ATHENS — Bells ringing, firecrackers exploding, rockets bursting in air. In Greece, Easter enters with a bang . . . not a bunny hug. This year, on April 10, Greeks all over the world and at home will celebrate Easter, their holiest and most festive day.
On Easter eve, in cathedrals and village churches, lights will be dimmed. Just before midnight they will be extinguished altogether, except for sanctuaries. Church courtyards will be filled with worshipers carrying unlit long white candles. Children will become silent.
At a moment past midnight the priest will appear, holding three long tapers lit from the sanctuary flames.
" Christos anesti! " (Christ is risen), he cries, as he starts lighting candles. Candles will be lit one to the other until church, courtyard and street are aglow.
"Alithos anesti!" (He is risen indeed), the crowd replies; then they turn to each other and repeat "Alithos anesti!"
10 Days of Tradition
For Eastern Orthodox churches, Easter falls at a different time from Western Christian churches--usually later, at a date when Greece is warm and bursting with blossoms. What is a long weekend in the United States is stretched out to 10 days of tradition and special events here.
Under both calendars, the rites of spring have become interwoven with the resurrection of Christ. Persephone's annual return from Hades to visit her earth mother, Demeter, was noted millenniums ago. The practice of coloring eggs is part of the season. In Greece, eggs are all dyed red and used to stud a braided Easter bread called tsouveki .
The day before Palm Sunday is the Saturday of Lazarus, when children stroll house to house singing hymns. On Cyprus, a boy decked with flowers will pretend to be Lazarus dying, so when other children call, "Lazarus, come out," he can rise and be carried jubilantly on the shoulders of his friends.
The palms of Palm Sunday not only decorate the churches, but small crosses woven of fronds, called vaya , are touched to newly married girls to bless them with children, then are used to decorate homes and icons or are waved over the fields to encourage good crops.
An old woman in black pressed one into my hand, rejecting any money. "It is for your front door, an Easter gift," a Greek said.
Services for All
During the 10-day celebration, no one is forgotten. Prostitutes come to church on Tuesday. The dead are honored on Thursday. Young girls weave wreaths of flowers to decorate the sacred Epitaphios (Bier of Christ) that will be carried in ceremony on Good Friday.
It is said that Lent is the only time of year when you can't find a festival in Greece. But the four weeks of pre-Lenten celebrations sustain the 40 days of fasting to come, and even on Clean Monday, the first day of Lent, there are family picnics in the country and a round of kite flying.
No one is sure where the custom of firecrackers originated, but on Crete the challenge is to set them off in such numbers as to start burglar alarms ringing.
Bonfires are saved for the night of Good Friday when Judas is consumed in effigy. But red eggs are used. They are removed from their honey-and-spice bread nests and banged together (the last one unbroken earns its holder a year of good luck).
While the bells ring in the first moments of Easter Day, people in the churchyard carry lighted candles through the streets to their homes to ignite the lamps before family icons plus those on the table, where a special post-midnight supper is held. Homes, churches and restaurants are decorated with roses, violets, carnations, lemon blossoms.
Laurel and bay branches add to the fragrance of mayiritsa , a soup spiced with dill. Restaurants are crowded and reservations must be made at least a day in advance.
On Easter morning a parade of children follows the priest. Easter services are held inside the church and in town squares.
Sweet cookies are offered to all. Later, the day's main meal features lamb roasted on grape sticks. Retsina , Greek wine, is abundant.
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Flights to Athens are heavily booked at this time of year; TWA, Pan Am and Olympic Airways fly directly or via one stop in Europe.
There is plenty of hotel space, especially in Athens, which is overbuilt in the deluxe category. Those over 60 may ask for the 50% senior discount at the Ledra Marriott (115 Syngrou Ave.); regular rates, $150 U.S. for a double. Call (800) 228-9290.
Old-style luxury with prices to match is found at the Hotel Grande Bretagne, Constitution Square, $175 and up for a double. Call (800) 223-6800.
The Amalia Athens Hotel on Syntagma (Constitution) Square costs $70 for two, including continental breakfast. Same price range at Hotel Herodion (4 Rovertou Galli St., near Plaka).
For inexpensive charm, try the Athenian Inn (22 Haritos St.), a pension at about $35 double on the slope of Lycabettus Hill. If you arrive without confirmed reservations, the Hellenic Chamber of Hotels on Syntagma Square will find you a room.
There's good hotel dining in Athens, not so good in the provinces. For your Easter eve supper, ask around for "a Greek family restaurant without a floor show." A holiday meal costs $15 to $25 per person.
For more information, contact the Greek National Tourist Office, 611 West 6th St., Suite 1998, Los Angeles 90017, phone (213) 626-6696.