Our second spring break this year coincided with Egyptian Coptic Easter. That’s the same date as Orthodox Easter, which meant we’d be able to enjoy the Greek Orthodox celebrations on Ikaria.
We took an overnight ferry from Piraeus (the port for Athens, where we traditionally start our island journey with a meal at the Ikarian cafe there), arriving at the port of Agios Kyrikos just before sunrise on Good Friday. We used to camp out on the floor of the boat but these days our creaky bones are more comfortable in a cabin.
Andreas’s cousin Vasili had left a rental car for us in the parking lot. We used to run around the island in old beater cars, but Vasili recently upgraded his fleet and we got a spiffy new Citroën with a backup camera and a place to plug in my iPhone. Just one of the many indications of (relative) Ikarian prosperity in the era of Blue Zone fame.
There’s a cafe at the port that opens early when a boat is expected, so we had coffee and cheese pies while we waited for the town to wake up.
Easter is the biggest holiday on the Greek calendar. I didn’t know if shopkeepers would be working on Good Friday but fortunately pretty much everything opened in the morning so we were able to lay in supplies for the weekend. Stores would be closing early in the afternoon and staying shut until Tuesday.
We drove across the island, over the central mountain ridge to Evdilos on the north coast and then up another mountain road to Arethousa. This is the little village where both of Andreas’s parents were born. The Airbnb I’d reserved turned out to belong to another cousin – not so surprising, as there probably isn’t anyone in the village who isn’t a cousin of some kind. The house is an old “pygiri”, or tower house, so called because it has a second story bedroom. There was a fine view from the terrace down the mountain toward the sea.
I realized when I opened my suitcase that I didn’t have the right clothes. I’d packed a dressy light green outfit to wear to church Easter Sunday. But Good Friday is somber, and of course everyone would be in black. Oops. This was a bit of a bummer because soon we intend to live in Arethousa for at least part of every year. Village life being what it is I know that our personal details are scrutinized and cataloged. Hopefully the faux pas will be forgiven if not forgotten.
We spent some of the afternoon getting in the proper mood by watching “Jesus, the Christ” on TV. My Greek is not good but I knew the story already.
In the evening the church bell summoned us to the Good Friday service.
Arethousa’s church is a little oversized. In 1915, when Andreas’s grandfather led the campaign to replace the village’s tiny Ottoman-era church, there were about 500 people living in and around Arethousa. I suppose they expected their numbers to grow, but instead many emigrated and didn’t return. There are only about a hundred Arethousans today, and there’s plenty of room for all of them to bring a friend to church.
The highlight of the Good Friday service is the epitafio. This is a wooden table with a canopy, representing a funeral bier. Local children spent the morning decorating the frame with flowers. During the Good Friday service it occupies a place in the center aisle in front of the altar. As people enter the church, they give a donation in exchange for a white candle which they light and place among the flowers of the canopy.
At a certain point in the ceremony, the priest places the cloth (this is the actual epitafio; it’s a heavily embroidered picture of the dead Jesus) in the tray of the bier and scatters it with flower petals. Soon after that, two men put long boards under the top of the table and lift it onto their shoulders. The priest sings the funeral song and we follow them as they carry the epitafio out of the church. In other villages the procession goes to the graveyard, but Arethousa’s graveyard is a long walk from the village so the procession circles the outside of the church building instead. When they get back to the entrance, the two men hold the bier up high in the doorway for us to stoop under as we reenter the church beneath it for the end of the ceremony. This represents entering the tomb.
A funny thing happened in church. In addition to the priest, there is usually a psaltis (cantor) who sings part of the liturgy, and also a choir that sings a third part. But this church isn’t big enough to have a choir and the poor psaltis was going hoarse singing his part and the choir’s too. The priest got thoroughly annoyed at the lack of audience participation and refused to continue until someone volunteered to go to the front and sing the choir part. It took some harsh words but finally three ladies nudged each other up the aisle and accepted the hymnals. They sure didn’t know the tune but I’ve got to give them credit for trying.
The Easter service is held on Saturday night. It’s supposed to be at midnight, but little Arethousa shares its priest with two other small villages. The priest leads the service at all three over the course of Saturday evening. To make this possible, the usual two-hour event is cut down to a bare-bones 45 minutes. The villages take it in turns to have the priest preside at the preferred midnight time slot; this year Arethousa got 9 pm.
At the end of the ceremony everyone lights candles from the holy flame. Then they follow the priest onto the entry porch of the church for the last part of the liturgy. This is the part where Jesus has risen from the tomb and so a celebratory mood is appropriate. In Ikaria, that means Roman candles, firecrackers, and (alarmingly) gunshots. The priest just keeps on singing.
Back inside the church we greet each other with “Xristos anesti” (Christ has risen – the title of this post), to which the correct response is “alithos anesti” (truly he has risen). The last thing that happens is distribution of the red eggs by the priest. People take these home along with their lit candles. They’ll use the candles to mark a sooty cross above the doorway to their houses, and maybe relight the pilot light on a gas stove.
It’s traditional to have a bonfire after the service, but after a devastating forest fire killed thirteen Ikarians in 1993, islanders are cautious about flames in wooded areas like Arethousa. The harbor village of Karevostomo got the priest for midnight mass this year, and they had a bonfire on the beach there where it’s safer. We talked about following the priest down the hill for a second Easter service but decided to head back to our little house to celebrate on our own instead.
Easter is the end of the forty-day Lenten fast, so feasting is the next order of business. Most people break their fast with the red-dyed eggs from church, but not before using them in a game of tsougrisma: you and someone else tap the pointed ends of your eggs together to see who can crack the other person’s egg. If your egg wins, you play against someone else, until eventually someone’s egg is the champion.
A soup called magaritsa, similar to egg and lemon soup but containing greens and lamb offal, is traditional for the after-midnight meal. We didn’t make any but we had some at cousin Toula’s house. I’ll admit I’m not a huge fan of organ meats but I took a few ceremonial sips of Andreas’s.
We prepared a tasty meal of stewed fava beans, loukaniko sausages, and horiatiki salad (aka Greek salad), washed down with our Airbnb host’s homemade wine and ouzo.
On Easter Day the festivities continued with the arrival of the Easter bunny and the best French toast ever, made from tsoureki (masticha-flavored Greek Easter bread).
Andreas read the fortunes in our coffee grounds.
In the afternoon, a braised lamb lunch at Taverna i Plaka in outer Arethousa rounded out the celebrations (and our bellies).
Some Lithuanian friends introduced me to this same Easter egg jousting tradition here in the US. It must be pan-European. They also gave a mild tug to each other’s forelocks “for strength.”
I think that several of the Orthodox churches share this tradition. I need to read up on it to learn where it originated!