Easter in Crete
Easter Holy Week begins on Lazarus Saturday, the day after Great Lent ends. If you’re planning to rent a vacation property in Crete for Easter this is a great day to begin your vacation. Crete has a festive vibe on Lazarus Saturday with local children engaging in a ritual similar to carol singing at Christmas but with the added, typically Cretan, bonus of eggs. The children collect eggs and money as gifts for singing the Hymn of Lazarus in the streets.
In the days following, Crete enters a period of mourning. Locals decorate churches and epitaphs, priests add extra services to the church's already lively schedules and most residents begin their fast. On Holy Thursday Cretans begin to prepare Easter food, most notably baking the tsoureki bread with its iconic red eggs, a task that must be tortuous while fasting. Finally, Holy Friday arrives.
This is the holiest day of Holy Week as it is the official day of mourning. The devout will not cook, clean or engage in work of any kind on Good Friday so expect a quiet day on the island. The atmosphere is intense as church bells ring out the death toll all morning and local children spend the day preparing a bonfire and building an effigy of Judas to be burned outside the church the next night. The whole island attends an evening service that begins at 7pm and at 8.30pm begins a sombre candlelit procession through the streets. For many visitors this procession is the most moving spectacle of the entire Holy Week as the devout sing hymns, carry flowery epitaphios and scatter petals and perfume in the streets.
For the devout Easter is an emotional journey that reaches its climax on Saturday night with Resurrection Mass, also known as Anastasi. The most religious event of the year, Anastasi takes place at midnight. First, a priest extinguishes every light in the church and then lights one parishioner's candle. Gradually, the flame passes from person to person, one at a time. By the time the resurrection is announced with cries of ‘Christ has risen’, the entire church is filled with light. Now Judas’ effigy can be burned in a ceremonial bonfire and the local tavernas can open, ready to feed the hordes of hungry worshippers. The fast has come to an end and meat is on the menu so the night of Anastasi is a celebration of the gluttinous kind.
Holy Saturday is also the day that every cook worth their salt begins preparations for the next day’s feast. Meat is marinated, pastries are prepared and the traditional mayiritsa soup is boiled up and kept hot, ready for any visitors or relatives that may arrive after Anastasi to break their fast.
Now we’ve reached the joyous part. Easter Sunday is a day of true jubilation and is the best day of Holy Week to get yourself invited to a Greek family’s home. Preparations for the Easter Sunday feast begin at dawn when the man of the house sets up the traditional spit and cleans and fuels the outside grill. The centrepiece of the table is a traditional, whole spit-roasted lamb.
While some Greek families now prefer to prepare simpler lamb dishes in the oven, on Crete the spit-roast lamb tradition is alive and well. As the lamb is slowly charred to perfection, Cretan appetizers such as kaltounia (cheese pie), sfakianes pites (skafia pie), olives, breads and dips are served. Once the lamb is ready it is served with patates fournou (roast potatoes with citrus and oregano) and local vegetables. Along with the food, wine and ouzo is generously doled out to friends and strangers on Easter Sunday so expect a very jolly affair!
A few things to consider
- The date of Greek Orthodox Easter is different to that of Catholic Easter as it is calculated using the Julian calendar. Greek Orthodox Easter is between 1 and 5 weeks after Catholic Easter.
- The lure of bearing witness to such an important holiday brings many visitors to Crete. Renting a villa in Crete around Easter is challenging but if you’ve bought your own vacation property you should have no difficulty sub-leasing it.
- Many businesses on Crete such as tavernas, restaurants and shops will close on Easter weekend, Good Friday to Easter Sunday. Supermarkets and small grocery shops often operate on reduced hours, opening only between 11am and 3pm.
Have you visited Crete during Easter? Tell us about your experience!