shaping Lazarus’ body with crossed hands).
According to an old custom, mothers made one lazarakia for each of their children.
17th of April – Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday
Officially this is the beginning of the Holy Week. The church celebration on this day commemorates Jesus Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday before his crucifixion, where the crowd welcomed him with palm branches (symbol of peace and victory). The same crowd who demanded his crucifixion a week later.
, Local communities make crosses from palm leaves and take them to the church ceremony where they become blessed. After the ceremony, people take the blessed palm leaves home and place them close to the holy corner (in Greek: iconostasio) of the house.
19th of April – Holy Tuesday / Megali Triti
, Traditionally, on this day, Greek women bake the famous Easter koulouria, the thin biscuits with red eggs. Every household has its own koulouri style. It varies from a simple ring shape to complicated baskets or even dragons (in the village of Archangelos). On Rhodes, people bake red Easter eggs into the baskets, the custom of which dates back to Byzantine times. These biscuits cannot be eaten until Easter Sunday because they contain olive oil, egg and butter, which are forbidden during the lent. The divine ingredients of the Easter koulouria are the following: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, mastic and rosewater.
During the Holy week, you will be able to find these sweet divine biscuits at any of the local Rhodian bakeries.
20th of April – Holy Wednesday / Megali Tetarti
On Holy Wednesday, the women complete the final touches in and around the house. When everything is clean and tidy, the family members have a shower before the evening church ceremony, where they receive the ’evheleo’, or blessed oil. The priests draw a cross on the faithful’s forehead, palms and hands with this blessed oil. The symbolism of this ritual is the healing of body and soul from the sins and, therefore, absolution.
The biblical events of this day are as followings: on this day, Jesus held the last supper for his disciples, before which he washed the feet of each of them. Judas betrays Jesus on this day. After the Last Supper, Jesus prayed under the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane and experienced his last spiritual struggle, knowing his human destiny.
21st April – Holy Thursday / Megali Pempti – Stavrosis or the day of crucifixion
On this day, Greek people remember the crucifixion of Jesus. In the households, they prepare the red eggs. Half of the red eggs go into the wonderful Easter cake, tsureki, as decoration, and the other half stays in a basket waiting for Holy Saturday’s midnight supper.
In the old days, Greeks painted the eggs red with beetroot or onion. The red colour symbolises the blood of Christ, and the egg is a symbol of birth and fertility since ancient times. Red is the most frequently used colour in ritualistic behaviour in human history.
On this day, the church holds the most extended ceremony of the whole week. After reading all the gospels, women stay at the church and sing so-called mourning songs (in Greek: moirologia) until dawn.
22nd April – Good Friday / Megali Paraskevi
This day represents the funeral of Jesus and has probably one of the most spectacular ceremony’s of the Holy Week. According to the old custom, in the early morning the women of the villages go to the countryside and collect thousands of wild flowers for the colorful garland decoration of the epitaphio, which symbolises the coffin of Jesus. The usual colors of the flowers are: white, red, pink, purple. Then the women and children decorate the epitaphio together while the bell of the church slowly tolls giving the signal of a funeral. On this morning, people usually go to the cemeteries to light a candle on the graves of their loved ones.
On this day Greeks don’t eat sweet food. A typical meal eaten during the Holy Friday daytime is cabbage or lentil soup with vinegar.
During the evening church ceremony they throw flower petals and sprinkle rose water on the epitaphio while smoking frankincense.
Some men of the religious community carry the epitaphio to start a procession around the village, or neighbourhood, but at least around the church imitating the funeral of Jesus. Carrying the epitaphio is considered an honor within the community. The chorus sings, and the faithful follow the epitaphio, which is a wonderful, unique religious event.
23rd April – Holy Saturday / Megalo Savato – Resurrection or Anastasi
The resurrection of Christ is a symbol of rebirth and rejuvenation. Light is born and awakens again and again, and after mourning the losses, the death, the winter, the darkness, there is rebirth, there is spring, there is an “opening” to light again. The Greek word for spring (= anixi/άνοιξη) exactly means: opening.
During the morning church service people shake and hit the chairs to create a loud noise which refers to the act of resurrection.
Men prepare the goat or lamb for the next day – especially if they bake it in the outdoor oven for a day.
The evening ceremony is the most anticipated one. This ceremony breaks the period of the Lent, and provides the Holy Light to the faithful – this light is the symbol of the resurrected Jesus. The Holy Light comes every year straight from Jerusalem and every Greek person receives it on the night of Holy Saturday. They bring their own decorated candles to the church to be lit.
At midnight the priest lights his own candle first and says: “Christos Anesti!” – “Christ has arisen.”
The faithfuls’ answer: “Alithos Anesti!” He has arisen indeed!”
People pass the Holy Light to each other saying the above mentioned sentences as they do. The bells are ringing, people make bonfires, or set off fireworks.
People bring the Holy Light home, and light their olive oil candle on their altar (iconostasio) where they keep this light alive until next Easter.
Afterwards Greeks either stay at home with family and friends or go out to restaurants to eat the special Easter soup called ’magiritsa’, which contains the inner parts of the lamb or goat with lots of herbs.
During this dinner people play a game with the red eggs (cracking them) for good fortune for the coming year.
24th-25th of April – Easter Sunday and Monday
These two days are dedicated to celebration, dancing, eating, and community. Greeks gather usually in outdoor spaces where they enjoy the mild Greek spring, the breathtaking natural environment of the Greek countryside, and all the incredible amount of food they prepared the days before accompanied with the Easter cakes. They usually place the red eggs on the table and fresh wildflower bouquets.
On Easter Sunday and Monday the sunkissed Greeks enjoy life, spring (άνοιξη: the opening, blooming and extending life force), the blooming olive trees, the festive tastes, the music, dancing together and each others company.
If I were you, I would not hesitate to book my holiday on Rhodes to visit the most spectacular and colorful celebration of Greece: Easter.
Have you ever been to Greece during Easter? We would love to read your experiences and highlights about Greek Easter traditions…
written by Mariann Lipcsei Ilios Art / March 2022 / Copyright © / Unauthorized use and/or duplication of any content of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.