Easter is the greatest holiday in the Greek Orthodox Church. The date is set according to the moon and is always celebrated on the first Sunday following the full moon of the spring equinox. Easter is preceded by a fifty day fast, beginning with ‘Clean Monday’, when everyone goes out into the countryside in groups and eats raw green vegetables, olives and dips, washed down with wine.
On the following four Friday evenings there’s a special church service in honour of the Virgin Mary. On the run-up to Easter, everyone’s busy cleaning their homes and Holy Week is dedicated to church-going on a daily basis and also baking special Easter breads and flaounes, a kind of cheese cake made of shortcrust with a cheese, egg and mint filling. On Thursday morning the air is sweet with the smell of baking.
On Good Friday everyone takes flowers to church so the women can decorate the Epitafios – Holy Sepulchre - on which the icon of Christ is laid and completely decorated with flowers, then in the evening the whole village takes it in a procession round the village boundaries and back to the church.
On Saturday night, the whole village turns out to attend church, both permanent residents and those who’ve moved away and come back specially for Easter. The church is packed and people have to stand outside. The sermon of resurrection is just before midnight, to the accompaniment of firecrackers and a big bonfire is lit in the church yard. Then at midnight, the lights are switched off, the priest proclaims that ‘Christ is risen’ and lights his candle, from which everyone lights their own. Everyone greets each other saying ‘Christos anesti’ (Christ is risen), to which they reply ‘Alithos anesti’ (He is truly risen). The bells are rung and more firecrackers are set off. If you can get home without your candle going out, you will have good luck throughout the year.
On Easter Sunday, red eggs are cracked and the fast is broken, and lunch consists of lots of meat, pastitsio, potatoes and vegetables, eaten with members of the family and friends.
The Assumption of the Virgin Mary is celebrated on 15th August. This is the day that Mary rose to heaven and is therefore an important date in the religious calendar. There are church services every day during the two weeks preceding, and it is a time of fasting. The village gradually fills up with people; many houses that were previously empty are now inhabited and the village is buzzing with life, the heat of the summer, the voices of children out playing till dark, and an air of expectation. A banner goes up at the entrance to the village proclaiming the date of our Festival. The mayor can be seen bustling about arranging everything. On the big day, tables and chairs fill the square, a stage is set up and tickets can be bought for the buffet. There are stalls selling toys and sweetmeats, and there’s live music, dancing, eating and drinking until the early hours.
Christmas is a busy time for the villagers, who again clean their houses and do a lot of baking during the last week, as well as smoking meats and making sausages. There is traditionally a fasting period of 40 days before Christmas, from 14th November and one is not allowed to marry after this date until after Christmas. Children go around carolling and on Christmas Eve it is believed that the mischief-making ‘Kalikantzari’ arrive and stay until the eve of Epiphany on 6th January.
Kalikantzari are believed to be either the spirits of children who died before having been baptised, or of grown-ups who had no one to sit vigil during the night after their death; it is said that they are ugly and mischievous because the devil or evil spirit was not exorcised from them. They settle in the valleys near rivers, roaming around the villages after midnight, teasing people and scaring the womenfolk, stealing the sausages from the chimneys and playing all sorts of harmless tricks. They also dirty the water supply and babies’ clothes, which must not hang on the line after sunset. Before they arrive, the women go and cut olive branches from church property and with these, dipped in holy water, they sprinkle their homes and doors and then cover their water supply and jugs with them as a protection against the ‘Kalikantzari’.
Should you meet one, you can scare it off by making the sign of the Cross three times, by showing it a black-handled knife or a red thread. They are also terrified if you spit on them or show them a chameleon, at the sight of which they run away in horror.
Although people may be afraid of the ‘Kalikantzari’, they will put out platefuls of goodies if there has been a dead baby in the family who died before being baptised, so that their ‘Kalikantzaroudi’ is sure of something nice to eat when he comes.
The ‘Kalikantzari’ stay until the Eve of Epiphany day. At midnight on the 3rd of January, which is the Eve of Kalanda Day, holy water is made at church, and all the women in the village go with their troughs to take some of the water with which they will bake their lokoumades (syrupy doughnuts) and on the fourth, all the houses are sprinkled from room to room with holy water by the priest, to clean them of any evil spirits. It is on this day too that the women fry xerotyana (dry-fried crispy pastries) and sausages, of which the first plateful is thrown by the children on the roofs for the farewell party of the ‘Kalikantzari’.
Everyone goes to church on Christmas Day and they wish each other ‘Kala Hristougenna’ (a good Christmas) and ‘Hronia Polla’ ([may you live] many years). Everyone eats and drinks well, the main dishes being baked macaroni, stuffed poultry and roast lamb or pork. Egg and lemon soup is often eaten in the evening. The 26th December is the Virgin’s Day and, therefore, also a holiday.
New Year’s Day is considered a great holiday and Agios Vasilis (Saint Basil) is approximately the equivalent of Father Christmas. On New Year’s Eve lucky games are played. At midnight, or on New Year’s Day, after church, the Vasilopitta (Saint Basil’s loaf) is cut. This is a very exciting moment, because of the lucky coin inside it. The head of the family cuts the loaf crosswise, then a slice ‘for the poor’, a slice ‘for the house’ and then a slice for each member of the family starting with the youngest member. Those of the family who may be absent have their slices kept aside, and the loaf is now cut for the guests. This is the only time when the guests come last. Whoever finds the coin is considered the lucky one for the coming year.
Presents are given in the morning. Lunch is a family gathering and food is much the same as for Christmas.
Ascension Day comes forty days after Easter and is a great holiday. It is a fasting day and one should not work at all.
Kataklysmos comes fifty days after Easter and is the Day of the Holy Ghost. You may get a soaking from someone with a water pistol. In seaside towns, lots of water sports and games are held.
Many Saints’ Days are celebrated, including the one of St Kalandion in April.