Easter in Athens: special for everybody, Greek or not!
If you happen to be in Greece during this year’s Easter, do not miss the unique opportunity of celebrating it Greek style. In 2018, Easter Sunday is on April 8th, and there are plenty of things to do and see even though it is a national holiday. Easter in Athens makes the city buzz with activity, full of anticipation after the Lenten period of 40 days. Everywhere, preparations are underway for the biggest religious celebration on Easter Sunday. We gathered some ideas for you on how to spend these days, combined with some tips.
Fasting characterizes the period before Easter and you may have noticed that most Greeks approach it differently. Some don’t fast, others abstain from meat and especially older people adhere to stricter rules. These may include not even using olive oil on designated days. You may wonder ‘what about all that yummy Greek food I was planning to eat?’ There is no need to worry, as most taverns and restaurants will continue operating as usual!
During the Holy week leading up to the Easter weekend, churches hold services in every neighborhood. On Holy Friday, everything is closed till 12 noon and in the evening around 9 pm the Epitaph (tomb of Christ) leads a candlelit procession through the streets. This Epitaph holds an icon of Christ and is beautifully decorated with flowers. Once it is back at the church, worshipers pass from underneath as they consider it a blessing. Afterwards, people meet with friends for ouzo and seafood. As a result, bars, ouzeri and tavernas tend to be very crowded, so we recommend making a reservation. Your evening becomes unforgettable if you attend the Metropolitan Cathedral in Plaka. At Syntagma Square the Epitaphs of the surrounding churches gather for a common liturgy.
On this day, while passing from any church you can hear hymns that mourn the death of Christ. All shops, restaurants, major sites and museums are open till 3 pm, but then people rush home to prepare for the evening. Everybody dresses up in their best outfit and children traditionally wear their new shoes, a gift from their godparents. With their present, they also receive a decorated candle, which they bring to church. Around 11 pm, all Greeks gather at their church and wait for midnight. Next, all the lights go out and the priest, holding a candle, passes on the Holy Light to the person next to him. They will light the candle of the persons next to them and slowly the light spreads, a truly beautiful sight. The traditional wish is ‘Christos Anesti’ (Christ has risen) and you can reply with ‘Alithos Anesti’ (He has truly risen). If you don’t have a candle before you go to church, you can buy one at the square from a vendor that very evening. Aghia Eirini Church in Aiolou Street features an exceptional choir and Aghia Aikaterini in Plaka is the perfect place if you want to experience Easter in Athens.
End of Lent
After the service, people return home and eat a traditional soup called mageiritsa. This is the first meal that contains meat (lamb, offal and greens) after the period of Lent. It is a short night, because everyone gets up early to prepare the coals for the lamb on the spit. Preparing the lamb properly is an ‘art’ and men take pride in their roasting skills. Slowly turning the spit manually may seem tedious but it is a job well liked which embodies tradition. Everyone takes turns and shares their expertise while enjoying a tsipouro and some meze. It often happens that most people have already eaten so many meze before lunch that when they actually sit down at the table, they are not hungry anymore!
It would be a mistake to assume that you clear the table after the meal: in an hour or so, everyone starts nibbling again and in this way, celebrations last till late at night. Usually, the weather gods are kind and allow everyone to dance and sing till late.
Opening hours during your Easter in Athens
On Easter Sunday, all museums and sites remain closed, but a walk in the center is always a good idea. A stroll to Philopappos Hill gives you a perfect view of the roof terraces where many Greeks are roasting lamb on a makeshift barbecue. When you get hungry, make your way towards the many restaurants that are open. They guarantee mouthwatering lamb on the spit and countless dishes for vegetarians and vegans as well. To be on the safe side, make a reservation for your Sunday lunch, so you can join the locals during their festive meal. Also, make sure you do any grocery shopping beforehand, because the shops do not have regular operating hours.
Last but not least: don’t forget to crack some red eggs during your Easter in Athens! In Greece, red eggs symbolize the blood of Christ and families usually play the egg-cracking game called tsougkrisma on after the nightly meal. And during your stay, remember to eat tsoureki, the special Easter brioche, flavored with mastic and mahleb. (Spoiler: some people even dip it in their tea or coffee!) Did you try it?