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Athens at Easter: Preserving Traditions, Rediscovering Lost Customs

5 MAY 2024

Let's journey through the alleys of Plaka, Psiri, and Piraeus, a little back in time. Easter then had its picturesque customs, some of which are now forgotten, while others continue to be celebrated annually. Houses that usually pulsed with the rhythm of daily life slowed down during Holy Week. Eggs were dyed red, essentials for the Easter feast were bought from the Central Market, and both dark mourning candles and white 'resurrection' ones were procured. Fathers crafted paper lanterns for their children, which were hung outside the house along the Epitaphios procession's route, which was scented with cologne and adorned with rose petals thrown from balconies and windows.

Athens Easter by Konrad Helbig
Athens Easter by Konrad Helbig

‘Place de Psiri’ and the lively lambs

A longstanding tradition that began in the early 20th century and persists today is the vibrant Easter Market at Psiri area, extending to the nearby Athinas and Evripidou streets. During Holy Week, the area maintains its long-standing tradition of selling lamb, cheeses, and delights sourced from various regions across Greece. In the past, animals were brought in alive and kept in adjacent courtyards. Nowadays, all these goods meet health standards.

 

The tradition of "scapulimancy"

The tradition of scapulimancy, or the divination using the shoulder blade of a lamb, persisted notably within Vlach (an ethnic group native to the southern Balkans) and other pastoral communities and eventually made its way to the capital. There are records of individuals in old Athens possessing this rare prophetic skill, often hired lucratively on Easter Day to foresee future events related to harvests or individuals' health within families.

 

The poor man's pie

In Athens and Piraeus, a now-forgotten Easter tradition was "the poor man's pie," a large ring-shaped bread with a red egg in the center, hung on the front door on Easter Sunday. It was intended for the wandering poor to freely take their share. Tradition held that the housewife, after hanging the bread, should not look back, symbolizing her unhesitating generosity to the community.

 

 

Omonoia Square by Matt Barrett during Easter in 1970
Omonoia Square by Matt Barrett during Easter in 1970
Stadiou and Aiolou Streets, Good Friday, 1952. By Christopher Railey
Stadiou and Aiolou Streets, Good Friday, 1952. By Christopher Railey

The procession of Epitaphios

The Epitaphios procession remains a timeless tradition throughout Greece, yet it finds a particularly enchanting expression in Athens. From every church in every neighborhood, an adorned Epitaphios is paraded through the city, attracting a devout crowd. The atmosphere grows deeply reverent as followers gather and walk together. Especially in the picturesque streets of Plaka, the scene is captivating, with white houses on rocky terrain, flower-filled courtyards exuding the scents of basil and jasmine, leisurely cats, and the aroma of kitchens wafting through the air.

 

Public Egg Dyeing in Piraeus

Pre-war, on Holy Saturday morning, at Karaiskaki Square, outdoor cauldrons were arranged over burning wood. Hundreds of eggs were dyed red in these cauldrons. Many people would gather there and buy ready-made red eggs. At the time, red eggs were sold for six cents each, while undyed ones were sold for a nickel.

 

The Burning of Judas

Until the mid-19th century, when Athens had vast fields and fewer than 250,000 residents, a significant Easter tradition involved creating an effigy resembling Judas. This ritual commenced on Holy Saturday afternoon. The caretaker of each church, along with children collecting kindling from stables and threshing floors, gathered "xeronia" door-to-door. The "effigy of the Jew'' was crafted from white linen filled with chaff and gunpowder, then placed atop a pole, awaiting burning on Holy Saturday afternoon. In Athens, this custom was outlawed in 1847. However, it still takes place on Rhodes island, where it is known today as the famous "Kalafounou" custom.

The Church of Saint George on Lycabettus Hill. By Christopher Railey
The Church of Saint George on Lycabettus Hill. By Christopher Railey
Easter Monday on Stadiou Street outside the Astor cinema, 1952. Christopher Railey
Easter Monday on Stadiou Street outside the Astor cinema, 1952. Christopher Railey

Dynamite in Piraeus Waters

During Ottoman rule, Greeks kept their celebrations subdued. Post-liberation, however, lively festivities, particularly at Easter, became prevalent. Today, it's an unofficial contest for the most raucous celebration. In Piraeus, water played a pivotal role in the maritime festivities. Until the 1930s, the port would carry the scent of gunpowder every Resurrection. The sea of Piraeus was not only the deepest but also the most "explosive," as fishermen engaged in an informal competition, using dynamite to raise taller columns.

 

Easter Sunday Grilling

On Easter Sunday, known as "Lampri," both Athens and Piraeus “were ablaze” with activity since the morning. Setting up a barbecue in every neighborhood became almost obligatory, transforming the city into a massive open celebration. This tradition remains unchanged today, with people still grilling outdoors in the suburbs, on rooftops, or in gardens. Traditionally, the largest celebration in Athens took place in Thissio at the "Perivolaki of Theseus," which was the city's first public garden, established in 1862.