I will be spending the coming Whitsun Bank Holiday recuperating at home Cafter an operation on my knee, but I was lucky enough to spend the early May Bank Holiday weekend on the Greek island of Corfu – a double celebration, as it was also Easter in the Greek Orthodox Church. They follow a different calendar to the Gregorian calendar that we observe, so their Easter is often several weeks after Christian Easter.
It’s deemed more significant than Christmas and is recognised with several days of festivities known as Holy Week. Commemorating not only the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, Easter is also considered to mark the passing of winter into spring, and we had suitably mixed weather – with one gorgeous day of sunshine but also the biggest, loudest, wettest and most ferocious thunderstorm I’ve ever experienced!
We have been regular visitors to the island for the last 20 years and have made good friends of some of the locals, who we were spending the weekend with. They helped us to experience ‘Greek Easter’ with an understanding of what was going on, and why. It’s a little different to what we do over Easter at home.
Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified, is considered to be a sacred day of mourning, with flags flying at half-mast. There are slow processions of musical groups and brass bands, known as ‘Philharmonics’, through the streets of the island’s villages and also the capital – beautiful Corfu Town.
If you’ve been watching the recent series of The Durrells on Sunday evening television, you’ll have an idea of how stunning the old Venetian inspired buildings and town squares are. The bands play sombre, funereal music but on the following day, Easter Saturday, the beat changes to be more uplifting, in acknowledgment of The Resurrection, or ‘Anastasis’.
The locals celebrate with more than just music, though. There is a custom in the main square of Corfu Town that happens nowhere else, and attracts people from all over Greece to see the spectacle.
It is really a pagan festival, believed to banish death and purge evil spirits, throwing out the bad to let in the new, and it involves chucking ceramic pots out of windows which smash on the paving stones below.
This starts with normal sized pots and jugs but progresses to huge vessels and there seems to be little regard for health and safety – I wouldn’t want to be at the front of the crowd as the pots crash to the ground! But it was the one gorgeous day of sunshine that we enjoyed and there was a fantastic festival atmosphere as we waited for the church bells to ring out at 11am – the signal for the throwing to begin.
The noisy camaraderie was infectious and the pot throwers were egging on the cheers each time they presented even bigger pots on the balconies, before sending them down to shatter on the street below. The bands continue to parade around the town, and it’s a colourful and convivial event.
Of course, the main celebration and focus of the whole weekend is a religious one, with entire families gathering at their local church in the evening to give thanks. The churches are absolutely packed.
Everyone has a white candle and, just before midnight, the lights of the churches are put out in symbolism of the darkness that Christ had to endure as he passed through the underworld. At midnight, the priest takes a lit candle taper and recites the phrase “Avto to Fos”, which means “This is the light.” His, the Holy candle, is used to light several of the congregation’s candles, and they in turn light their neighbour’s candles. This continues until the entire church is lit with flickering candle light.
The lighting of the candles is said to be the most significant moment of the entire year and is immediately followed by celebrations with drums, church bells and fireworks. The crowd offers the salutation “Christós Anésti” (Christ has risen) to each other, which is responded to with the phrase “Alithós Anésti” (He has truly risen).
It was a real privilege to join in with our Corfiot friends, some British, some Greek. The sense of family and community is very strong, and everyone goes home after the service to have a traditional meal of maghiritsa soup, made from lamb offal. This was worth suffering – not to my taste! – to avoid offence and ensure an invitation to the spit roast lamb lunch the following day!
Before entering the home, you make the symbol of a cross in the air with the smoke of your candle above the front door. It is said that if you can make it home from church without your candle going out, you will have a good year.
Easter Sunday is more similar to how we’d spend it at home – a day with friends and family enjoying a roast lunch. Spit roast lamb is the most popular choice and we were part of a group of around 30 people at a packed beach taverna with live music, traditional Greek dancing and delicious food.
It was a raucous day with lots of laughter, and the local wine flowing copiously! We played a game called Tsougrisma, which involves hard-boiled eggs that have been dyed red to symbolise the blood of Christ. The hard shell is said to represent the sealed tomb and cracking it illustrates the resurrection and new life. The rules are simple:
Two players select a red egg. Each holds their egg and one taps the end of the other’s egg with theirs lightly. The goal is to crack the other’s egg without being forceful. Once an egg is cracked, the winner uses the same end of their red egg to crack the other end of their opponent’s egg. The winner is said to have good luck all year long.
One of our friends, Harris, is a real practical joker. A lovely man, he is the life and soul of any gathering and is the man in the foreground of the Greek dancing photo. He had made an egg from a piece of wood and painted it red to make sure he won every egg cracking challenge – he was lucky he didn’t have it cracked against his head by the end of the day!
Easter Monday is considered to be a day of rest after the festivities, which is a very good thing with work the next day. Olley and I had a wonderful time sharing this special time with the many friends we have made during our regular visits to this lovely island. It’s the first time we’ve shared this special time with them, but I don’t think it will be our last!
I’m hoping to back on air at QVC very soon – just waiting for my knee to heal enough for me to get around without hobbling too much!
Until then, take care