"Life is not about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

It's All Greek To Me: Easter Edition

~* The symbol of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America *~

Finally! The post I have been promising to post. I am so excited to share with all of you the traditions and customs associated with Greek, or Orthodox, Easter.

If I haven't already made it known, I am 100% Greek Orthodox. Both of my parents are Greek, all of my grandparents are Greek. My brother and I are the only ones that did not marry other Greeks! I am immensely proud of my Greek heritage. But, I am third generation American (my parents were born here, as were both of my grandmothers. My grandfathers were born in Greece but came to America as infants). I have still not been fortunate enough to travel to Greece, but I will. Luckily my husband really wants to, also, so someday we will get there. Till that time, I am happy to practice the traditions and customs of my heritage. And at no other time of the year are the Greek customs more sacred than at Easter.

So many people ask, "Why is Greek Easter on a different day than "regular" Easter?" I am always more than happy to share why (though I will admit that part of me is always like "are you kidding me?!") So before I go any further, let me briefly explain. 

Easter, whether Western or Orthodox, is always on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal (or spring) equinox. It just happens that Western churches (i.e. Catholic and Protestant denominations) and Orthodox churches (common in Greece, Russia, Albania, etc) use a different date for the vernal equinox. Western churches follow the Gregorian calendar whereas Orthodox churches follow the Julian calendar (the two churches originally followed the Julian calendar). The Western church decided to set a fixed date for the vernal equinox, March 21, and then base the full moon on ecclesiastical calculations. The Orthodox church bases the dates of the equinox and full moon on astronomical definitions as observed along the meridian of Jerusalem. There are many years (like 2010 and 2011) when both Easters fall on the same date. There are some years, like this year, when they are merely a week apart. And there are yet other years (like 2013) when Western Easter falls on March 31 and Orthodox Easter falls on May 5!

OK! So now that all of that is cleared up how about we talk Greek Easter! Easter is huge in the Greek Orthodox church...HUGE. It is a VERY big deal involving a lot of preparation, anticipation, and prayer. It is our most sacred day of the year. The actual "celebration" of Easter begins several days before Easter Sunday. The Orthodox church does, as do most Western churches, celebrate Palm Sunday on the Sunday before Easter. With that, Holy Week begins. I am not going to get in to a day by day breakdown on the meanings and activities associated with every day of Holy Week because it could take forever. And, to be honest, us modern, American Greeks don't follow every little tradition and rule as closely as it would be followed in say, a little village in an ancient town in Greece. To read more in-depth information on Great Lent and Pascha, the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is a great resource.

~* St. Vasilios Greek Orthodox Church in Peabody...the church where my parents were married, my brother and I were baptised, my husband and I were married, my brother and his wife were married, and my nephew was baptised...all by the same priest, Fr. Andrew. These events all happened over a span of 35 years. My grandparents and many other family members celebrated major life milestones in this magnificent building. This church has been in our community since 1906. The current building has been in this spot since 1917. It is a breathtakingly beautiful example of Byzantine architecture. *~

The preparations for the Easter feast and celebrations really kick in to high gear on Holy Thursday of Great Lent. This is the day when the tsoreki, a traditional Easter bread is baked, and dozens of eggs are dyed a deep red, symbolizing the blood of Christ. 

~* Traditional red Greek Easter eggs *~

On Good Friday, the priest takes down the icon of Christ, shrouding it in linen in a re-enactment of the ancient burial ritual. Good Friday services are very somber and contemplative and a time of deep prayer. In Greece, the shrouded icon is still placed in a casket surrounded by white lillies and brought through the towns and the worshipers mourn the death of Christ.

