While for most European countries, Christmas is the main celebration day of the year, the Greeks celebrate Easter Sunday as the largest holiday of the year. Here, we will Following the 40 days of lent (sarakosti in Greek), at midnight on Holy Saturday, after the 22.30 church ceremony finishes (the night before Easter Sunday), the Greeks start their feast for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The traditional menu for this night is mageiritsa soup (see the recipe below), a small portion of lamb, Greek salads, miniature cheese pies and wild greens.
The very traditional mageiritsa soup recipe is the meal that is cooked and served in many houses and restaurants in Greece following the night church ceremony on Holy Saturday (Megalo Savato), while the special, traditional, great Easter dinner, the lamb on a spit is served on Easter Sunday.
The traditional recipe for mageiritsa soup was originally set to use up the leftover parts of the lamb that do not go onto the spit so that no parts whatsoever were wasted. Mageiritsa soup is usually served after the midnight church services in order to break the 40 day Sarakosti (Lent) period and is considered to be a very healthy meal, high in vitamins and other elements so as to break the 40 day fasting period and to gradually get your body’s digestive system back into the habit of eating meat and fish as usual.
Recipe for mageiritsa soup (Greek Easter soup) for after the midnight mass on Holy Saturday
1 kilo of lamb offal (heart, liver, lungs and other organs) and the lamb head
1 large onion, finely chopped
5-6 spring onions, finely chopped
3 medium romaine lettuce, roughly chopped
4-5 tablespoons of fresh dill and parsley, finely chopped
1 cup of rice (optional)
1/2 a cup of olive oil
A pinch of salt and a pinch of freshly ground pepper
Ingredients for the egg-lemon taste at the end
5 eggs, beaten
Juice of 3 lemons
Salt and pepper
- Rinse the offal meat very well with cold water, in order to remove any traces of blood.
- Wash all of the intestines and then rinse them very well and turn them inside out, using a knitting needle or the end of a wooden spoon as your guide. Then continue to rinse them and then rub them with either lemon juice or salt. Cut the intestines into small pieces and then place into the refrigerator until you are ready to use them.
- Wash and rinse the lamb’s head very thoroughly. Put the head into a sauce pan with plenty of salted water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and then cook slowly for about 2-3 hours, taking off the foam from the top and replacing the water as needed. Remove the head, reserve the broth and strain, if desired.
- Chop the offal meat into small pieces. Heat the olive oil in a large, wide sauce pan and saute the offal meat. Add the onion and saute all together for a few minutes, until it all becomes translucent.
- Place the strained broth back into a large soup pan. Add the sauteed offal meat and onion to the broth. Bring to a boil. Add the cut up lettuce, herbs, salt and pepper. Let the soup simmer for about one hour, covered with the lid of the pan. Replenish the water as needed. There should be about 3 quarters of a liter in total. Stir in the rice. Simmer until the rice is soft.
- In a separate metal bowl, whisk together the eggs until very frothy. Slowly whisk in the lemon juice. Then, slowly 2 large spoon fulls of the hot soup broth, careful not to get solids in the soup spoon. The hot broth should be added drop by drop into the egg and lemon mixture. Return the tempered egg-lemon mixture to the pan, with the heat turned off, and tilt the pot back and forth so that the egg – lemon mixture (avgolemono) is evenly distributed. Do NOT cover the pot. Serve immediately.
A traditional Greek Easter
Holy Week and Easter Sunday offer an unsurpassed opportunity to share in some of the most moving and impressive moments of the Greek orthodox worship and tradition, and an opportunity to participate in these traditions handed down from generation to generation for almost 2000 years now. The previous week to the week before Easter (Holy week or as the Greeks call it the big week) is commonly called the dumb week because there are no church services held until the Friday night (the eve of the Saturday of Lazarus).
On Friday, it is common for Greek housewives to cook special sweet bread buns which are called Lazaros, these bread buns sometimes have the shape of a man shrouded in a winding cloth, these buns are often decorated with raisins or nuts. Tradition is that the children should roll these bread buns down hills and at the place where the bread bun stops rolling, they hope to find a partridge. In some villages, children make dolls out of reeds and then decorate the doll with rags, flowers or ribbons and then they go from house to house singing the lazarakia, which are hymns that describe the resurrection of Lazarus. This custom is said to have derived from the Ancient Greek festival of Adonis.
