Easter (known as “Pascha” in Greek) is a big deal where I’m from and a very special time to be in Cyprus. First and foremost, you get to experience the island in spring, which is pretty wonderful (and smells divine), be present in the country’s most mystical and spiritual of days, and participate in tons of fun and interesting traditions, some of which have been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Here they are:
1. Easter eggs (but not the chocolate kind)
Hearing the words “Easter egg” you are probably thinking of Cadbury’s purple and golden foil wrapped chocolate eggs sold in supermarkets and gifted throughout the Easter period. Well, not in Cyprus. Yes, you can still buy chocolate eggs all over the stores, but “Easter Eggs” in the island mean actual, hardboiled eggs. Eggs which on Good Thursday are traditionally painted red (as a representation of Jesus’ blood), although nowadays you can pretty much have eggs in any colour, from blue to yellow, using artificial dyes. However, if you want to stick to the traditional method of painting eggs, then beat down some madder roots (use a flat rock if you want to do this the OG way) or get loads of red onion skins or beetroots and add them in boiling water along with the eggs.
Fun fact: Why do eggs feature so much during Easter though? According to Christian tradition eggs symbolise the sealed tomb of Jesus, and egg tapping competitions amongst family and friends (which is an Easter tradition also known as egg fight, egg cracking etc) symbolise the resurrection of Jesus from the tomb.
2. Making (& eating) flaounes
Food time! Well, pastry time to be exact. Flaouna is a heavenly cheese, mahlepi (a Greek spice) and dried mint pastry topped with sesame seeds, that comes in a salty and sweet version (sweet flaouna – my personal fave – has less salt and contains sultanas). Most Cypriot households will spend Good Thursday making flaounes, so if you have any Cypriot friends then tag along and taste some when they come hot out of the oven. Alternatively pop in any bakery in the island during the Easter period and you can for sure find them. Want to give flaouna baking a go? Find a recipe here, here and here.
3. Make some noise
Good Saturday in Cyprus has a very celebratory atmosphere and many traditions squeezed throughout the day. If you visit any Cyprus church on Good Saturday morning you will see priests throwing bay leaves (a symbol of victory throughout Greek history) – at the congregation, sometimes whilst literary running in the church. Oh and that’s not all. While this all is happening, the attendees bang their seats for a good minute or two (which makes a deafening noise, as typical seats in a Cypriot church are wooden folding seats), and then proceed to start picking up all the bay leaves from the floor, the chairs, the hair of the person standing next to them etc. The leaves will be dried and later on used during traditional religious ceremonies. By the way, if you haven’t guessed it yet, the liturgy of Good Saturday morning celebrates the “secret” resurrection of Jesus, when some of his women followers (girl power!) visited their master’s grave only to find it open and an angel informing them of Jesus’s resurrection before anyone else knew.
4. Bonfire night
At nightfall Cyprus lights up. Literally. Driving around cities and villages on Good Saturday night you will encounter plenty of bonfires, which are meant to symbolise the punishment of Judas who betrayed Jesus (not very forgiving in my opinion, but anyway). Crowds gather around them every year to admire the days – even weeks – of work that went into assembling the bonfires (teenagers scavenge every field, neighbourhood, old storage etc to find anything flammable – such as furniture, mattresses and tree branches – that will add to the height of their bonfire) and contribute to the ambience of the night by setting off mini fireworks and rockets. However, besides entertaining the night (and the days leading up to it) can get seriously competitive, as bonfire crews battle each other for the prestigious title of the area’s grandest bonfire. That means that before Good Saturday evening, bonfires can get completely ruined by members of opponent crews who steal parts of bonfires or soak them in water prior to ignition time, resulting in a smaller, less “flammable” and overall less impressive show.
5. Midnight Mass
Smelling like smoke post-bonfire, everyone goes home to shower, put on their shiny new clothes and head to a jam-packed church around 11pm on Good Saturday. And, yes, pretty much everyone goes to church this night; from people who are there every Sunday to people who only show up at church for that one day of the year, Easter surely knows how to attract a crowd! Around midnight the church goes pitch black, as all the lights switch off and prayers are recited. A few minutes later the priest lights up a candle, and the flame from that one candle (known as the “Holy Light”) is distributed to all the congregation, lighting up the candle of every single person in the church. Most people aim to keep their candle on until they reach home (I on the other hand always worry about burning my hair or burning someone else’s hair so I put the candle off soon after midnight). Whilst this particular mass lasts until 3 in the morning, the majority of people head home around 12.30am and start… what else? Eating! Menu includes avgolemono, a Greek lemon, rice and chicken soup, flaounes and loads of egg-tapping battles. Let the Easter feast commence!
6. Lamb & fun
Easter Sunday is all about food, friends and family. Lambs get roasted on spits on people’s back yards (yes, my Big Fat Greek Wedding’s Easter was depicted pretty accurately – and yes, every family has like 3 names shared amongst dozens of cousins), kisses and hugs are exchanged all day long (along with the wish “Christos Anesti!” – translates to “Christ is Risen!” – and its response “Alithos Anesti” – Truly He is Risen!”) and traditional games are played throughout the day, particularly in villages. School yards, church yards or village squares are usually the chosen place for Easter Sunday festivities, which in Cyprus include avgoulodromies – “egg races” (racing to the finish line whilst attempting to not drop an egg balanced on a spoon, which is held by people’s mouths), sakoulodromies (racing to the finish line whilst inside an empty sack of potatoes – involves a lot of jumping!), pulling rope as well as performances of traditional dances.
Do you celebrate Easter?
What are some of your favourite traditions?
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