I don’t know about you (and if you’re very religious or a regular church go-er it’s unlikely you’ll be able to relate to this) but over the last few years, for me anyway, Easter has become a bit of a non-event. I remember that, as a small child, there was a degree of excitement in its impending arrival although any awareness of what we were actually celebrating, was soon over-shadowed by the anticipation of far more exciting and tangible matters: the lengthy school holiday for example; a preoccupation with the size and amount of Easter eggs one might receive and the rare treat of being allowed to gorge on chocolate, unchecked, till the nausea set in, not to mention the thrill of finding, among the many Easter cards dropped through the letter box, one addressed to me personally in my grandma’s instantly recognizable shaky hand-writing, which always contained a crisp new five pound note.
In our family, a picnic in the countryside, come rain or shine, was always the order of the day – as were the endless traffic jams with only rounds of ‘I Spy’, endless verses of ‘10 green bottles’ and ‘Old Macdonald’ to relieve the boredom (no Ipods or Play Stations for us!); the breathing-in of exhaust fumes (and resultant car-sickness!); the parental arguments over map-reading skills while getting lost in leafy lanes, and finally, miraculously, reaching our intended destination anyway, usually somewhere like this:
Increasing irritation (and gnawing hunger pains) were ignored as Mother, very particular about finding the ‘absolutely perfect spot’, insisted we try a ‘Just little further on’! The elusive setting had to be exclusive (no other family in sight!). It had to have a wonderful view. It had to be as far away from the road as possible (it was considered a cardinal sin and showed little imagination to just park up in a lay-by or on the roadside, for example). No, that wouldn’t have done at all! The further off the beaten track the better – regardless of how far we (never ‘she’) would have to lug all the paraphanalia!
Weighted down with blankets, cushions, folding chairs, cold boxes, badminton sets, parasols and wind breaks (with a hamper bursting with home-made goodies, the dangling carrot for our discomfort), we clambered through meadows, around cow pats, up knee-high grassy knolls, skirting nettle-beds, over muddy streams and splinter ridden styles and into countless forest clearings before the tablecloth could be laid down and food unpacked. Oh, and there had to be a low gradient hill on hand, down which we would, with lungs now replenished with ample doses of ‘fresh country air’ at the end of a fun-filled day, each roll our individually hand- painted, hard-boiled eggs: the signal the it would soon be time to pack up and head for home.
For a few years I tried to continue the tradition with my own children but once it became clear that a day-off, just blobbing in front of the ‘box’ was actually more preferable all round, I gave up and joined the ranks of fellow exhausted mothers who groaned at the audacity of Easter bunnies and chocolate crème eggs appearing on supermarket shelves before even the last of the Christmas tinsel had been packed away!
I honestly can’t remember when I last really celebrated Easter or received (or sent, for that matter) an Easter card! So no, finding myself in Skiathos for Easter this year, instead of with my family, would be no great sacrifice.
Along with daffodils, crocuses and clock changes,
it only heralded welcoming thoughts of spring after a long and dismal winter, but other than that, it would come and go largely unnoticed in our house these days, I’m afraid.
Not so in Skiathos though!! Easter week (or Megali Evdomada) is the jewel in the Greek orthodox crown: a week of religious events and services unrivalled anywhere else in the whole country, is attended by, almost without exception, the entire island population as well as visitors from all over mainland Greece and beyond. Following the lengthy liturgy as decreed by Mount Athos, (unlike the rest of Greece which looks to Athens) the week-long festivities and almost continuous church services are steeped in traditions unchanged for centuries and, religious or not, it is truly a spectacle to behold!
The outpouring of grief, pain and loss, on Good Friday, is a palpable national mourning that unites families, neighbours, friends and visitors alike, each holding their funereal dark brown candles and dressed in dark clothing to reflect the sombre, reflective mood.
From the moment the bells begin their hourly peal, rung by young school boys from 1. 00 pm, the chanting and call to prayers begin.
