In Greece Easter is a far more important celebration than Christmas. Theologically that is as it should be, the birth of Christ was only the necessary first step, the reason for His coming was His death and resurrection. Without Easter the Nativity would have been of no value.
Christmas in the UK is essentially a commercial affair, driven by big business with Easter now playing retail catch-up, both with a peremptory nod at Christianity. In Greece, Easter celebrations are very much a community affair, led by and centred on the Orthodox Church with nearly everybody taking part at some point over the weekend. This is particularly so on a small island like Symi.
Services are held every day of the week from Palm Sunday onwards but it is the Thursday when it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that Something Significant is happening. Church bells start to toll and continue to do so at frequent and long intervals through Friday and Saturday. One of the main churches in Horio, the old village on Symi, is just behind the house. The big bell in its tall bell-tower rings one doleful stroke and about 15-20 seconds later, as the reverberation dies away, another bell in another church, reiterates the sombre, mournful message of death. Usually there are three churches repeating one to the other across the village. They do this when someone dies and during the procession to the funeral but at Easter it lasts 3 days. It is very evocative and certainly makes the message clear: Christ died.
The other indication that it is Easter is that there are explosions going off at random intervals for days. They range from small ‘pops’ thrown on the ground by young tots, via substantial firecrackers in confined spaces amplifying the noise, to significant amounts of what I suspect from the amount of fertiliser being carried around in the back of pick-up trucks is ANFO (a mix of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil) which shakes houses, rattling windows and light fittings. On a few, well remembered, occasions the latter have been known to smash windows. Some say the explosions are to symbolise the thunderstorm when Christ was on the cross, others that it scares away evil spirits. My guess is that it’s just an excuse because boys like playing with explosives. I know we did back home on 5 November.
Because I know a guy who is one of the ‘elders’ there, I went to a service on Good Friday evening in one of the big churches lower down in the village, very different from the services in my church at home. Being incanted in liturgical Greek I couldn’t follow a word of it but took my cue from others. At the culmination of the service four men pick up a beir decorated with flowers and led by the priest in impressive regalia, and the guy I know playing the saxophone, we processed slowly up through the alleys of the village, symbolically carrying the body of Christ to the tomb, the church bells tolling their message all the while.
Coming up to midnight on the Saturday it is said that almost the entire population of Greece is in church. I went to the one behind the house this time and again took my cue from others. There are loud explosions from firecrackers outside the church throughout. Decorated candles are distributed and at the end of the service the singing stopped, the lights were switched off and we all lit our candles from the one held by the priest and went outside into the large courtyard. Then the message of the bells changes dramatically and they ring in a frenzy of excitement to celebrate the arrival of the third day, the day of the resurrection. “Christ is risen” …. “Truly He is risen”. The boisterous bells now make your brain rattle inside your skull. The mood changes. Speech is nigh on impossible. The candles are carried through the alleyways back home to symbolically light the house for the year ahead. This is accompanied by fireworks and of course more and even bigger explosions. The light fittings in the house continued to rattle periodically until the small hours.
Easter in Greece is very dramatic, the sound of death followed by the sound of life.
Not quite as dramatic but something which cannot be ignored if you go out in the mountains at this time of year is the smell of death. Sometimes you smell them before you see them, Dracunculus Vulgaris, a splendid species of the Arum genus known by many names including Dragon Arum because it is supposed to look like the tail of a small dragon disappearing into the spathe to hide, and Stink Lily ….. for obvious reasons. They grow everywhere, from field terraces to cracks in the rock, a beautiful rich, deep purple colour. Tens of thousands of them ranging from a few inches to 4 feet tall, with spathes of up to 2 feet and a spadix even longer. The smell is like the rotting flesh of a dead animal. Horrendous. I know someone who planted some bulbs in his garden back in the UK and dug them up after a couple of years because of complaints about the smell.
The reason for the smell? To attract the insects which pollinate it. No pollination, no seed, no new life.
There’s a connection there somewhere.