The Institute presents: Orthodox Easter Traditions
It has happened to many of us to wish someone Happy Easter only to be told that they celebrated last week. The reason behind this confusion is that the Orthodox Church celebrates Easter on a different day than the Catholic Church. It is still celebrated as a day for Christians to recognise the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but the date is settled differently.
Easter was established by the First Ecumenical Council (the Council of Nicaea) in AD 325 to be held on the first Sunday that occurs after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. The difference is that the Orthodox Church always celebrates after the Jewish Passover, whilst the Catholic Church did not see this as necessary. Additionally, the Catholic Church switched over to the Gregorian calendar in 1582, whilst the Orthodox Church held to the original calendar system of the Julian calendar.
Furthermore, it is not only the date that differs from region to region. As any cultural event, Easter has taken many different forms in the various countries. A few writers from the Institute will introduce such traditions to you in this article.
Ana Popova: Ruse, Bulgaria
In Bulgaria, Easter is called “Великден” (“Velikden”, bulgarian for “Great Day”), and as the name implies, it is one of the most significant holidays in the Bulgarian calendar. Same as in most countries, eggs are painted in different colours. This fun ritual takes place either on Thursday, the day before Good Friday, or on Saturday afterwards. The first egg for that year has to be painted in red colour. The oldest woman in the family is then going to use that first red egg to draw a cross on each family member’s forehead as a wish for health. This first egg will also be kept until next year, when it will be cracked open and used for fortune telling by judging on the colour and condition of the yolk.
The women in the family hold a contest of traditional pastry baking. The so called “Kozunak” (bulg. козунак) is very hard to make and takes hours of hard work. The oldest women in the family will usually have their secret recipes that they would pass on to the new generations if they do well in that contest.
On Saturday evening before Easter Sunday, every family goes together to the church and brings flowers and painted eggs as gifts. After the Worship, everyone will make sure to get a candle from an eternal fire. Right before midnight, these lit candles will be carried on a walk around the church and the wind would spare the light of those who believe and whose sins have been forgiven. At midnight, the priest proclaims three times “Христос Воскресе!” (Bulgarian for “Christ has risen”) and the congregation replies “Во истина Воскресе!” (Bulgarian for “He truly has risen”). After the special services in the Church, the families will carry (or at least attempt to carry) those eternal flames back home.
From that moment on, the good luck crack tradition starts. Everyone on the table will pick a coloured egg from the basket and people will take turns in tapping their eggs against the eggs of others. The person, who has the last unbroken egg (the so called “Борец” (Bulgarian for “fighter”), will have a successful year and a lot of health.
Camille Saikali: Beirut, Lebanon
In Lebanon, Easter is celebrated by cooking and eating a sweet pastry called "maamoul". This tradition is the same for Orthodoxes and Catholics. Maamouls can be filled with dates or nuts.
Palm Sunday is very important in Lebanon and occurs the Sunday before the Holy week. Families go to their traditional church and walk around the church with the children holding branches from olive and palm trees. This event marks the entrance in the Holy week.
Orthodoxes in Lebanon rarely hunt for eggs. Instead, they do an "egg battle" after the Easter Sunday lunch. This tradition happens through duels in order to know who has the strongest eggs. The strongest the egg, the happiest will be the year of its owner. Those eggs were boiled and decorated beforehand. Often the decoration is organised with the children the Friday before, or even on the Sunday morning.
Since Easter traditions are very family-oriented and focus so much on spending a whole weekend with the children, it is one of the most popular Christian holidays in Lebanon. For instance, many people attend Church on Palm Sunday but not on Christmas.
Daniil Chubar: Moscow, Russia
First of all, of course, eggs. A lot of them. People dye them all possible colors, put stickers on them and then exchange them with their family, friends or sometimes even colleagues, why not. When you give someone an egg you say “Christ is risen!”, and that person replies with “Truly is risen”. These words might also be said without exchanging of eggs. Of course, it is quite a religious thing to say and some people ignore this ritual. Famous Russian journalist and atheist Vladimir Pozner once replied to “Christ is risen!” with “They say” on his show.
Next attribute is called kulich and it is something like a sweet bread with sweeter cream on top of it. Usually, kids only eat this top part which enrages their babushkas. Also there is a dish called Paskha (Russian word for Easter), which is cottage cheese with raisins. There is probably more of special dishes, though.
Interesting that Easter is a holy day when random kids knock your door and if you open – you have to give them something sweet (or maybe an egg if you really hate those kids who knocked at 7am on Sunday).
And of course, Easter starts with a huge church service, as big as a Christmas one.
Adrian Waters: Skopje, Macedonia
In Macedonia, Orthodox Christians prepare for Easter with a forty-day fasting period (known as Lent) prior to the festivities. The Bible says that Jesus spent forty days in a desert fasting and praying, which is why Macedonian Christians avoid meat, eggs, milk or anything deriving from an animal source. The official celebrations begin on Maundy Thursday when housewives dye three eggs in red (the colour of Jesus’s blood) early in the morning, with the first one (which is dedicated to Jesus) being painted before sunrise because it is believed that it will last for a whole year if it does not see the sun. The second egg is for the head of the household and the third for peacefulness and health. Once the three eggs are ready, the first one is placed near a door or window that looks to the East so that when the sun rises it shines upon them the rays of God. Afterwards, it is positioned near a religious icon in the home and kept all year for good health. The number of painted eggs depends on the number of family members. Eggs are also painted for every guest who will come to the house.