In the two town churches, services run between midnight and 4 00am:
Where outside a crowd slowly gathers:
and inside, in front of the candle-lit, flower-adorned ‘Epitaphios’, the holy catafalque; a symbol of Christ’s tomb.
Upon which handfuls of rose petals are showered from the woman’s balcony above
The Epitaphios in the top church (‘Panagia’, dedicated to the birth of the Madonna) is over 103 years old, a gift from the Dodecanese island of Syros. It is unique in that it is more baroque than Byzantine in style, intricately carved as it was by Italian cabinet-makers at a time when the Greek Catholics outnumbered the Orthodoxy on that Greek island.
At around 4.00 am, in eerie silence descends on the crowd as the cortege emerges from the church:
held high and rocking gently from side to side like a boat, it sails on a sea of up-turned faces, illuminated only by flickering candle-light:
Supported by bearers who have the honour of transporting it, it begins it’s journey through the narrow, winding streets of the old town, Plakes,
accompanied by devoted followers, each chanting and repeating verses first uttered by a group of elders and standard bearers who lead the procession.
The first stop is the lower church of Treis Ierarches (the Three Bishops) where the Epitaphios is raised high and showered with flower petals,
and the church is blessed, before the procession continues on it’s way.
Shortly before, a similar procession had begun here and had already reached the old port below, where the flickering candles of its followers could be seen, reflected all along the Paralia, dancing like fire-flies along the water’s edge, in the otherwise darkened town.
It is important that the two processions never converge at any point, so different routes are taken to ensure that every corner of the town is passed through and every church en route is similarly blessed.
And snaking through the narrow streets, following a circular route,
the second procession winds it’s way up through the top of the main (Papadiamantis) Street
The air by now is heavy with candle smoke, floating rose petals and mists of perfume sprinkled from the overhead balconies where the very old and very young lie in wait for the cortege to pass.
The chanting of verses builds to a climax as the door of the church the procession started from (which is now in complete darkness) is finally reached. Silence falls over the crowds while the door is knocked 3 times and permission is sought to re-enter.
From within, a voice booms loud, asking who is prepared to follow Christ into the darkness within (a test of faith) rather than remain outside in the candlelight (and be thus be forever doomed). Once assured of the crowd’s preference, the doors are flung wide and the congregation surges in.
In the ensuing frenzy the Ipitaphios is stripped bare of its decorative flowers and candles and they are distributed among the grasping crowds, anxious for a personal memento of this significant occasion that will ensure protection, blessings and good fortune to each household, for the coming year.
Now, at almost 6.00am, in the early dawn light, the crowds disperse, buying freshly baked Easter loaves & biscuits (Tsoureki)
before wearily wending their way home to their beds.
SATURDAY NIGHT/ SUNDAY MORNING:
After a short but refreshing sleep, foot-sore and hoarse, a small crowd gathers at the airport to await the arrival of a very special flight. A flame of candlelight transported from the holy city of Jerusalem to Athens and then dispersed to every corner of Greece, arrives on the island by a private light aircraft (courtesy of a wealthy private sponsor). The flame, carried by the papas and escorted by the marching brass band, is paraded ceremoniously through the town to the main church square, where it is welcomed with reverence and a show of fireworks, before entering the church for the rest of the vigil.
By 11.00pm once again the church is full and the icon of the Panagia (Madonna) is now draped with white, rather than black, ribbon.
During this service the priest empties baskets of bay leaves (Daphne) over the congregation, everyone is anxious to catch as many as possible about their person: the more leaves, you can catch, the most luck you’ll have, is the belief. By the time I arrive the floor is littered with the remainder of fallen leaves.
Outside, the crowds, this time brightly dressed in all their finery, continue to assemble, continuing their prayers for a miracle.
and when, at midnight, the priest emerges and declares the words everyone has patiently, hopefully, waited for: Xristos Anesti!! “Christ has risen” the mood turns instantly from one of solemnity to joyous jubilation. An explosion of fireworks lights up the night sky above our heads
and deafening firecrackers are set off beneath our feet.
