Why Syros is the Best Island for Easter in Greece

Easter in Greece is the Superbowl of religious celebrations. It’s massive, everyone is looking forward to it, and the fanfare around it is palpable.

I usually don’t think much about Easter. I’m not a religious person, spiritual yes, but religious? No. And the fact that I am Jewish probably plays a part in that, but in all honesty, I’m a terrible Jew. I often joke that I’m a gastronomic Jew because who the hell else would love gefilte fish?

I am, however, a big believer in traditions. I think they play an integral part in religion and certainly in my Judaism.

So, when I realized that we would be spending Easter in Greece, I got pretty excited. After all, is there any better place than Greece for traditions?

Church in Syros, Greece

Church in Syros, Greece

Why Syros for Easter?

It wasn’t on purpose. We just so happened to be doing our first home exchange in Syros, a Cycladic island, a smooth three-hour ferry ride from Athens. It is the capital of the Cyclades, but outside of Greece, few people have ever heard of it.

Everyone has heard of Mykonos, a quick 25-minute speed ferry away, and Santorini but never Syros. We hadn’t either until we made friends with a couple that had also done a home exchange here.

Up until a few days before we arrived on April 16, I hadn’t done any research about the island. I had no preconceived notions about Syros, let alone Easter in Greece. Had I thought deeper about it, I would have brought more warm clothes and fewer sundresses. Fifty degrees isn’t as warm as it used to be before I moved to the tropical heat of Penang.

Syros; an Atypical Island

Syros has the largest Catholic community in Greece, not Orthodox, just plain ole Catholic. 90% of Greece is Orthodox, so the Catholic community is rather small in numbers comparatively.

It is the only island in Greece and one of the few places in the world where they celebrate Catholic Easter and Orthodox Easter at the same time. Usually, Catholic Easter is celebrated a week before its Greek counterpart. In Syros, Catholic Easter is pushed out to coincide with whatever day the Orthodox calendar celebrates.

It is a tradition that is centuries old and has sealed the harmonious synchronicity of the two sects. I’m not sure when it started, and when I asked around, the answer I kept getting was “I don’t know, it’s tradition.”

That alone makes Syros the most intriguing place to celebrate Easter in Greece, and the world should take note of their peaceful coexistence.

Holy Week Rituals

Obviously, I had heard of Holy Week. But outside of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, I wasn’t aware of any other special day or celebrations in the US. Here in Syros, Holy Week really means Holy Week. Every day prior to Easter, daily rituals are performed.

Here is the lowdown on what to do and see in Syros for Easter in Greece.

Holy Monday

As you wander the streets of the island, you’ll start to smell the delicious scent of baking coming from the open shutters of each home. The women of the house begin preparations by baking traditional tsoureki, a kind of sweetened bread, and a pie made from goat’s milk cheese.

Holy Tuesday

A polyphonic choir established in 1920, chants the Hymn of Kassiani in Agios Nikolas, the most prominent church in the Vaporia neighborhood on Ermoupolis.

Holy Wednesday

This is a perfect time to get lost in the maze of streets, go into all the churches to see the Easter decorations.

Easter decorations in a church in Syros.

Easter decorations in a church in Syros

Holy Thursday

This is the day all the Orthodox churches on the island decorate the Holy Bier, an ornate golden open-sided frame with a flat platform where they lay a statue of Jesus. The girls of the church decorate the bier with lemon tree flowers, violets, lilies, and lilacs. The Catholic churches do this on Friday morning.

Eggs must be hardboiled and dyed this day because it is the night of the Last Supper. They are dyed red for a game played on Saturday night called Tsougkrisma.

Good Friday

Between 7:30 and 8 pm, men wearing black suits, white gloves, and white silk sashes, carry the flower-laden Holy Biers throughout the town. Each of the three prominent churches has its own Bier, but every church takes part in the procession throughout the narrow-whitewashed streets of Ermoupolis.

Men carrying the Holy Bier through town, Syros Greece

Men carrying the Holy Bier through town

Hundreds of worshipers follow the parades walking slowly and quietly in retrospection, contemplating the meaning of Easter. There are choirs softly singing good Friday hymns, and a band plays as they walk through the town. Parishioners of each church follow the bier with candles. Children in robes carry crosses and incense.

Once they have walked through the village, they make their way, one at a time to Miaouli Square, the site of the town hall, where thousands of onlookers await.

Head to the square around 10 pm so you can find a good place to watch as the processions come. If you stand off to the sides of the town hall, you can see the parade as they walk into the square. Otherwise, arrive earlier and take a seat on the steps, you’ll watch the ceremony from behind, but you won’t have to stand, and no one will block your view.

After all three arrive and place the Holy Bier on the platform, the mass begins, somewhere around 10:30 pm. I know very few Greek words, but one of them is agape, which means love, the priest used it frequently. Although I have no idea what he was saying, it was moving to listen to the passion and feel the solidarity amongst the believers.

Priests watching the Holy Biel arrive, Syros, Greece

Priests watching the Holy Bier arrive

Tip:

Go around 8 pm and find a place near Miaouli square for a drink before the crowds come. We sat at Kouchico, a killer cocktail bar, having drinks and one of the processions walked right by us. We had an unobstructed close-up view of it all. I highly recommend it. And after the mass was over, it was packed with revelers.

Holy Saturday

In the morning, church bells ring all over the island. Priests scatter lemon leaves, and the parishioners in the churches bang loudly on the pews to make a commotion and ward off evil spirits. At 11 pm, thousands of devotees converge outside St. Nikolaus church. People bring a candle to be lit by the priest.