On Palm Sunday (Kiriaki ton vayion), most churches are decorated with branches of pain and myrtle. The strict fasts (nisties) become relaxed, and dishes of fresh or salted fish are prepared (usually fish soup). This feast recalls the triumphal entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem after having raised Lazarus from the dead. The eating of fish is symbolic in anotha for the letters of the Greek word for fish, ichthys, stands for the words Isou Ct Theou, Yios, Sotir (Jesus Christ, God, Son, Savior). This was the secret symbolic password of the early Christians during their persecution by the Romans. This day name day of women named Vaya and men named Vayios.
Monday begins the final week of humble fasting and observance of the events that lead to the Passion. Even the not-so-devout refrain from eating meat, eggs and dairy products, and children are also not allowed to drink milk. In some households even olive oil and wine are eliminated from the table. (Fasting for the Orthodox considered a deprivation but a ritual cleansing of the body as well as the soul, a purification making one worthy of Christ’s sacrifice, and the more devout fast for a full 40 days before Easter.)
Tuesday service is devoted to scripture readings referring to Mary Magdalen, and on this day prostitutes make it a point to attend church. Housewives traditionally whitewash their houses, including the edges of the street and the trees, during the first part of the Holy Week.
Holy Wednesday is devoted to the anointment of the faithful with holy oil (efhelaio) and worshipers bring home some holy oil to anoint other members of the family and religious icons, etc., in the home, using a sprig of oregano. These sprigs are then placed near the family icon to be saved for emergencies, for they are believed to have magical healing powers. If a new house is to be built, one of these oregano sprigs is placed on the cornerstone of the foundation.
Holy Thursday finds the household up and about very early, for there is much to be done; and in spite of the many preparations for the Easter feast begun on this day, it still remains a sacred and austere occasion. On Thursday morning, the church is decorated in black, purple and white, and the priests—attired in black vestments with silver crosses—read the gospel passages referring to the Last Supper. Afterward the communion is dispensed to all baptized faithful, and even the youngest children are brought by their parents to partake of it. Communion is dispensed with a spoon containing a small piece of holy bread together with a portion of the wine.
Following the morning service, housewives rush home to continue their preparations for the Easter feast. This is the day that the traditional scarlet Easter eggs are dyed, (the color red symbolizes the blood of Christ and the egg itself is an ancient and universal symbol of the world, rebirth, and fertility). In one popular folktale, a woman who happened to be holding a basket of eggs was told that Christ had risen from the dead. She cried out incredulously, “Indeed? And can these (eggs) from white become red?” When she looked again, miraculously they had.
In many households, eggs are not simply dyed red but decorated. Designs are made with wax before dying; some wrap the eggs in red onion skins, which will impart a marbled effect after dyeing. Another popular method is to place various fresh leaves or flowers on the egg, holding these in place with a bit of tulle or nylon stocking so that the imprint of the leaf is left on the egg. Many other folk rituals and beliefs are associated with the dyeing of the Easter eggs, many of them related to the miraculous powers of the first egg dyed, the dye bath itself (which is blood-red), and even the hens which lay the eggs. Many of these beliefs have their origins in pre-Christian practices.
Holy Thursday is also the day when Easter bread, buns and cookies are made. These are rich, sweet, yeast-raised bread baked with spices (aniseed or machlepi, ground wild cherry seeds) and decorated with one red egg and dried fruits and almonds. These sweet bread are called tsoureki and can be purchased in the local bakeries. Other cookies, called koulourakia are also baked in various shapes for the children.
The evening service, the longest of the Holy Week, is commonly known as the liturgy of the twelve gospels when the priests read 12 different passages describing the Passion of Christ. After the fifth passage, the Crucifixion itself is read, and a life-sized crucifix with an icon of the crucified Christ on it is placed in the center of the church. The worshipers adorn it with three candles and wreaths of flowers. The remaining seven passages referring to Christ’s death and burial are read. The participation of the faithful becomes intense; the women become the guardians of the cross, joining the Holy Mother in grievous mourning and singing funeral hymns in an all-night vigil. It is believed that the souls of the dead are released on this night as the savior descends to the world below.
Good Friday morning is spent attending the service of the descent from the cross. Offices and shops are closed until noon; flags are flown at half-mast and church bells ring a funeral knell throughout the day. Little food is eaten, often just a plate of boiled beans or lentils with vinegar. Many radio stations play classical music. Shortly before noon, the bier on which the body of Christ is to be laid is decorated with gold cloth, and fresh flowers are woven around the elaborately carved epitaphios, where the icon-body of Christ will lay in state until evening. The faithful pass by to bow and kiss the “body of Christ” and stoop under the bier in order to receive its grace.
