Easter in Greece is a special time of the year. Unlike the rest of the world that favors Christmas and the New Year in this respect, the Greeks seem to be in waiting for Easter all year round for a real celebration. And how can it not be so with so many festivities and delicacies in store? Wherever in Greece you may be, the evening of Good Friday will find you outside a church holding a brown candle, waiting to follow the Epitaph procession around the streets. As you walk with your lit candle in the semi-darkness, you cannot help but participate with piety and respectful silence as this ritual commemorates the death of Jesus and His placing in the tomb. The following day of course carries a message of joy and rebirth. At midnight on Easter Saturday, holding a white candle this time, you return to the same churchyard, in time to share the joyful message of Resurrection as fireworks light up the sky.
Indeed, wherever you are in Greece, Easter is a celebration of stark noise and bright lights. There is a multitude of places around the country, which are famous for special local customs. Yet, there is one part of Greece that stands out with magnificence. The island of Corfu overflows with tourists for its special Easter celebrations on a yearly basis. Crowds gather repeatedly at the historic town center with its large square (the largest in the Balkans). First, they join in at the numerous Epitaph processions around town on the evening of Good Friday.
Next, there is the major procession on the morning of Easter Saturday around 9 am. Its feel and character is sorrowful. You stand in a crowd on the sidewalk to watch a multitude of local schools, boy scout groups and philharmonic orchestras pass by and if you are not in the know, you have no idea what it is that the locals keep whispering to each other about. Their eyes are seeking out the “Old” philharmonic of the town. They are waiting with baited breath for the first notes of “Amleto” that only this philharmonic has the honorary right to play exclusively. “Amleto” (Hamlet) is from Faccio’s opera and it is a soulful piece of music that is greatly loved by the locals. As the mournful notes finally rise up into the crisp Corfiot air in loud crescendos, there is not one dry eye left among the locals who await these moments all year round as a special treat. The procession ends with church banners and the gilt casket of the preserved body of St Spyridon; the patron saint of Corfu.
But the sadness of the hour does not last long. Unlike the rest of Greece, Corfu doesn’t have to wait till midnight on Easter Saturday in order to change its mood to one of excitement and happiness. As spectacular as the firework display is here at midnight, it fades in comparison to the celebration of ‘First Resurrection’ that takes place only an hour or so after the end of the procession. Crowds gather at the edge of the square by Liston (an arched street that was modeled after Rue Rivoli in Paris and which was made by the French during their occupation of the island).
Hoards of both tourists and locals clear the streets and stand under balconies or at the square, away from the buildings. The locals come out on their balconies all over town and at the strike of eleven throw big pots (botides) to the ground, making a loud crashing noise. The custom is very old and it is believed that it signifies the noise during the Resurrection of Jesus. The crowds gawp, gasp and cheer and the atmosphere is electric. If you haven’t experienced it, you cannot imagine it and for those who have, it is still difficult to put it into words. It kindles within a uniquely heightened emotion that leaves you breathless and ecstatic. You feel the most joyful you’ve ever felt and when it’s all over, you find yourself compelled to go to the street, pick up a shard of ceramic and take it home with you for good luck.
Every year, if I can’t be in Corfu, I sit in solitude for a few minutes to listen to Amleto in the morning of Good Saturday. This year I thought I’d share it with you.
May its sadness stir the same kind of emotion in your hearts as it does in mine. I believe it makes the joy of Resurrection that follows feel even more special and real by comparison. After all the pots have hit the ground, look out for the orchestras that begin to spread cheer all over town! Here’s a taste:
Wherever you may be this Easter, enjoy and KALO PASCHA!
Fellow traveler, a word of advice! Before you visit Greece for Easter, make sure to check the date of Orthodox Easter for that year as it coincides with Catholic Easter only once every few years!
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