These three items unify Greeks at Easter, wherever they come from or live: koulourakia (Greek Easter biscuits), tsoureki (Greek Easter sweet bread) and dyed 'red' eggs (which are 'cracked' on Easter Day). Nowadays the busy Greek home can enjoy these traditions without having to make them themselves. Apart from the store-bought cheat's versions shown above, there are also women's cooperatives that make them, so they come out looking as if they were made at home; those that operate in rural areas often use ingredients from home-grown or home-raised produce.
Easter is the most important religious festival in Greece (unlike Christmas in Greece, which is pretty much quiet). The action all takes place at the midnight service on Saturday night. In the past, everything used to stay closed on Sunday but this has changed dramatically - when Easter falls during the tourist period in Crete (as it invariably does), most places will be open to serve the needs of tourists. If you're here on holiday on Easter Sunday and you'd like to take part in a cultural experience today, those of you who have hired a car will be in a better position: wander off the motorway, drive around the countryside, and use your nose to guide you. Although Easter is a family holiday, and most locals will spend it at home in family groups, most (if not all) tavernas will be open today, catering for our tourists and visitors.
Lamb on the spit, being cooked at a Greek festival in Anchorage, Alaska (courtesy of Laurie Constantino). I recall a few of my NZ Greek friends cooking lamb on the spit, but it still felt foreign to me even when I lived in NZ, because it wasn't part of my own home's tradition at Easter. My Cretan mother would be making lettuce avgolemono lamb stew (top right), kalitsounia (bottom left) and Cretan meat pie (bottom right) instead. And right to this day, that's what I make, too.
Most Greeks will tell you that lamb on the spit is traditional on Easter Sunday. Yes, it is... but not exactly. Whole lamb on the spit is actually a Northern/Central Greek tradition, not a Cretan tradition. In a sense, it's an imported tradition from the mainland to Crete. We see the equipment used to cook it being sold here too, because lamb on the spit has now passed into the general Greek tradition, but if you speak to older Cretans, they will tell you that they remember seeing lamb on the spit for the first time in Northern Greece, among 'other' Greeks, and in the army, like for example my husband. He first remembers seeing it while he was doing his military service: by then, he was in his early twenties. On Easter Day, it was (and I suppose it still is) a tradition to roast lamb on the spit at the barracks. A row of spits would be set up by the soldiers, each one holding a lamb, and the villagers in the area where the barracks were located were all invited to join in the festivities.
Cooking lamb on the spit involves a lot of work (although electric spits now help to ease the burden of turning it) and it also involves a lot of eaters - if you have a small family, then this is not a feasible way to cook it. This is the main reason why my own family has never celebrated Easter in this way: in fact, the only time I have celebrated Easter with lamb on the spit is once in Athens and another time in Hania when a friend from Thessaloniki organised the event. Most people in and around Hania cook Easter lamb in the oven, in avgolemono sauce, on the BBQ, and in a traditional Cretan meat pie. Restaurants and tavernas probably won't offer lamb on the spit in Crete on Easter Day for two reasons: Easter is a family celebration, so most people will get together in each other's house for this feast, and tourists may not be familiar with the tradition themselves, so they won't be looking to order lamb on the spit.
Antikristo: a tradition of Eastern Crete; lamb on the bone is cooked on an upright grill. It needs to be turned to cook evenly, which is why the electrified version (on the right) is simpler to use. These photos were taken in villages in Rethimno.
The Cretan tradition in roasting meat over an open fire is known as 'antikristO' (with the emphasis on the 'O'). This unusual kind of BBQ consists of an upright grill, surrounding an open charcoal fire in the middle. An electrified version of this also exists, where the meat turn around in a circular fashion, like a clock; this is different to the lamb on the spit, where the lamb goes round and round like a ferris wheel. To add to the confusion, antikristo is a tradition of Eastern Crete, which explains why you'll probably never see it in Hania (you will see it in Rethimnno and Iraklio).
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If you're offered a chance to participate, make sure you know what to say to your hosts. Greek 'Happy Easter' wishes follow the timeline of the events of the first Easter 2000 years ago:
As Easter approaches, people farewelling each other may wish their friends Καλό Πάσχα (ka-lO pAs-ha): "I wish you a good Easter" (NB: they only say this before Easter).
During the Holy Week, as Easter Day approaches, they may say Καλή Ανάσταση (ka-lI anAstasi): "I wish you a good Resurrection" (to remind us of the reasoning behind Easter).
After the midnight Easter Saturday service, they will then greet each other with Χριστός Ανέστη! (hristOs anEsti!): "Christ has Risen!" This greeting is used the first time you see someone after Easter for the next 50 days, until Pentecost, instead of the usual 'Hello' (Γειά σας) .
And finally, to reply to someone who has just said told you that Χριστός Ανέστη, you answer: Αληθώς Ανέστη! (alithOs anEsti!): Truly He has Risen!, which originated as a way to distinguish the believers from the non-believers.
If it's all confusing for you to remember each of the different greetings, then there's also the generic 'umbrella' greeting: Χρόνια Πολλά! ((hrOnia pollA), which covers just about any happy event, and you can say it pretty much throughout the Easter period.
For all of us, whether we are religiously inclined or not, may Easter be a happy one, wherever you are.
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