Holy Saturday was always my most favorite time during the Easter week. For years we always attended the midnight services at our church. We have gotten away from doing this in the past several years and I miss it. It seems as older family members have passed on we have lost some of our traditions and this is one that I miss desperately and want to get back. It is the most beautiful service you could ever imagine. It starts around 11:30PM with prayer and lovely hymns sung by the church choir. All of the parishioners are holding unlit candles. At midnight the church is plunged in to darkness except for the flicker of the church's Holy Flame. One by one each parishioner's candle is lit by this flame until the church is awash in the glow of candle light and the priest joyously announces Christos Anesti (Christ is Risen). The priest reads from the Gospel (in Greek, and I will admit I have no idea what he is saying, though I do know it is about the joy of Christ's resurrection). The parishioners will repeat one hymn several times with the priest, and it goes like this:

Christos Anesti ek nekron, (Christ is risen from the dead)
Thanato thanaton patisas, (Trampling down death by death)
Ke ti en tsi mnimasin, (And to those in the tombs)
Zoin charisa a menos. (He has given life)

The pre-Easter fast that many Greeks follow ends with this church service. Following church, which ends around 1AM or so, Greeks go home to enjoy the first Easter feast. Yes, we eat a HUGE meal at like 2AM! And it is fabulous. In our family we always went to my great Uncle Peter's house (Peter was my YiaYia Helen's brother). Peabody also has a large Greek population so driving home from church it was very common to see tons of houses with all the lights on and people joyously feasting in the middle of the night! Since my grandparents and great uncles have all passed on we have gotten away from this wonderful tradition and it makes me sad. I am working on my family to do this once again!

Easter Sunday is a festive day spent celebrating with family and friends! Greeks cook way too much food and drink way too much ouzo and Greek wines! The traditional meal is lamb (blech! I know I know...a Greek that doesn't like lamb!). My Mom and I also cook so many of the traditional Greek foods and pastries: moussaka, tiropitas, koulouria, baklava, etc. Greeks have an egg cracking tradition, known as tsougrisma. Each person takes a red egg and holding it with the pointed end up you go around the room popping your egg against the next person's. In the end the person with the whole egg will have luck throughout the year!  When Greek Easter falls on a different day than Western Easter we have a houseful of people at my parent's house! It is so great!

So there you have it! I know this is really long and if you made it this far...thank you! I hope you have learned a little more about why I love my Greek heritage!

Disclaimer: the photos in this post are not mine. I would be happy to credit someone but I got them from Google images.


Terri and Bob said...

I love that you took the time to explain it all to us.

I want to go to Greece, too. It is one of the three places I want to visit!

I don't like lamb either. Don't know why because I love all the rest!

Sam said...

truly interesting Kristen - your church is gorgeous. I love reading about these traditions...now you need to post all those fabulous recipes!!!

Mockingbird said...

You wrote:

"The Orthodox church bases the dates of the equinox and full moon on astronomical definitions as observed along the meridian of Jerusalem."

This is false. Orthodox Bishops, in a 1923 meeting did, indeed, agree among themselves to do this. But the agreement was never implemented. The Greek Orthodox Church uses the old Julian paschalion, with its equinox 13 days behind the western eqinox, and its lunar tables 4 (sometimes 5) days behind the western tables. When the eastern churches say "today is the equinox", the western churches say, "the equinox was 13 days ago." When the western church says the moon is full, the Greek Orthodox Church says it's still waxing. When the Greek Orthodox Church says the moon is full, the western chuches say it was full 4 or 5 days before. It is due to these solar and lunar discrepancies that the dates often differ.

If the 1923 agreement had been implemented, Greek Orthodox Easter would almost always agree with western Easter.

marnie said...

Thanks for explaining it so I can understand. I love hearing about the rituals and traditions of other religions.
Can't get over the image of being up that late at night and seeing people's houses lit up with festivities going on. So cool!!!
Happy Easter, Kristen!!

~Kristen~ said...

Thanks for visiting my blog and thanks for your response! I have never heard it explained that way. The way I posted it is the way I always knew it to be. It is what I was taught. But I love learning, so though I don't understand a lot of what you wrote, I thank you for explaining it to me how you know it.

Tammy said...

I prefer the Julian calendar myself, seems more accurate to go by the moon...although if we are to believe Mockingbird, there is even disagreement about the lunar tables!