On Good Friday evening the epitaphios is carried out of the church and the funeral procession begins, often headed by a band playing funeral marches and followed by the local authorities of the state or town and the crowds of faithful, each participant carrying a long candle (lambada). On this night, in some villages, an effigy of Judas is burned and the ashes from this fire scattered on the graves of the dead. Each region and island of Greece has its own local customs marking this holy day.
Holy Saturday sees the gloom of the previous days begins to lift. The service of the first resurrection is held. Noisy scenes then take place in the churches so as to scare away demons who hover about trying to hinder the resurrection and the salvation of mankind. The remainder of this day is spent completing the preparations for the Easter feast. Lamb or kid is sacrificed, and a special soup is prepared from the innards and intestines of the animal. This soup is the famous
Lamb or kid is sacrificed, and a special soup is prepared from the innards and intestines of the animal. This soup is the famous mageiritsa which is very delicious even if the ingredients may sound unappetizing. The organ meats and entrails are cleaned! parboiled and cut into very small pieces, simmered with spring onions and dill and rice, and dressed with egg-and-lemon sauce. This soup, together with freshly made cheeses, the red eggs, and Easter bread will be consumed immediately following the midnight service. Traditionally, this meal was simple, but nowadays many other dishes and salads and desserts are prepared.
After the service of the first resurrection, the churches are redecorated with fresh flowers and branches of sweet bay, myrtle and rosemary, all symbolizing the coming joy of victory. People dress in their best, and children are dressed in new clothes and often a red coat or sweater and shiny red shoes. Everyone gathers in the churchyard holding unlit white candles. Children are given special, elaborately decorated candles called lambathes, usually by their godparents. The service of the resurrection, or
The service of the resurrection, or anastasi. begins around 10:00 p.m. Shortly before midnight, all lights go out, symbolizing the blackness of the grave. Soon, however, the priest appears at the door carrying a lighted candle and chanting “Come and partake of the light and glorify Christ who is risen from the dead.” The congregation then lights candles from the priest’s, and each in turn lights their neighbors’ candles, and everyone joins the priest in singing the Easter, hymni Christos anesti (“Christ is Risen”). Families exchange kisses; church bells ring out joyful™ and fireworks are set off. The priest reenters the church and the service, attended by the most devout, continues. Most people return home, trying to keep their candles lit in order to bless their homes before entering by making the sign of the cross above the threshold with the candle’s smoke. Family members then sit down for the traditional midnight supper. The first food they will eat after the seven-week fast are the red eggs. Before eating these eggs, the Greeks engage in a delightful ritual of cracking ο another’s eggs amid joyful cries of Christos
Most people return home, trying to keep their candles lit in order to bless their homes before entering by making the sign of the cross above the threshold with the candle’s smoke. Family members then sit down for the traditional midnight supper. The first food they will eat after the seven-week fast are the red eggs. Before eating these eggs, the Greeks engage in a delightful ritual of cracking ο another’s eggs amid joyful cries of Christos anesti and chronia polla. This is one of the oldest Greek Easter customs from the Byzantine era, when it was believed that just as the newborn chick emerges from the cracked egg, so Chris t’emerged” from the tomb.
Competition is keen on this occasion, for the person whose egg cracks all the others (without breaking his/her own) is said to have good luck throughout the year.
The following morning finds householders out in their gardens early, stoking the fires over which the Easter lamb or kid will be roasted on a spit. In some regions, this is a community affair and the fires are built in the town square. Wherever it is done, the roasting requires many hours and the men take turns turning the spit. A festive atmosphere is created as everyone enjoys the wine, ouzo and mezedes (appetizers), accompanied by folk songs and dancing. In some parts of Greece, the feasting lasts for three days and the crumbs from the Easter table are scattered in the orchard or the vineyard to ensure a good harvest.
Easter Sunday afternoon or early evening is reserved for a special service of Agapi (“Love”) which takes place in the church and the gospel of the resurrection is read in several languages, symbolizing the brotherhood of all nations. At the end of the service, “kisses of love” are exchanged between friends and enemies alike. Easter Monday is also an official holiday, and those whose name days fell during the Lenten period or Holy Week (usually St. George, April 23), celebrate their name day. Other special festivals, rituals, and customs are followed in the various regions of Greece during the whole of “White Week,” as the week following Easter is called; but for Athenians, Tuesday means “back to work.” Children return to school the following week. One is well advised to leave Athens and get out into the countryside to appreciate the real meaning and atmosphere of Greek Orthodox Easter.