As each of the (now white and beautifully decorated) hand-held candles are successively lit (from that first holy flame)
the light spreads rapidly among the assembled crowds,
There is much well wishing, hand clasping and hugging as greetings are exchanged: “Xristos Anesti!” , “Christ Is Risen”. “Alithos, Anesti!”, “Truly, he Has Risen” and “Xronia Polla !!” ,“Many Years!!”, before the crowds disperse and scurry off in all directions to begin the celebrations by breaking the 40 day fast, with family and friends.
To quote Elizabeth Irons once again: “There is a rush to the tavernas. Even those who have not fasted for seven weeks hungrily devour the rich Easter soup, the traditional ‘mayerits’a, made with the paschal lamb’s intestines boiled with rice and dill and tasting of kidney” (I have to say I was quite relieved to find this was not on the menu where I was invited for dinner!) “ Bowls of red-dyed eggs are on the table and we play conkers with them: the feast always includes eggs in accordance with the promise made on the last night of Carnival: “With an egg I will close my mouth (Lent) and with an egg I shall open it again (Easter), and the game of tapping them is as old as that ancient custom.”
All over an island bathed in glorious spring sunshine, there is the aroma of paschal spit-roasted lambs as families gather for the mighty Sunday dinner.
It is a day of abandon and celebration, full of feasting, drinking, laughter, music and dance that lasts well into Sunday night.
It is one that will be repeated in the great outdoors next Friday when the villagers will head for the hills behind the Evangelistria Monastery for a ‘panayeri’. – not a ‘panayeri’ in the strictest sense as it is not a saint’s day, but a day out among the lush April hills and meadows:
to rejoice once again in the return of Persephone.
Today after a relatively quiet and slow start to the day (and at long last, the chance of a full and peaceful night’s sleep) I sat on my terrace looking out, through the hazy sunshine. I watched the ferry making it’s way across the water in the direction of Aghios Konstantinos, on the mainland. It was unusually slow-moving today, so must have been heavily laden with cars and visitors returning home. Skiathos will be peaceful and empty once again – but only till the first tourists of the season marking the start of the annual descent, at the beginning of May. Till then, I’ll make the most of this short reprieve.
Tonight, Easter week’s celebrations continued at 6.00pm, with a short service at the Aghia Triada church,near the Acropolis.
It was followed by an open-air folk dancing display, a ‘Koumara’ .
It was an opportunity for islanders to reclaim their island for themselves and celebrate their heritage and culture. The maidens of the town, dressed in their colourful, flowing traditional costumes, danced their age-old steps in time
to the toe-tapping, beat of the folk music;
the island’s pulsating heartbeat. Together with the haunting voices of revered local folk singers Maria Parisi
whose soulful songs are the life blood that flows through the veins of every islander, just as it has done for centuries.
I spotted one pretty young girl wearing an original antique traditional Skiathos dress that was very old , very delicate and very beautiful!:
Hot barbequed food, souvlaki, bread and drink was generously provided for the crowd by the Municipality
And as the party got underway the dancers were joined by enthusiasts of all ages
Even the Dimarkos, the Mayor, Mr Nikos Plomaritis, joined in the revelry
which carried on well after sunset
Yes, Easter on Skiathos is unique and has a magic all it’s own. The true meaning of Easter has been once again re-affirmed and belief restored. No one fortunate enough to witnesses it, regardless of whether they’re religious or not, can remain untouched by the experience. Till now, apart from a few hours lost sleep, it has cost me little; just a few euros for the candles and gifts I bought to thank my generous hosts and 80 cents or so for the Easter bread, while in cold and snowy UK, a friend has posted on Facebook her horror at the outrageous cost of a single, simple Easter egg these days: “Commercialism’s gone mad !” she said.
While here at the other end of the EU, which is not a million miles away, we’ve had all this; something, in it’s beauty and simplicity, that is far more valuable and quite simply, priceless! – but best of all, there’s not been a single chocolate bunny, gaudy card, fluffy yellow chick or sickly crème egg in sight!