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Greek Easter traditions

'Greek Life' author Eugenia Pantahos guides us through the traditions with a couple of recipe ideas

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29 April 2016

As Greek Orthodox Easter approaches, families are following the rituals of fasting and spiritual growth as well as preparing for the biggest celebration of Christianity - Jesus Christ's resurrection.

In other words, ΠΑΣΧΑ.

During Holy Week, starting from Palm Sunday until Easter Sunday, the Greek Orthodox Church has services each day, morning and night.

According to second generation Greek author Eugenia Pantahos, Easter is about renewal and rebirth.

"In Greece, Easter falls in the spring, perfectly demonstrating these themes of renewal and rebirth," says Eugenia in her book Greek Life, in which, throughout the yearly calendar, she honours the culture and traditions of Greece, combining them with traditional home-made Greek recipes.

Easter Saturday
On Easter Saturday, at the stroke of midnight, the priest emerges from the altar with a lit candle and proceeds to light the candles of the eager congregation members who wait on the altar step to receive the first 'holy' light.

According to tradition, the first to receive the light will encounter good luck for the rest of the year.

The light gets passed on until all the candles in the church are lit, illuminating the room with a magnificent glow, which represents the New Light. The church bells toll, giving the signal to the church attendees, the priest and chanters to chant Christos Anesti together three times.

The hymn is chanted to celebrate the moment of Christ's resurrection and it is considered to be one of the most moving and emotional hymns in the Greek Orthodox religion. From Easter Saturday onwards, the hymn is carried through to each church service - including baptisms and weddings - for 40 days following Easter.

At the end of Saturday's midnight mass, all families and friends greet one another with Christos Anesti (Christ has risen), to which one responds Alithos Anesti (truly risen). Communion may be taken at the end of the service which concludes around 3.00 am when everyone is ready to go home for the traditional post-midnight feast.

Many families, prior to entering their homes for the midnight supper, use their holy lit candle to mark a cross in the doorway entrance, as a sign of a blessing. They keep their candles lit inside their homes for 40 days.

Once at home, a light supper meal of maghiritsa soup is served, followed by the famous and most popular tradition among Greeks, 'the red egg cracking'.

Easter Sunday
The Easter celebration lunch is without doubt a family affair, where traditionally the men of the family gather early in the morning to prepare the spit-roasted lamb while the women cook traditional Greek food and desserts.

"The Luncheon Feast usually consists of an assortment of dips, home-made bread and fresh salads," Pantahos writes in her book.

"This feast is best served with chilled retsina, the traditional resin-flavoured dry white wine, to perfectly complement the wonderful Greek flavours," she adds.

Following lunch, the red-dyed eggs are brought to the table for the egg cracking competition.

According to Greek tradition, the last person holding the unbroken egg is blessed with good fortune.

Easter koulourakia are served after lunch with Greek coffee, and the glendi continues with the most important part of any Greek celebration; music and dancing lasting into the late hours of the night.

Χρόνια Πολλά και Καλό Πάσχα σε όλους!

A couple of recipes for you to try this Easter weekend:

Koulourakia (Greek Butter Biscuits)

Ingredients:
½ block of unsalted butter, at room temperature (125 grams)
1 cup caster sugar
3½ cups plain flour
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla essence
1/3 cup milk or orange juice
Grated orange rind (optional)

For the egg glaze:
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons milk

Method:
Preheat oven to 190°C.

Warm the butter and add to the sifted ingredients.

Knead until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

Add the beaten egg, vanilla and continue kneading.

Add milk or orange juice and extra flour if required, and knead until smooth.

Break off pieces the size of small walnuts and roll out using your hands. Create traditional patterns of twists and coils.

Place the egg glaze ingredients into a small bowl and whisk together with a fork. Using a small pastry brush, glaze the koulourakia before baking.

Bake in a moderate oven for 15-20 minutes. Cool on wire rack.

 

Tsoureki (Greek Easter Bread)

Tsoureki, also known as Lambropsomo, literally translates to 'Easter Bread'. This sweet and buttery bread is very similar to brioche. Enjoyed as fresh as possible, it is baked on Easter Saturday morning ready for serving at the midnight supper following the Saturday night resurrection service. This beautifully delicious bread is plaited, and then formed into a loaf or round shape. It is optional to place red-dyed eggs in the centre of the bread before baking. The wonderful aromas of Mahlepi (ground wild cherry) and Masticha (aromatic gum) permeate through the home and fill the senses with anticipation of mouth-watering enjoyment.

Ingredients:
1 kg plain special plain flour (finely milled flour)
¾ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground mahlepi
½ teaspoon masticha (crushed with 1 teaspoon sugar before adding)
1½ cups warm milk
150 grams unsalted butter, warmed
2 heaped tablespoons dry yeast
1 cup caster sugar
3 large eggs (or 4 small eggs)
1 egg yolk, beaten, plus 2 tablespoons of milk for glazing the top of the bread
¼ cup flaked blanched almonds for decorating the top (optional)

Method:

Pre-heat the oven to a low temperature.

 

In a small saucepan, warm the milk.

 

In a bowl, place the sifted flour, salt, mahlepi and masticha. Mix and make a well in the centre, and add the yeast and 1 tablespoon of sugar to the dry ingredients.

 

Add only ½ cup of the warm milk into the well and allow the yeast to ferment. Stir gently until it bubbles.

 

Using the same small saucepan containing the remaining milk, add the butter and remainder of the sugar. Return to a low heat and continue to stir until the sugar is dissolved. Allow to cool slightly.

 

To the yeast mixture, add the warmed milk, butter and sugar mixture, and stir to combine. Add the beaten eggs and mix well. 

 

Knead for 10-15 minutes until the dough becomes malleable. Place the dough into a bowl that has been brushed with a little melted butter, cover with a clean cloth and leave the dough to rise in a warm place until doubled in size.

 

Punch down the dough and place onto a floured surface. Continue to knead lightly until the dough is smooth.

 

Divide the dough into 3 equal portions, then divide again into 3 balls. Roll each ball out to the same length, line them up and begin to plait the dough.

 

Place the dough into greased, oblong loaf tins. Cover with a clean cloth and leave the plaits to rise in a warm place until doubled in size.

 

Glaze the plaits with beaten egg yolk and milk mixture, and sprinkle with flaked almonds.

 

Place into the preheated oven set at 170-180 degrees, and bake for approximately 30-45 minutes.

 

Cool on a wire rack.

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