Orthodox Easter mixes spiritual and pagan in equal measure


ATHENS, Greece — Millions of Orthodox Christians across Eastern and Southern Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, have celebrated Easter, capping weeklong religious celebrations.

The most important holiday on the Orthodox religious calendar is essentially an outdoor celebration, with equally intense spiritual and pagan parts and religious services followed by feasts, familial and communal.

Customs such as eating spit-roasted lambs, knocking red-colored hard-boiled eggs together as a sort of contest and launching fireworks in celebration as soon as the priest intones “Christ has risen from the dead,” at midnight on Saturday, likely predate Christianity itself. But new customs, or variations of old ones, appear constantly.

In the neighborhood of Neos Kosmos, in Greece’s capital, Athens, younger parishioners have recently taken to throwing Molotov cocktails — the rioters’ weapon of choice — into open spaces. On the Greek island of Chios, two neighborhoods in the village of Vrontados wage a “rocket war” by throwing thousands of flares at each other, to the consternation of the quieter citizens who have seen houses set alight in years past. Municipal authorities are conflicted: The custom is welcome because it brings notoriety that attracts visitors, but they must also address safety concerns.

This year, the event was relatively chaste: state TV ERT reported that “only” 20,000 flares were launched, compared with about 100,000 before the COVID-19 pandemic. It was filmed by a documentary crew; the film will reportedly be shown on the world’s largest video screen, the Viva vision screen in Las Vegas.

In countries such as Greece, Easter is also an occasion to flee the big cities for ancestral villages: It was reported that over 575,000 cars, almost all packed with families, left the Athens area. Authorities are bracing for the return, which will start Monday afternoon, hoping that the drivers have had enough time to get over the inevitable hangover.

Easter is not just about merriment, however. This year, it also had its somber moments, such as the celebrations in Ukraine among the devastation of war. It has its moments of reflection as well, such as when Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Istanbul, the “first among equals” of Orthodox Christian prelates, celebrated Easter in his birthplace, the Turkish island of Gokceada — Imvros in Greek — fulfilling a promise he made 10 years ago.

This year, as in previous ones, the Holy Fire, miraculously lit, or so the faithful believe, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Saturday, made its way abroad, sent by plane to countries including Bulgaria, Cyprus, Egypt, Georgia, Greece, Lebanon, North Macedonia, Romania, Russia, Serbia and Ukraine. In many places, it is received with the honors due a visiting head of state. In Greece, it somehow arrives at every parish before midnight Saturday, a miracle in its own right.

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