Easter in Cyprus
Easter is the most important holiday in the Greek Orthodox calendar. Thus, Easter in Cyprus is considered the main religious event of the year outranking Christmas. It is the time when most of the Cypriots take time off from their working lives to celebrate Easter with enthusiasm and vigour recalling old traditions and customs which brings out colourful and joyful aspects of Cypriot life.
Easter’s date is fixed in the same way as in other Christian countries, being the first Sunday on or after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Due to the fact that there is a large Christian but non-orthodox expatriate community in Cyprus both Catholic and Orthodox Easters are celebrated, but on different dates. This is because the Orthodox Church follows the older Julian calendar while Catholic Easter is celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar.
Easter in Cyprus encompasses more than one day, in fact the full cycle of liturgy and attendant customs run to about seven weeks. This period begins fifty days before Easter Sunday on a day traditionally called Smoky Thursday. The name came from the smoke and aromas of lamb and pastries being cooked on charcoal fires all over the island. The appetising smells waft in Carnival week, a last fling of eating, drinking and music playing before the austere Lenten fast begins.
Though Carnival festivities and parties are held island-wide, Limassol town jealously guards Carnival week as its own heritage. It would be unthinkable for any other town in Cyprus to upstage the citizens of Limassol for Carnival splendour. On the first Sunday of the Carnival, hundreds of children stage an imaginative fancy dress parade to celebrate the triumphant entry of the giant figure of King Carnival into the city.
The last Sunday of Carnival attracts tens of thousands of visitors to Limassol for a gigantic parade which seems to get more spectacular every year. Enormous parade floats brilliantly coloured, playing music, with large groups of parade participants dancing and singing.
The parade is then followed with mass party-going of people dressed in outrageous and funny costumes singing and dancing until the early hours.
Monday, this is clean Monday, then marks the end of Carnival days. Lent looms closer. On this day, the long¬suffering body is “cleansed” for the fast. Families take to the fields and hillsides, with basketsful of raw vegetables; lettuce, onions, cabbage, celery, artichokes, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, but no meat. An abundance of wine and brandy is essential to the “cleaning process” and the vegetarian picnics turn into quite a party. Carnival week ends as it began – with a hangover.
Then for the seven weeks before Easter, all is quiet and subdued. Every Friday afternoon a special service is held in the churches in honour of the Virgin Mary and the chanting of the priests echoing from speakers maintains the spirit of the season. This custom dates from the reputedly miraculous deliverance of Byzantium from a barbarian assault in the seventh century when the attackers’ ships mysteriously sank in the Hellespont.
Easter in Cyprus: The Holy Week
As the Holy Week draws nearer, activity in traditional households rises rapidly. Women bake a delicious Cypriot cheesecake called ‘Flaouna’ and several other traditional types of bread and cake. Children gather yellow crown daisies and madder roots to dye hard-boiled eggs yellow and dark red. Brilliant and imaginative patterns are created by the more adventurous who tie flowers, onion skins and petals around the eggs before colouring them.
There is a legend that when Lazarus was raised from the dead he settled in Cyprus and became the first Bishop of Kitium (Larnaca). His feast day is the Saturday before Easter and young boys in the Larnaca district gather eggs for Easter which they donate to the Church for the poor.
As Good Friday approaches, the full glory of Easter can still be experienced. There is no need for a visitor to be shy of joining in or visiting the churches even if he or she is non-religious. Orthodox churches are marvellous places of Byzantine light and splendour. The atmosphere is informal and chatty.
On Good Friday beautifully decorated litters are prepared at the churches with spring flowers. An icon of Christ will lie there in state to symbolise the entombment.
After the evening service the clergy lead a procession through the streets. Everyone joins in as the priests chant and house-holders offer the congregation rosewater to refresh and perfume hands and faces.
Saturday is quiet and the resurrection service begins at midnight. A massive bonfire blazes before the church entrances. Young people create a devastating background for the Mass with firecrackers. Suddenly the church is plunged into darkness and the priest and cantors solemnly intone the anthem of resurrection. A huge paschal candle is blessed and lit; its light is passed outwards to the candles held by each member of the congregation. The church blazes with illumination and rivers of light stream around while the dramatic anthem calls of “Christos Anesti (Christ is Risen!) and the response of “Alithos Anesti” (He Has Risen Indeed!) pass from the priests to excited crowds and back.
Sunday dawns, the liturgy completed, and the biggest party of the year begins. Children bring out their coloured eggs and crack them with their friends. Each one hopes to have a champion egg which will out-crack the rest. The men start up their charcoal fires and women prepare salads and skewers packed with lamb. The sound of church chanting fades behind roars of laughter and the clinking of glasses banged together in friendship and goodwill. The men take over the cooking for the day and every village bursts at the seams with a crush of friends, relatives and tourists.
A special welcome is given to every stranger, whether he be from the next village or the next continent. No reserve should inhibit the tourist from accepting the endless requests to “Kopiaste” which means: come and join us. The invitation to share some food or at least a glass of brandy is warm and genuine. Hospitality to strangers is traditionally an iron rule in Cyprus and never more so than at Easter.
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