This tradition of the painted eggs derive from certain Biblical stories. According to one of them, when Mary Magdalene met the Roman emperor Tiberius to tell him about Jesus’s death and resurrection, she held an egg and said “Christ has risen”. Tiberius responded that Jesus rising from the dead is as likely as the egg she was holding turning red. Before he could finish speaking, the egg in Mary Magdalene’s hand became red all of a sudden.
On Good Friday, church services are held in the evening to remember the last moments of Jesus’ life. It is customary for church-goers to go under the table where the mantle with Christ’s body is placed. This symbolizes the leaving of all problems and burdens into the hands of God. At midnight on Saturday people gather around the local church, holding burning candles in their hands while the priests say the final prayers to mark the resurrection of Jesus. After midnight everyone greets each other with Христос Воскресе! (Hristos Voskrese!, meaning “Christ is Risen!” ) to which the reply is Навистина Воскресе! (Navistina Voskrese!) or Вистина Воскресе! (Vistina Voskrese!), i.e. “Indeed, He has risen!”. During Easter Sunday Macedonians play an egg-cracking game, in which the goal is to ensure that your egg shell remains intact. The cracked eggs are then peeled and eaten by the players. According to folk beliefs, the winner will have good health for the rest of the year. This game symbolizes Christ’s return from the dead.
For Easter housewives prepare a special bread called “pogacha” that is decorated with braids and which are made holes to fill with Easter eggs. In some parts of the country, sweets and eggs are hidden in the yard and in the garden, and children start looking for them after Easter breakfast. Households residing in urban areas decorate their homes with plastic eggs, while in the countryside they do so primarily with flowers.
Diana Petrut: Cluj Napoca, Romania
In Romania, Easter traditions vary greatly from region to region. The most well-known custom is painting Easter eggs, which is done on Good Thursday. It has been said that Mary Magdalene visited Jesus while he was on the cross and, crying, placed a basket full of eggs at His feet. Jesus’ blood fell onto the eggs, turning them red, which is why red is the most popular colour for Easter eggs. Nowadays, other colours, such as yellow, green, blue or black are also widely used.
In Bucovina, the eggs are decorated through a special technique, using beeswax.
Another important custom is preparing the household for receiving guests during the Easter days and cooking traditional dishes. Lamb, “Pasca” cake and sweet bread have a special place on the Easter table of Romanians.
On Easter Sunday, at midnight, Romanians go to church to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. They take candles with them to “receive light” and circle the church three times. At the end, everyone receives anaphora, which is bread and wine, symbolizing the flesh and blood of Jesus. The anaphora is eaten in the morning, in small quantities, before breakfast, after saying “Christ is Risen!”, and receiving the reply “Indeed, He is Risen!”. This saying is also used when tapping the Easter eggs and as a greeting for the days following Easter.
In Transylvania, a custom taken from Hungarians and Germans involves the “sprinkling” of young women. On Easter Monday, boys and men “sprinkle” girls with perfume, in order for them to be beautiful and fresh the whole year. As a reward, the girls then offer men Easter eggs, cakes and drinks.
Abdelrahim Abdallah: Cairo, Egypt
This weekend, around 10-20% of Egyptians who are Coptic Christians celebrate Easter, marking the resurrection of Jesus as described in the Holy Bible. The main event is usually Easter Mass, which is attended by political figures as a sign against Muslim extremists who renounce the celebration of Easter arguing that it goes against core Islamic beliefs. More conservative Coptic Christians also observe Holy Week, building up to the break of their longest fast, which lasts 55 days, on Sunday right after mass.
Accordingly, extravagant dining tables with meats, poultry and the like, which are all luxuries Copts will have been abstaining from during the fast, belong to traditional Easter celebrations. Interestingly, Easter is also celebrated by a wide base of Egyptians as Sham El-Nessim, literally the smelling of the breeze, which is an ancient Pharaonic festival celebrated at the beginning of Spring to thank the deities for the harvest and enjoy the spring breeze. Unlike the traditional Coptic celebrations of Easter, the traditional Egyptian Sham El-Nessim is a lot more fish-centered and always involves herring and other kinds of salted fish.
Due to the pleasant weather and the combined celebrations of Easter and Sham El-Nessim, Egyptians traditionally hit the (few) public parks and enjoy a little picnic in the sun while feasting on salted fish and herring.
Anna Giapitzi-Papandreou: Thessaloniki, Greece
During the Holy Week, there are church services every day and people usually fast. On Holy Wednesday, a priest anoints the faithful with the myrrh. On Holy Thursday the 12 Gospels are read and people usually paint some eggs red, which symbolises the blood of Jesus as well as joy according to our religion.
On Holy Friday, people follow the Epitaph around the city centre and they pass beneath it to be blessed by Jesus. On Holy Saturday the Resurrection is celebrated at midnight in church after the priest distributes the Holy Light, which comes all the way from Jerusalem, and then people gather home to eat and celebrate.
On Sunday of Easter, families gather together, they cook lamb and other delicious foods and deserts and they drink. After the feast, Greeks clink the red eggs with one another. The one that has the strongest egg that has not been broken, continues to clink with others. Every time we clink, we say “Christ has Risen!” and the other person replies “He has truly risen”. The clinking symbolises the Rise of Christ since the egg symbolises life!
There are also special traditions in different regions of Greece. For example, in Crete and in Thrace, they burn a doll, which symbolises the “Burning of Judah”. In Corfu, the Resurrection begins earlier and is called “the First Resurrection” and people throw pottery and jugs full of water out of their balconies as a means of celebration. In Arcadia, right after the Resurrection, people let small colourful air-balloons fly in the air, a tradition that began from the sailors of the region, back in 1910.