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April 27, 2011

Bright Week Celebrations In Greece

Bright Week, otherwise known as Renewal Week, begins on Pascha (i.e. Easter) Sunday and ends on the following Sunday of Thomas. The name probably originates from the fact that the newly baptized catechumens from Pascha are newly illumined and bright. For them it is a time of regeneration and renewal. These newly baptized in ancient times wore all white for a week, hence the week sometimes being called White Week.

The seven days of Bright Week are seen as one day, a continuous Paschal celebration. According to the 66th canon of the Council in Trullo: "From the holy day of the Resurrection of Christ our God until New Sunday (i.e. Thomas Sunday) for a whole week the faithful in the holy churches should continually be repeating psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, rejoicing and celebrating Christ, and attending to the reading of the Divine Scriptures and delighting in the Holy Mysteries. For in this way shall we be exalted with Christ; raised up together with Him. For this reason on the aforesaid days that by no means there be any horse races or any other public spectacle." Furthermore, because of the continuous paschal celebration, there should be no fasting this week. And as the above canon states, this is a time of renewal for all Orthodox Christians and not just the newly baptized. It is a time for the faithful to bear spiritual fruit and generate new virtues for our own illumination as well.

In the Eastern Roman Empire, especially in Constantinople, this week had special joy and was celebrated with great pomp and splendor. The emperor would call the newly-baptized and the poor to a rich meal, while on Bright Thursday the Patriarch would have an honorary dinner for the clergy. Rich gifts were distributed by the emperor and official visitations were made. Prisoners with light offenses were released as well. These traditions are somewhat carried out today in Greece where state officials visit hospitals and military camps, and military sanctions are lifted.

Pascha Sunday

Today Pascha for the Greek people begins where it originated, on Holy Saturday afternoon at the empty tomb of Jesus known as the Holy Sepulchre in the city of Jerusalem. Every year at this time a great miracle of Orthodoxy takes place when the Patriarch of Jerusalem enters the tomb of Christ in complete darkness and emerges from the tomb moments laters with fire literally sent from heaven. This fire is popularly known as “Holy Fire”, though Orthodox Christians prefer to call it “Holy Light” for its supernatural origin. News of this miraculous event is widely covered in the Greek media, and is increasingly becoming popular news in the West as well. At the ceremony of the Holy Light there is always a delegation from Greece to receive this Holy Light and bring it to Greece with state honors through a special flight. Arriving in Athens it is then distributed on various aeroplanes to bring the Holy Light throughout Greece.

At 11pm on Saturday night pretty much the entire country is in church. The lights are turned off in the churches at midnight as everyone holds candles waiting to be lit. Soon the priest emerges from the darkened altar and announces that Christ has risen from the dead by calling all the faithful to receive the light of the Resurrection. In many places in Greece this light is in fact the Holy Light which was transferred from Jerusalem. Soon an amazing wonder takes place, when it seems the entire country is lit by this Holy Light as one person passes on the flame to another person as they greet one another with “Christ is risen!” and “Truly he has rise!” which will be the primary greeting for the next forty days. Leaving the churches the people carry this flame to their homes for a blessing where they will try to preserve this flame for the next forty days.

During this midnight service as well as on Pascha day many unique events take place in certain areas of Greece. One common theme is that fireworks are set off everywhere making the fourth of July look tame in comparison. Sometimes even dynamite and guns are used to symbolize the utter destruction of death and the powers of evil by Christ’s Resurrection. Probably the most well-known and dangerous firework display takes place in Chios, where two rival churches fire thousands of rockets at each other as part of an annual firework battle. This is a tradition in Chios dating back to 1889 when Turkish soldiers confiscated the cannons of the islanders, so instead they returned fire upon them with homemade rockets. In the town of Asine in Argolida they actually have a street battle with the men of the upper and lower parts of the village hurling insults and fireworks at each other. In southern Messenia people go to the main squares to watch the saetapolemos, which are rockets without sticks that the men hold while the force of the explosions makes them jump as if they are dancing. This practice supposedly goes back to the War of Independence when people of the area fashioned this home-made bombs to scare the horses of the Turks to force their riders to dismount and lose their advantage. In Corfu ceramic pots are thrown out of windows symbolizing the throwing out of evil. The people of Leonidio in Peloponnesos fill the sky with hot air balloons released by the faithful of each parish. In Thrace and Macedonia young women in traditional clothing called the Lazarins go around the villages singing traditional Paschal songs.

The Burning of Judas is a folk custom done in various places throughout Greece and other places. It is typically performed after the midnight service on Pascha Sunday, though sometimes done on Good Friday or Pascha Sunday afternoon after the Agape service. During this ceremony the people gather around a bonfire as an effigy of Judas is consumed to the accompaniment of roaring cheers, exploding firecrackers, and the occasional burst of gunfire. Some of the more popular Judas burnings take place in Chania and Loutro in Crete, as well as Kalymnos and Sifnos. It also takes place in Monemvasia, Rhodes, Hydra, Halkidiki, Koroni, and Leros. In Syros and Karpathos people bring their guns and shoot Judas as a scapegoat for society's ills.

The Paschal feast after the midnight service, which officially ends the 48-day fast of Great Lent and Holy Week, consists primarily of red eggs, richly scented breads and magiritsa. The red eggs, which were painted on Holy Thursday, are brought out and each person takes one and hits their end against someone else's until the last person who has an un-cracked egg is considered the lucky person for the year. Magiritsa is a variety of chopped and sautéed animal innards (mainly lamb), with herbs and spices and avgolemono (egg and lemon soup). During the day another larger feast takes place which features the famous paschal lamb roasted on a spit. In some villages the priest will go from house to house and bless the roasted lamb of the people. After the meal in certain areas people will attach swings to a tree and swing, while others may go out and pick flowers and form wreaths. There seem to be as many varied traditions on this day in Greece as there are towns and villages.

