Tradition versus Religion

Last summer, shortly after we arrived, we sat in the platia, talking with Stella about the unique opportunities the children would have in the coming year.  As we sat around a table, splitting a FIX beer and plate of food, I remember her telling Elias and me about the traditions that surround Christmas, Greek Independence Day, and Pascha, or Easter, among other things that the kids would get to experience.  Although at that point Pascha was ten months away, it was the one holiday I was anxiously awaiting.  This past Sunday we enjoyed all of the events Leading up to Lent, because they are traditions that we don’t have in America.  However, during Holy Week and Easter, I expected familiarity–the religion and church services are the same in all Orthodox churches throughout the world, as they have been for the past 2000 years. Pascha is the most important holiday of the Greek calendar, and the week before, Holy Week, is filled with rituals, leading up to the Resurrection–the biggest celebration of all.  What I was unsure of and excited for were the traditions, some of which are unique to Karavostamo and some which are unique to all of Greece.  Schools all over Greece are closed for two weeks, before and after Pascha.  Many people return to the island to celebrate with their families, and with the beautiful warm weather, the atmosphere in Karavostmo has been reminiscent of summer.


Much of what we experienced was similar to what we do in America.  We attended church multiple times during the week, including Palm Sunday, Holy Wednesday, Good Friday, and the Anastasi, the Resurrection Service, Saturday at midnight.  During the week people are knee-deep in preparations.  On Thursday, the women of the house traditionally prepare a special sweet bread, tsoureki, and dye eggs with a special red dye, which symbolizes the blood of Christ.  I made tsoureki with Marina, and as with all things related to Greeks and food, more is better than less–the recipe made 9-10 loaves of bread.   The following day, Good Friday, is the most somber and religious day of the year.  People are not supposed to do much all day–including cooking.  Eating is limited, abstaining from meat, fish, and dairy products.  Many Orthodox Christians fast from these items during all 48 days of lent.

That morning we saw many women walking to church carrying flowers they picked from their garden.  Women and girls spend the morning decorating the Epitaphio, or the tomb of Christ, that is used in the service that evening.  Rea and I joined them and spent hours working on the decorations.  It was great to see that the majority of flowers were donated and came from the local gardens and hillsides and only carnations and greens needed to be purchased–another example of how all of the resources available are used.

That evening the church was packed with villagers and visitors for Christ’s burial service.  After the symbolic funeral mass, the congregation follows the priest, altar boys, and pallbearers around the church, through the streets of the village, and down to the sea where more prayers are  said.  The procession is supposed to continue back to the church, where the service is concluded.  However, a sure-fire way to lose the congregation is to take them past the restaurants and cafenios in the platia. As I said, most people fast religiously on Good Friday, but apparently not all! Only a handful of people returned up the hill to the church–the priest, the altar boys, the pallbearers, and about ten other people, including the five of us.

On Easter Saturday preparations continue for the dinners that will be eaten after the Resurrection service and on Easter Sunday.  The Resurrection service starts at 11 and at midnight the church is bathed in total darkness.  A single candle lit from the altar is passed from candle to candle, representing the light that shined from Jesus’s tomb.  Once again, the congregation proceeds outside, the church bells are rung incessantly, everyone sings Χριστός Ανέστι, “Christ has Risen,” over and over before reentering the now brightly lit church, and the service continues.  In Ikaria, tradition takes over religion at this point, and the majority, once again, don’t enter the church. (I’ll come back to this.)


After the service, it is customary that the people break their long fast with a meal of margaritsa.  The main meal on Easter Sunday is a  freshly slaughtered lamb or goat.  Margaritsa is a soup designed to use the leftover parts so nothing goes to waste.  It is made from the liver, heart, lungs and intestines.  It is a great meal to break a fast, to get the stomach accustomed to eating meats before the larger, heavier meal that will be eaten the following day.  We were invited to share a bowl of margaritsa, tsoureki, and the red eggs.  I have never had the opportunity to eat this traditional soup in America, so since it was served I ate it.  Well, I ate half of a bowl.  The kids were given a bowl of the lemon flavored broth, without the organ meats, for which they were grateful.


