It's All Greek to Me: What It Means to Celebrate Orthodox Easter

04/08/2015 10:33 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015
Westend61 via Getty Images

This past Sunday I texted my father "Happy Easter" followed by a string of bunny emojis. He wrote back, "Thanks and happy week before your Easter!" Growing up with a Catholic father and Greek-Orthodox mother, I just assumed everyone celebrated two Easters. You can only imagine my confusion when I learned that I was the only kid in my second grade class who observed two different Easters. Now as a junior in college and having grown up in the Greek Orthodox faith, I embrace celebrating Easter on a different day than my generic store-bought calendar says to.

To put it in pop culture terms, for the Orthodox community Pascha, better known as Easter, is like the Super Bowl with an N'SYNC reunion jam-packed into one tremendous celebration. In fact, Easter is the most important holiday in the Greek Orthodox Church. Compared to Western Easter, Orthodox Easter is in no way commercialized by chocolate, Easter bunnies or pastel colors. Rather, it is a festivity deeply rooted in tradition filled with church, lamb and red dyed eggs. To break it down, I've accumulated a list of commonly asked questions to distinguish the differences between Western and Orthodox, (specifically Greek-Orthodox), Easter.

Why is Orthodox Easter celebrated on a different day?
To put it simply, the date you celebrate Easter on depends entirely on the calendar your religious affiliation follows. Western churches use the Gregorian calendar, which is the standard calendar for much of the world. However, Orthodox churches follow the older, Julian calendar. By following the Julian calendar, Orthodoxy prohibits Easter from being celebrated before or at the same time as Passover. Sometimes (like in 2014), the Gregorian and Julian calendar align and both Easters are celebrated on the same day! Celebrating Orthodox Easter and Western Easter on the same day causes less confusion on Instagram for Greeks posting an obligatory siblings-standing-on-the-front-steps Easter picture.

Does Lent work the same way?
Similar to the Western faith, Lent is a period of time where individuals are supposed to be more conscious of their spiritual character. Many practicing Orthodox Christians fast for 40 calendar days before Easter. Of these 40 days, the week before Easter is a complete fast -- where no meat, dairy, fish or poultry dishes are prepared or consumed. If you have a vacation planned during Lent, don't worry! The Orthodox fasting discipline may be relaxed, if necessary, when one is traveling! Additionally, exceptions should be made when someone is ill or receiving another's hospitality. This is because the focus of Great Lent should not be on outward shows of piety, but rather accepting the love and generosity of others.

Does the Orthodox community celebrate Easter with colorful dyed Easter eggs?
In the Orthodox tradition, eggs are a symbol of new life. Early Christians used eggs to symbolize the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which thus signifies the rebirth of all believers. The Orthodox custom is to dye Easter eggs a deep red color. The red represents life, victory and the blood of Jesus Christ. At Greek-Orthodox Easter parties, a game called tsougrisma (pronounced TSOO-grees-mah) is commonly played using the red dyed eggs.

A quick lesson on how to play tsougrisma:

  1. Each player selects a red egg and finds an opponent. (Choose wisely!)
  2. One person has to say, "Chistos Anesti" (Christ has risen)... The other replies, "Alithos Anesti" (Indeed He has risen).
  3. The person who said "Christos Anesti" taps the end of his or her egg lightly against the end of the opponent's egg. (The goal is to crack the opponent's egg.)
  4. When one end is cracked, the winner uses the same end of her or his egg to try to crack the other end of the opponent's egg.
  5. The player who successfully cracks the eggs of the other players is declared the winner and, it is said, will have good luck during the year.

If you're still confused, check out this video from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. New players, beware! I have seen every trick in the book (including a certain relative using a wooden egg)! Tsougrisma brings out the competitive side of even the quietest of relatives.

What is Holy Week like?
The Greek-Orthodox Holy Week is a magnificent rollercoaster of sentiment and tradition. Greek-American actress, singer and producer, Rita Wilson, wrote a beautiful piece on her most cherished Easter experiences. She wrote:

"Holy Week, for a Greek Orthodox, means you clear your calendar, you don't make plans for that week at all because you will be in church every day... It is a powerful, beautiful, mysterious, humbling, healing and moving week. It is filled with tradition and ritual. It is about renewal and faith."

If you have a Greek-Orthodox friend, I'd urge you to tag along to at least one Holy Saturday midnight service in your lifetime. Directly following the midnight liturgy, also known as the Anastasi service, most churches offer an Agape Meal (or love feast). The agape meal is always one of the best nights of the year! For me, the agape meal includes breaking my fast immediately after church, playing tsourgrisma and celebrating the resurrection with my siblings and cousins. We tend to chow down on lamb, feta cheese and tsoureki (a delicious Easter sweet bread) until the wee hours of the morning. Delirium tends to set in at the agape meal, which is normal considering it's usually 2 o'clock in the morning following a busy Holy Week. Easter creates this tangible feeling of frenzy in the air filled with love, gratitude and laughter.

To my Greek-Orthodox friends celebrating Pascha this upcoming weekend, Kali Anastasi! And to those who just recently celebrated Western Easter or Passover, Happy 4th of July! (... I can only assume CVS and Duane Reade have already broken out the red, white and blue displays!) Enjoy the half-off candy while it lasts!