Easter is one of the most wonderful times of the year to visit Crete. As the landscape experiences a renewal from the winter with a burst of flowers and fragrance, the community experiences a resurgence of faith at Easter, the most important holiday in the Greek Orthodox Calendar. Easter in Crete is at its most authentic and traditional, to say nothing of its most festive. Come and rejoice by celebrating the resurrection in Crete.
Easter Traditions in Crete
One of the things that makes Cretan Easter so special — as Greek Easter in general — is the fact that it is not just one day, but a whole season. There is a fast of 40 days. Then, the week before Easter Sunday – Orthodox Holy Week — is a time of contemplation. You instantly sense the mood – the souvlaki shops are not as busy, and neither are the bars and cafes – the mood is one of reverence.
Holy Week – “Megali Evdomada”
This mood builds as the week progresses. The Easter preparations follow the holy calendar. Holy Thursday finds every household engaged in the same activity – the dyeing of Easter eggs. While in many countries these are all manner of pastel colors to mirror the joy of the season, in Greece the eggs are a deep crimson red, to symbolize the blood of Christ. But they symbolize much more —the red shell symbolizes life, while the white egg within symbolizes the triumph of the eternal life of the soul.
The other food strongly associated with Easter all over Greece and also in Crete is “Tsoureki” – a sweet bread rich with eggs and butter and the exotic scent of mastic and mahlepi (these are the ground pits of a wild cherry). These are woven into fat braids and brushed with egg for a glossy sheen. Sometimes, a red egg is woven into a braid, which is then shaped into a wreath.
Good Friday – “Megali Pareskevi”
Good Friday in Crete as elsewhere in Greece dawn with the mournful peal of the church bells. This somber sound carries on throughout the day, calling the faithful to the church to pay their respects before the “epitaphio.”
The Epitaphio – the funeral bier of Christ – is typically decorated with an abundance of blossoms in intricate patterns. All throughout the day starting from the morning, people line up to kiss the bier. Then, usually when dusk falls, a great procession begins with the priests and altar boys following the bier as it is carried around the neighborhood. All follow behind, with candles lit, and people emerge from their homes and go out onto their balconies with lit candles as well. Every parish has its own epitaphio procession. The streets of all Greece are filled with epitaphia processions of light.
Although this is a funeral procession, it’s not completely somber. There is a sense of anticipation in the air. The resurrection is soon.
Easter Saturday dawns with a flurry of activity. Although the souvlaki shops may be empty or even closed, the “agora” – the marketplace – is not. People are out buying last minute Easter gifts. In the case of Godmothers and Godfathers, they are getting “Lambadas” – ornate, festively decorated tapers, often with toys or charms attached. These they present to their “Vaftisimia” or “Vaftisimio” – godchild. And usually they also get them a lovely gift. The godchildren in turn have flowers or other gifts for their godparents.
And this is not the only shopping going on. Easter is a big celebration, and everyone wants to look his or her best when they go to church, so the boutiques are busy.
At last, Saturday evening arrives. The church service of the resurrection is a long one and it begins earlier in the evening. But many people are still making their last minute Easter preparations, and arrive at the church a little before midnight. Not everyone fits inside the church, and in fact there are usually more people outside than inside. Everyone has a fresh candle, and a red egg. At long last, the joyous sound of bells and a hymn beloved and familiar to all begins and spreads through the crowd. Also spreading through the crowd in the darkness is the light of the resurrection, from candle to candle. All greet each other with “Christos Anesti!” – Christ is risen.
So far, Cretan Easter has unfolded much like Easter throughout the rest of Greece. But we are not finished yet. Children have been gathering small pieces of wood throughout the week and making piles near each church. After the resurrection, the effigy of Judas is brought out and set ablaze. It’s a very dramatic sight, and a special Cretan tradition.
Easter Food to Try in Crete
There are many special foods we associate with the Easter season. The tsoureki mentioned above are absolutely essential.
The bakery windows are stacked with festively wrapped tsoureki. But of course many make them at home, along with another traditional easter sweet – “koulourakia”. This is the general word for cookies in Greek. These Easter cookies are especially rich though, with butter and egg yolk and the scent of lemon, vanilla, or mastic. They’re shaped into twists and knots and braids and every home has great platters of them on the table, alongside bowls of shiny red eggs. It’s a lovely sight.
Another traditional Cretan Easter treat is “Kalitsounia” – sweet Cretan cheese pies. These are eaten all year around, but the Easter ones are made with extra care.
Another thing that makes all of these treats very special is that they are made with butter, milk, and eggs – all prohibited during the long period of fasting before the resurrection. So – for a couple of days, the kalitsounia and koulourakia and tsourekia are just a treat for the eyes alone.
The fast is actually broken after the resurrection – but not with something sweet. Just the opposite, in fact. After midnight, everyone goes home for a bowl of “Mageiritsa” – a lemony soup of lamb innards and entrails. It is so much more delicious than it sounds. But the highlight is to come on Easter Sunday – a roast lamb.
Cretan Villages during Easter
The villages of Crete are truly the place to experience an authentic Easter celebration. In the villages, almost all of the preparations are done at home – from the hand-kneaded tsoureki breads to the cheese for the kalitsounia. The lamb, too, will be from the local flocks. This is a farm-to-table celebration.
Crete’s villages are full of people during the Easter celebrations – while many live and work in the cities, at this special time of year people return to their villages to participate in the traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation.
Easter Sunday in Crete
Sunday has the household chefs rising very early, to roast the Easter lamb. If at all possible, this is done on an outdoor spit over the coals. Men – usually – would spend all day taking turns rotating the lamb slowly so that it browns evenly. But now, there are many eclectic spits that do the work for them. However, everyone still gathers around to lovingly watch its progress, while they catch up and reminisce.
The whole lamb, after hours, will be crisp and richly browned, and render within. There’s nothing like the taste of roast Easter lamb in Crete.
By the early afternoon, large extended families and friends gather around long tables – no one spends Easter alone, and there is always room for another chair. People often attend more than one celebration, wandering from house to house to exchange greetings and joy.
Easter Sunday is one of the most joyous days to experience the true beauty of Crete and its culture and people.