Greek Holy Week in Coronavirus Times: Seven Traditions We Will Miss this Year



This year Greek Easter is going to be so different that it will go down in history as very likely one of the most unsettling and unusual holidays of all time. By far the most attended, and most solemn, of all Greek Orthodox feasts, it will not be celebrated in 2020, the year of the coronavirus.

For Greeks, Easter means more than the annual religious celebration of the Resurrection of Christ. It is also a celebration of family, friends, unity, and… lots of food. Easter is the most traditional Greek celebration of all, an institution synonymous with Greece itself.

This year, however, cherished Greek Easter traditions will give up their place in our national life in favor of health protection, and our continued isolation. It may be an occasion as well for the exploration of deep thoughts about life and existence itself, to perhaps even the realization of our own mortality.

There are seven traditions ingrained in the word Easter, or Pascha, that Greeks will miss in 2020. Traditions that some are willing to even risk their life and health to uphold. Or, in the best case, pay a hefty fine.

  1. This year, churches will be closed to the public. The priests and cantors (only two of each allowed) will be reading the Holy Gospel to an empty nave. The faithful will not be allowed to gather together, not even outside the churches.
  2. The familiar, soothing words of the Bible will be echoing around the church walls, while Christians will be listening to the Holy Liturgy at home on the radio or watching on television. No one will meet their friends and neighbors in church. And those who only go to church annually, on Holy Week, will miss it even more.

    An “Epitaphios” Procession on Good Friday
  3. The Epitaphios Procession on Good Friday will be missed as well. The Deposition from the Cross ceremony and the flower-decorated Epitaphios while the church bells toll mournfully belong to the most vivid moments of Orthodox Easter. The Epitaphios Procession is, again, an occasion to socialize with the neighbors while walking behind holding a beeswax candle.
  4. The tradition of receiving the miraculous Holy Light from the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem with all the honors of a head of state is another highlight of Holy Week. The arrival of the Holy Light a few hours before midnight when bells will toll joyously announcing the Resurrection signifies the approaching of the greatest miracle, that of the Resurrection. But this year the light will not be passed from candle to candle and then carried home carefully to bless the house.
  5. This year there will be no fireworks outside churches when the priest chants “Christ Has Risen!” (Christos Anesti!) and bells peal with joy at midnight. No spectacular pyrotechnic displays or noisy firecrackers will mark the end of pious silence and repentance during Holy Week.
  6. For many Greeks, the picture that first comes to mind when one says the word “Easter” is that of a poor lamb turning around on a spit for hours over a bed of charcoal. The lamb symbolizes the sacrifice of Christ to save mankind. Yet eating like there is no tomorrow is something that many Greeks do after 40 days of Lenten fasting. Roasted lamb, and kokoretsi, red-dyed eggs are only some of the many foods one will find on the Easter table.
  7. Easter means family, friends and neighbors, even total strangers, who will sit at the table with you and celebrate the greatest day of Orthodoxy. There is no social gathering at home larger than the one on Easter Sunday. Men will be turning the spit, women will be putting out the salads, children will be playing. Also, by gathering outside Greeks celebrate the coming of Spring along with the Resurrection of Christ. Unfortunately, the lockdown this year meant that only the family members who live in the house can be present.

    Throwing Botithes (large terra cotta pots) from balconies on Corfu
  8. The traditional trip to one’s hometown in the country or island, or traveling to a place where spectacular celebrations take place is also something that must be postponed until 2021. Extended families get together, old school friends meet in their hometown, children enjoy nature, people welcome Spring by picking flowers and basking in the sun: all these things make Easter Sunday one of the most joyful days of the year.

All that and more will have to wait for another year. With all Greeks, along with the rest of the world, wishing that an Easter like the one in 2020 will never come again.