Pascha is a major holiday in Greece, and it is celebrated with a variety of local customs, many of them unique to specific parts of the country. There are, however, a few traditions that are common to all Greeks and which we are briefly discussing below.
A Pascha custom common not only in Greece but among all Orthodox Christians is the cracking of red eggs. Hard-boiled eggs have been dyed a bright red color on Holy Thursday, red symbolizing the blood of our Lord that was shed on the Cross. On Pascha Sunday, each person chooses a red egg and cracks it against the egg of another person. While doing this they exclaim : “Christ is risen!” – “He is truly risen!” The person whose egg remains intact is the winner. The cracking of the red eggs symbolizes the opening of the Tomb and the Resurrection of Christ. After the Divine Liturgy of Pascha Sunday, the priest blesses a basket of red eggs which he then distributes among the faithful.
Fireworks at midnight
At church, right at midnight on Pascha Sunday, the hymn of Resurrection is chanted: “Christ has Risen from the dead, by death trampling upon Death, and has bestowed life upon those in the tombs“. At that moment, the church bells start ringing joyously, and a spectacular – and very loud – show of fireworks appears in the night sky, that lasts for a while. It is usually a spontaneous affair, not an officially organized one; the fireworks are often made at home and thrown by teenagers and young adults in an informal competition, to determine whose fireworks are the noisiest and most spectacular.
Marking a cross over the door
When the family returns home holding their lit Pascha candles after the midnight Pascha service, and right before entering the house, they mark a cross on the frame of the main door, with the smoke that comes off the candle. This cross is believed to protect the household throughout the year. The lit Pascha candles are then taken inside, and they are used to light the vigil lamp which is placed in the icon corner. Some families manage to keep the vigil lamp lit with this Pascha light, without it being extinguished, for the whole year.
Sweet Pascha bread (lambrokouloura or tsoureki)
The tsoureki is a rich, brioche-like sweet bread with a distinctive flavor that comes from the combination of mahleb, an aromatic spice, and mastic, a plant resin derived from the mastic tree which grows on the island of Chios. A special tsoureki called lambrokouloura is usually baked on Holy Thursday or Saturday. It can be very elaborately embellished, and it is always decorated with a red egg. In the past especially, women would bake small decorated tsourekia, often called “koutsounes” or “kokones“, for all the children in their extended family as well as for their godchildren. In some areas of Greece those small tsourekia had the shape of a boy or girl or, in others, the shape of animals. The Pascha tsoureki is eaten on Pascha Sunday.
The Paschal lamb
On Pascha Sunday morning, the men of the family get up very early to start the fire for roasting a whole lamb on a spit – the lamb symbolizing the Lamb of God, Christ Himself. The extended family gathers outdoors, waiting for the meat to cook, munching on appetizers and sipping their drinks until the lamb is done. Then they all feast together at tables set up close to the fire pit.
The roasting of the lamb on the spit is a common custom in almost all of Greece and especially in the mainland. In many areas, large holes are dug outdoors, creating communal roasting pits where many families get together to celebrate. Even in areas where roasting a lamb on the spit is not customary, lamb is still the main dish of the day. It can be grilled over charcoals in different ways or baked in the oven, often stuffed with rice, nuts, and various aromatics. The meal usually ends with traditional singing and dancing, while in the evening the faithful go to church again – well-fed, happy, and holding their lit Pascha candles – to celebrate the Agape Vespers.