Ancient mystique meets reverence and jubilation in the absorbing customs of Easter in the Cyclades
A cluster of islands smack in the heart of the Aegean, the Cyclades are a soul-stirring destination imbued with pristine natural beauty and the characteristically zestful, Dionysian spirit. They are named after the word “kyklos”, meaning “circle” in Greek, as they form an imaginary circle at the centre of which lies Delos: The sacred island of antiquity and birthplace of divine twins Artemis and Apollo.
With the first signs of human habitation appearing as early as the 5th century BC, the Cyclades boast one of the world’s earliest advanced civilizations: Their long and fascinating history is surrounded by myths and legends and steeped in age-old traditions, many of which survive until today.
Take pascha for example. Even though it is the biggest feast in the Greek Orthodox Calendar, its celebration predates the Christian religion and is rooted in ancient pagan rites associated with the rebirth of nature and the arrival of spring.
With a host of enchanting rituals at play, Easter in the Cyclades amalgamates the theatrical and the metaphysical with spirituality and devoutness, elation and joy. Uniquely magical and deeply moving, it is also a fantastic opportunity to catch the rare sight of the typical wild and dry Cycladic landscape, covered in a blanket of green. Of course, the sunny blue skies and temperate weather add to the allure -with a spot of luck you may even brave the sea!
From cosmopolitan Mykonos to romantic Santorini, Easter in the Cyclades is an experience to be savoured for a lifetime. Read on for some of its most beguiling customs and traditions.
Easter in the Cyclades: Customs & Traditions
It all starts 49 days before Easter Sunday with the beginning of Lent. Paying tribute to Christ’s own fast in the desert, but also to cleanse their bodies and minds, believers only consume seafood, vegetables and pickles and take their meals without oil. Meat, fish, eggs and dairy products are excluded from their diet, but an array of traditional Cycladic delicacies such as “marathokeftedes” (fennel fritters) or mackerel with garlic sauce, sustain them through this effort.
On the island of Mykonos, on the first Saturday after Clean Monday, locals gather in the antique Monastery of Ano Mera to accompany the procession of the icon of Panagia Tsourliani –Mykonos’ patroness– to Chora. Despite the significant two hour walk, young and old alike, make sure not to miss the congregation. The historic painting is reinstated to its original position on Lazarus Saturday, again with islanders escorting it on foot.
On this day homemakers will bake lazarakia: A dough model of a man representing Lazarus who raised from the grave, with his hands crossed, his eyes from gillyflowers, sugar, raisins and a garland on the head.
On Palm Sunday Mykonians and their priests from all parishes meet in the Church of Agia Eleni in Kastro (old Cathedral of Chora). The procession of the icon begins with children holding knitted palms and priests palm branches.
Indeed walking is a recurrent theme of Easter in the Cyclades: The icons of Panagia Hozoviotissa and Agios Georgios of Valsamitis shall wander for a week in Amorgos. The procession starts on Easter Sunday, at the historic monastery of Hozoviotissa and heads towards the Illuminator Christ in Chora, for the Vespers of Love. In the following days, the icons are transported by car or on foot, amidst blooming nature, to various churches throughout the island, until their return to Hozoviotissa on Thomas Sunday.
Across the Cyclades, the scent of home-baked cookies and sweetbreads (labrokouloures) shall be wafting on the air during Passion Week. These are meant to grace the table on Holy Saturday. Ceremonial food plays an important role during the Easter festivities in the Cyclades. In Mykonos, it is customary to have stew on the night of the Resurrection and roast on Easter Sunday, along with sour cheese and louza, onion pies, meatballs, fried livers and red eggs. The few labrokouloures which survive the Easter banquet will be consumed wet until Pentecost.
Every island boasts its own Easter specialities and in the case of the foodies’ paradise that is Sifnos, it is the “mastelo”: A slowly cooked goat or lamb stew with red wine, dill, salt and pepper that is traditionally enjoyed on the night of the Resurrection and Easter Sunday.
Nowadays, however, more and more islanders adopt the mainland’s custom of the lamb on the spit, on Easter Sunday. Mykonos is no exception, but here, this is elevated to a wholly different level, with bikini-clad girls serving it to bon vivants’ on the beach.
No matter what its manifestations, the Easter Sunday extravaganza is preceded by the solemness of the Holy Week. It all culminates on Good Friday. On this day, following a recent revival of an ancient custom, Mykonian Women shall chant the bewail song of the Virgin Mary in the churches of Chora and Ano Mera.
With the nightfall, across the Cyclades (and the whole country for that matter!) the lavishly decorated biers of Christ will take into the streets of every village and town. These fragrant processions are accompanied by choirs and the faithful singing sad, heartwarming hymns. The tone is sombre and subdued. But when speaking about the island of the winds, a newfound, albeit well-established tradition calls for a drink or two at Semeli the Bar and Bao’s Cocktail Bar at Little Venice, after following the epitaphs’ parade around the town’s maze-like alleys.
Holy Saturday brings about the Resurrection and every excuse for a good party. In Mykonos, after the affirmation of the miracle at midnight comes all-night merrymaking, with champagne and on-the-table dancing at fashionable hotspots such as Sanctus and Toy Room.
In this case, a spot of the traditional Easter Mageiritsa (a tripe soup made from lamb entrails, greens and egg-lemon sauce, served across the country) helps to provide the required sustenance. Copious amounts of food and fun are on the agenda for the next day too.
Easter in the Cyclades (and particularly in Mykonos!), is intense, affecting and inspiring, with drama, excitement and top-class food. We would like to invite you to experience it all at the Semeli best 5-star hotel in Mykonos Town!