Bright Monday

In many parts of Greece the festivities of Pascha continue into Monday, with more feasts and dances. Some on this day will visit dead relatives and friends and leave red eggs on their graves praying for them a good resurrection. In Giannitsa of Pella and other areas the people will swing on this day. It is believed that riding a swing is good for one's health and an abundant harvest.

Often it happens that the feast of St. George the Great Martyr falls during Great Lent or Holy Week on April 23rd. Because no feasting is allowed on these days, the feast will be transferred to Bright Monday. St. George is very popular in Greece and churches everywhere are named after him, so many celebrations will take place on Bright Monday in his honor. In Mikropoli of Drama an event called "Celebration of God" (Γιορτή του Θεού) takes place at the Chapel of St. George with a dinner there.

On Bright Monday some monasteries on Mount Athos and Karyes hold litanies with their miraculous icons and holy relics. The others do this on Bright Tuesday. The most notable takes place with the icon of the Panagia of Axion Estin which departs Karyes and goes to all the surrounding monasteries, sketes and cells until it returns to Karyes on Bright Tuesday.

Bright Tuesday

Places like Pilios, Lesvos and Samos save riding on swings for this day. The dancing and festivities will continue today in many areas of Greece, as it will throughout the week. In Kalyvia Limenaria of Thassos Bright Tuesday is called "For Rain In April" (Για βρέξ΄ Απρίλη μ΄). It is an ancient custom to pray for spring rain. Residents of the community and visitors celebrate with folk dances and large pots of rice cooked with meat that is distributed to everyone. On the same day in Ierissos of Halkidiki there is the tradition called in Greek "Του μαύρου νιου τ΄ αλώνι" or "the black threshing floor". This is a dance that takes place in honor of Greeks killed by Turks in the area in 1821.

Many Saints who could not be celebrated properly over the past few weeks during Great Lent and Holy Week are celebrated throughout Bright Week and especially on Bright Tuesday. In 1680 on Pascha Sunday after the midnight service in Ntaou Penteli Monastery outside Athens, 179 monks were slaughtered by pirates and secretly were buried under the floor of the main church. It wasn’t until 1963 that the incorrupt relics of these holy martyrs were discovered in a miraculous way, and since then their feast is celebrated on Bright Tuesday. In 1904 the relics of St. Patapios of Thebes were revealed in his monastery in Thebes in a miraculous fashion, and since then the discovery of his relics are celebrated in Thebes on Bright Tuesday. On April 18, 1826 the Turks were devising a slaughter of the Christians in Herakleion, Crete on the feast of Pascha in the Church of Saint Menas. As the gospel was being read proclaiming the Resurrection Feast suddenly a gray haired man appeared and began running around the church holding a sword, and the faithful saw him chase away the Turks who were devising the slaughter. The people recognized this man to be St. Menas and every year since then this feast is celebrated on Bright Tuesday in Crete.

Probably the most famous feast on Bright Tuesday takes place in Mytilene at the Monastery of Sts. Raphael, Nicholas and Irene. For centuries the people of Lesvos would go on Bright Tuesday to the ruins of a monastery near Thermi, a village northwest of the capital, Mytilene. As time passed, however, no one could remember the reason for the annual pilgrimage. There was a vague recollection that once there had been a monastery on that spot, and that the monks had been killed by the Turks. It was not until 1959 that Sts. Raphael, Nicholas and Irene started appearing in dreams and visions to the residents near Thermi revealing to them their identity as well as the location of their relics. Since then this monastery has become one of the most popular pilgrimage destination for Orthodox Christians in the world and they are celebrated especially on Bright Tuesday.

Bright Wednsday

On Bright Wednesday in the Municipal District of Eleutheron west of Kavala there is an emotional and reverent custom called "Mazidia" (Μαζίδια) that takes place dating back to Ottoman times. The faithful process with icons from the Byzantine Church of the Archangels, which is the oldest church in the region of Mazidia, to the picturesque Church of Sts. Raphael, Nicholas and Irene.

There is a blessing of artoklasia and holy water with prayers to the Risen Christ to bless the crops for a fruitful season. After venerating the icons, the procession returns to the Church of the Archangels.

Then the big feast begins in the village square. The dancing begins with the priest leading followed by the villagers. This is a tradition that goes prior to Ottoman times.

Bright Thursday

On Bright Thursday in Kalis Vrysis of Drama the icon of the Resurrection of Christ is processed around the farming areas to protect the village from all evil, especially from the extremely dangerous hail storms that could devastate the spring crop.

In Samothraki a festival is celebrated on Bright Thursday in honor of the miraculous discovery of the icon of Panagia Kamariotissa.

Bright Friday

Many churches throughout Greece are dedicated to the Virgin Mary of the Life-Giving Spring (Zoodochos Pege). Bright Friday is primarily set aside for this feast with the blessing of waters and processions that end in dances. In places like Larissa, Aigio, Argolida, Rhodes, Naxos, Kerkyra and Telendou special feasts take place in the churches dedicated to the Life-Giving Spring.

Bright Saturday

The Holy Doors in the iconostasis, which have remained open all of Bright Week are closed on this day before the beginning of the Ninth Hour. The Vespers (or All-Night Vigil, depending upon local usage) on Saturday night is chanted in the normal manner, rather than the Paschal manner. However, the Paschal troparion "Christ is risen..." is read (or chanted, if a Vigil) three times at the beginning. That Vespers is the beginning of Thomas Sunday.