Holy Saturday, candle lighting ceremony, Syros, Greece

Holy Saturday candle lighting ceremony

As soon as all the candles are lit and the resurrection proclaimed, loud canons are fired, firecrackers start popping, and a beautiful display of fireworks light up the night sky. Dozens of hot fuchsia flares are shot into the darkness and slowly make their way to the sea.

Traditionally, worshippers would walk home keeping the candle burning the whole way and let it burn out by itself. But nowadays they walk through the cobbled streets of Ermoupolis to the tavernas to celebrate. A traditional feast is served; magiritsa, a Greek Easter soup, made from lamb offal, and roast lamb with lemony potatoes.

Hardboiled eggs, dyed or painted red, are on every table. Red signifies the blood of Christ, the shell his tomb, and when it is cracked, it symbolizes the resurrection.

To play tsougkrisma, each person takes an egg and tries to crack their opponents. The person who breaks the others egg is the winner who will have good luck throughout the year.

Easter Sunday

On Easter Sunday, families and tavernas will cook lamb on a spit. Whether you are hungry or not, the smell of the meat cooking over the charcoals will call you to lunch like a dog to a bone. Lamb kokoretsi is also served which is a traditional dish of lamb intestine wrapped around offal. We tried it at two different tavernas and both times were underwhelmed, the flavor was a little like spiced up liver, but it was rather dry.

That afternoon at the church of Metamorfosis, you can attend the Vespers of Agape which are sung. Then the message of the resurrection is read in 12 languages.

Also on Sunday, they burn an effigy of Judas, a tradition started 80 years ago that continues to this day.

Shadow of Jesus on a cross in a church. Syros, Greece

Shadow of Jesus on a cross in one of the churches in Syros

A Greek Easter Feast

A wonderful expat woman invited us to a traditional Greek Easter feast. It was at a beach taverna in Kini, in between a bar called Cougars and a taverna called Allou Gialou. Can’t tell you what the name is, it was only written in Greek. When I translate it, it’s called Two Jigsaws in the Army, whatever that means.

We stayed for four hours discussing life on the island for all the expats at the table; mostly Brits. We didn’t set out to celebrate Easter in Greece, but the stars aligned, and I couldn’t be happier that we did. The sun started to drop towards the Aegean Sea, closing out a week of festivities. An aptly brilliant sunset to close out a dramatic week of celebrations.

Sunset in Syros, Easter Sunday

Sunset in Syros, Easter Sunday

By the way, the only Jew at the table and possibly on the island won the egg cracking game. Hopefully, my good luck will bring me back to Greece as soon as possible.

Check out this video of the procession

10 Comments

  1. J y Vered

    Also, if you get back to Syros, if you didn’t have the opportunity, it’s one of the Rebetiko/rembetiko centers of the world. And it’s a musical form for the region with people of all bckgrounds participating, singing, playing music, – even today in Istanbul there’s a small good group composed of Greeks and Turks. Izmir/Smyrna, Piiraeus, Thessaloniki, and for some reason Syros, all centers and singers and instrumentalists of many backgrounds – Turks, Greeks, Gypsies/Roma, Jews from the 1890s on (you can scour youtube for some Roza Eskenazi recordings).

    Jealous of your lovely trip. Maybe some day….

    Reply
  2. J y Vered

    What a wonderful trip. So glad you got to experience something outside your own culture.

    Just a note: when Judas is burned in many places around the world, you might not want to look to closely at the features of the Judas effigy. While Jesus is usually portrayed in light and very beautiful, his co=Jew, Judas is often portrayed with very anti-Semitic features.

    As for Easter in Greek-=speaking countries historically, You can research for yourself the Rhodes Blood Libel, the Damascus affair, the Corfu blood libel 1891.

    The position of Jews in Greece was sometimes positive and sometimes highly fraught (destruction of the largest Jewish cemetery in the World in Thessaloniki, vs Zakinthos and the unusual way the community was saved from the Germans – aptypical for everywhere, atypical for Greece).

    But yes there are marvelous traditions in Greece. And in India, CHina, Iran, Iraq, israel Egypt, Peru, so many wonderful places to visit. And thanks for sharing these.

    Reply
  3. Mary Frist

    What a wonderful article. I found it so interesting. Thank you so much for sharing. I love how you are living life and enjoying all aspects of the different religions. Doug and I have learned to enjoy all and that it must include hot dogs and hamburgers always! Love and miss you Kirsten!!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Raccuia

      Thank you, Mary! I’m glad you enjoyed my post. Hamburgers and hot dogs are a def must for us as well, although we don’t get good ones in Penang! Nothing like a good ol Chicago Dawg! Love you back, Mary xo!

      Reply
  4. Sherry Booker

    Great article, Kirsten! You wrote in such a way that I imagined that I could see and smell what you did! I loved the tradition of the red dyed eggs… so cool! Greece is definitely on my bucket list!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Raccuia

      Thank you, Sherry! Such a nice compliment about my writing.

      You should def visit Greece, its a little chilly here now (not compared to AK) but being here during Easter made up for that.

      Reply
  5. Julie Kipta

    Great article Kirsten. Love the details about food , clothing , traditions etc.I’m catholic & kind of religious ( ok I go to church every Sunday). Would love to spend Easter here.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Raccuia

      So glad you liked the post, Julie! You should def make it here one day, it is a very special week to be a part of.

      Reply
      • Elyse Sacco

        Hi Kirsten.
        I loved your post about Greek Easter. I was extremely moving…
        I could actually smell the wonderful food as you described it. You are so lucky to.br able
        to experience such a wonderful tradition.

        Reply
        • Kirsten Raccuia

          Thank you! I really am so lucky to be able to travel and see the world. It was always a dream of mine and I’m making it happen.

          Reply

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