Greek Easter in Astoria

I remember the first Spring I lived in Astoria lying in bed one night and being woken by the sounds of chanting outside my window. “What IS that?!” I asked my husband as I quickly dressed and ran outside to check out the beautiful parade of people holding candles down my block.  Clearly exposing my out-of-towner knowledge of Astoria, I asked what the parade was for and was politely told it was for “our Good Friday”.

Fast forward 10 years, and sadly, my knowledge of Greek culture, and specifically the spectacle and celebration of Greek Easter, hasn’t extended much beyond that.  I know there are fireworks at Midnight.  And I know that my neighbor roasts the most delicious smelling lamb in his driveway every year. So, when Queens Mamas asked me to write about Greek Easter in Astoria, I enlisted the help of my friend, Paula, and learned a lot myself.

Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter on a date determined by the Julian calendar and the first full moon after the spring equinox. This year marks an extremely rare occasion-Greek Orthodox and Catholic Easters fall on the same day two years in a row (April 24), something that happens only about every 800 years. Easter is considered one of the most important and sacred Greek religious holidays.   Easter preparations begin with Great Lent, a 40 day period of self-examination and fasting. During the Lenten fast, no meat, butter, milk or olive oil is eaten.   One week before Easter is Palm Sunday, which celebrates the entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem.   This is followed by  the Holy Week, which ends on Easter Sunday, known as “Pascha.”

During Holy Week, people attend church services and observe Pascha Vigil which ends the midnight of Holy Saturday, on the evening before Pascha.

In the Greek Orthodox tradition, eggs are dyed red on Holy Thursday, as a symbol of new life.   The death of Jesus Christ by crucifixion is commemorated on Holy Friday or Good Friday.   On this day, the church’s priest takes down the icon of Christ from the cross and wraps it in linen, reenacting the ancient burial rituals. The icon is then placed in a casket and paraded through town as worshipers lament the death of Christ. These ornate street processions, called epitaphios, reenact Christ’s burial march. The community’s four large Eastern Orthodox churches, St. Irene, St. Demetrios, St. Catherine and St. George, and St. Markella all join in the festivities which you can view from the corner of 23rd Ave and 31st St.

On Holy Saturday, parishioners attend late midnight mass, bringing with them unlit candles. At midnight, the priest announces “Christos anesti” which means “Christ Has Risen”.  The response to “Christos Anesti” is “Alithos Anesti”, which means, “Truly He is Risen!”  It is customary to greet one another with the “Christos Anesti” / “Alithos Anesti” greeting for 40 days after Easter.

Fireworks usually take place at midnight of Holy Saturday and worshipers attend the Pascha Divine Liturgy, which is an early morning prayer service or an all-night prayer vigil.   Candles are lit from the church’s Holy Flame, which is believed to be taken from Jerusalem.  Services are traditionally followed by a feast at home.

In the Greek Orthodox tradition, the Lenten fast is broken on Easter Sunday.   Traditional foods eaten on this day are are lamb and tsoureki, a sweet Easter bread with a red egg on top. Greek people also have an egg cracking tradition, called “tsougrisma”, where people crack their eggs against one another’s to see who ends up with the whole egg. The one holding the last whole egg is considered to be the lucky one.

With my newly acquired knowledge, I plan to teach my girls about the traditions of Greek Easter this year. We will enjoy a celebration that is one of many things that make living in Astoria truly special.

How to Celebrate Greek Easter in Astoria:

  • Buy Easter Bread at Artopolis on 23-18 31st St in Astoria
  • See the Greek Parades after dark in the Ditmars area.
  • Check out some midnight fireworks at St. Irene, St. Demetrios, St. Catherine and St. George, or St. Markella

Thank you to Paula Iakovou-Sfakianos for her knowledge and help writing this article.

Jeanette Sussi Sten