Happy Easter, baby sis!

~Kristen~ said...

I have done some more searching online and all of the explanations I have found seem to explain it the way I posted it. But I am always open to learning!

Mockingbird said...

The astronomical equinox was at 11:44 universal time March 20, 2009. You can verify this at the U.S. Naval Obervatory's seasons tables:


The astronomical full moon was at 14:56 universal time on Thursday, April 9, 2009. You can verify this at the USNO's primary phase tables:


Converting from universal time to the meridian of Jerusalem would add less than 3 hours to these times, so the dates would not change: they would still be March 20 and April 9 respectively. Hence "the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal (or spring) equinox" was the Sunday following April 9, or April 12. So if the eastern paschalion were using the astronomical method, it would have set eastern Easter to the same date this year as western Easter.

The reason eastern Easter is a week after western Easter this year is because the Sunday came between the western Paschal full moon and the eastern Paschal full moon. The western Paschal full moon this year was on Friday, April 10. The eastern Paschal full moon was not until the following Tuesday, April 14, 4 days after the western Paschal full moon and 5 days after the astronomical full moon. Hence the eastern calendar had to wait 4 extra days for its full moon, then wait until the following Sunday.

You can verify the dates of the Paschal full moons at the Wikipedia article "Computus"


in the section titled "Julian calendar"; or at the orthodoxwiki.org article "Paschalion":


in the section titled "Implementation". Maybe you won't trust these articles since I contributed to them. If so, you can use the Astronomical Society of South Australia's Easter computation page, which I had nothing to do with:


where you will need to scroll about 2/3 of the way down the page to "Finding Orthodox Easter Sunday Dates with a Calculator."

At every one of these web sites you will find a table of 19 Paschal full moons, one for each year of the 19-year easter cycle. The ones for the Julian calendar begin with April 5 (Julian) for the first year, March 25 (Julian) for the second year, and so on, ending with a PFM date of April 17 (Julian) in the 19th year. The year 2009 is the 15th year of the 19-year cycle. For the 15th year, the tables give April 1 (Julian) for the Julian Paschal full moon. This corresponds, as noted above, to April 14 Gregorian.

So your Easter is late this year because your full moon, as always, was late, and a Sunday fell between our full moon and yours.

~Kristen~ said...

Thanks for posting again. As I mentioned, I am always open to learning. I wouldn't discredit something just because you contributed to it...I don't even know you! As I mentioned, the way I posted it is they way I have known it to be pretty much my entire life, and I have read things that explain it like I did. I will be the first to admit I am not the most science-minded person so a lot of what you posted for me to read isn't the easiest for me completely understand. But I do thank you for sharing those links. I hope, however, you provided that info to me to help me understand your viewpoint and not, as it seems, to ridicule the fact that Orthodox Easter falls on a different date than Western Easter most years. I have one question: why is it, in 2013, that Western Easter falls on 3/31 and Orthodox Easter falls on 5/5? I do recall past years when both Easters have been that far apart but how does that happen?

Mockingbird said...

Kristen, I hope you're having a blessed Eastertide.

The short answer to your question about the Easters of 2013 is that the Gregorian Paschal full moon (PFM) occurs on March 27 that year, which is somewhat on the early side, while the Julian PFM that year falls on April 30 (April 17 Julian) which is almost the latest it can possibly be (the latest is May 1 Gregorian/April 18 Julian). The previous Julian full moon is on March 31 (March 18 Julian) which can't be the Paschal full moon because it precedes the Julian equinox on April 3 (March 21 Julian).

Julian and Gregorian Easters are a moon apart (4 or 5 weeks, usually 5) in years 3, 8, 11, 14, and 19 of the 19-year cycle. The year 2013 is year 19. (This is the Alexandrian and Western-Julian numbering system. The Byzantine and Russian systems number the years of the cycle differently, but the Easters come out the same.)

~Kristen~ said...

Thanks Mockingbird! I really do appreciate you taking the time to provide all that info! :-)