One of their favorite parts of Easter is the egg game, called tsougrisma.  Before the eggs are eaten, you hold the egg and the person next to you taps the end of their egg against yours, trying to crack it.  The cracking of the egg represents the cracking open of rocks of Jesus’s tomb.  It is said that if your egg doesn’t crack on either end you will have good luck for the year.


The following morning the men fire up their grill and put the lamb or goat on the spit, where it roasts for hours.  In Ikaria, most everyone has an outside kitchen, and smells of the foods fill the air everywhere you go.  Outside tables are lined with salads, potatoes, tsoureki, dyed eggs, meats, tzatziki sauce, homemade wines, and tsipiro, the Greek moonshine.  We spent a lovely afternoon at Marina and Yianni’s with all of the family.  In America, the large meal and family gathering would be the end of the celebration, and all would return home in a state of food comatose.  However, in Ikaria, and all over Greece, the traditions continued.


What were the differences that made this so unique?  It was the celebrating. The party like atmosphere that began Saturday night when the church bells rang and continued for the next 24 hours.

During Holy Week, the teenagers and young men and women of the village go out to the hillsides searching for alfano, a specific thorny bush.  They spend hours upon hours digging and hacking away, to gather as much of this plant as they can which they will then use for a massive bonfire after the Anastasi, or Resurrection Service.  This is something that only a few villages in Ikaria do.  Karavostamo, the largest village on the island, not only does this, but it has two bonfires.  The village is divided by the road that travels along the island into the upper and lower village. Each village has a church, and years ago there were two priests (my great-grandfather, Papa Petro, was the priest of the lower village church).   It was during that time this friendly competition started.  Each village would gather the wood for a bonfire in hopes of creating the larger of the two.


As the kids collect the bushes, they hide them in the woods and protect them from the “other village.”  They sleep out over night to make sure their pile isn’t stolen, and the kids of two villages become “enemies.”  My young cousin, who is 17, explained it to me this way. “All of my life I have gone to school with these kids.  We are friends and spend a lot time together.  But during this week, we don’t talk.  We avoid each other and when we see each other we give them the evil eye.  We don’t want to be this way.  But we can’t help it.  It is in our blood to hate them this week.”

Now there is only one priest in the village, and services alternate between the upper and lower village churches.   This year the Anastasi was in the upper village church, so it is they who will burn their alfano on Saturday night.   So, when the church bells rang at midnight, and the flame was passed around from candle to candle, at a time when Orthodox all over are rejoicing in their resurrection, in Ikaria firecrackers were going off, the upper village lit it’s bonfire, and fireworks could be seen above the sea in the neighboring town of Evdilos.  Instead of returning inside the church for the liturgy, 95% of the people headed to watch the alfano, seeing how long it would burn.


Upper Village Alfano

Easter Sunday night, when the sun was setting and most of the food consumed was digested, everyone went down to the sea where the lower village had set up their bonfire.  On top of the pile was a figure that represents Judas, who would be burnt for betraying Jesus.  As the massive fire burned and many people set off fire crackers, the young adults who worked hard to create the giant alfano also set off an impressive fire works display for such a small village.  Chris and I were a bit concerned with safety, especially as a few fireworks misfired and one landed in the water and continued to explode.  Thankfully thirty minutes later no one had been injured.

The masses of people walked up from the water to the platia and all the tables outside of the restaurants and cafenios were filled.   Three musicians from the village started playing and the air filled with music and laughter.  When the first notes of The Ikariotiko were heard people began to dance.  It was a large party that everyone in the village was “invited to” and attended.  We stayed late into the night talking with Stella and Sophia as the kids played and danced.  It was an amazing culmination to a unique and traditional week, and it was well worth the ten month wait.

2 comments on “Tradition versus Religion

  1. sue mikolajczyk says:

    🙂 !

  2. Roy says:

    Χριστός Ανέστη! What an experience for all to cherish forever!
    My daughters and I will be on the island of Kithera from June 7-25….come and visit? It is a small island near Crete. My Mom’s side. 💜

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