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?
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.
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.
A polyphonic choir established in 1920, chants the Hymn of Kassiani in Agios Nikolas, the most prominent church in the Vaporia neighborhood on Ermoupolis.
This is a perfect time to get lost in the maze of streets, go into all the churches to see the Easter decorations.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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