Rethymno is the Cretan picturesque city where tradition is still present in everyday life and in the island’s rich local culture.
The ideal time to experience various aspects of this culture is Easter. Special traditions mark not only the mourning of Christ’s Crucifixion and the celebration of Resurrection but also the passage from winter to spring.
In Rethymno city as well as in the broader area, you can experience the rituals of the Holy Week, in a number of churches and monasteries. Every Greek Orthodox Church celebrates the entrance of Jesus to Jerusalem and Crosses made by leaves from palm trees (vagia) are offered. On Palm Sunday, the nuns at St. Irene Monastery make elaborate wreaths weave with palms to adorn their church during Holy Week.
Easter preparations begin on Holy Thursday when the traditional sweet bread (tsoureki) and the traditional Easter cookies (koulourakia) are baked, and eggs are dyed red, symbolizing the blood of Christ. In the evening, the Twelve Passion Gospels are read out loud by the priest in a mystic atmosphere of devout concentration.
On Holy Friday, parish women decorate the Epitaph, as the tradition wants the Crown of Thorns of Jesus Christ to be covered with flowers. In the town center, at the 4 Martyrs Church, the service of Holy Friday is accompanied by the Youth Choir of “Mousikos Karpos” singing Byzantine religious hymns. It ends to the circumambulation where people join the procession on its way through the streets of the city. The meeting point of all the Epitaphs is the 4 Martyrs Church on the 26th of April at 21.30 under the sound of music performed by the Philharmonic Orchestra of Rethymno, giving an ecstatic dimension in this mournful night.
You can also attend special Easter celebrations in the village of Argyroupoli (27 km from Rethymno), where giant torches (candles) are manufactured from reeds by the villagers in order to honor the dead Jesus but also to illuminate the path followed by the procession of the Epitaph. Each torch may be up to 6 meters in length and held by 3 or more people. After the liturgy, delicious traditional feasting Cretan dishes are offered by the locals under the guidance of the Cretan Centre of Gastronomy.
On Easter Saturday, the 27th of April, before midnight, people gather in church holding white candles, which they light with the “Holy Light”. The Resurrection of Christ is celebrated at 12.00 sharp with drum beats and fireworks. For local flair, it is worth visiting nearby villages, where the burning of Judas is the center of attention. A pile of wood of almost five meters tall rises outside the church, with “Judas” on top of it. At midnight, the whole thing burns up in a spectacular flame! After the service of the Holy Saturday, the traditional mayiritsa soup is served in every Cretan household. The soup is made with lamb innards – any or all of the intestines, heart, and liver, as well as the neck and the head mixed with dill, lettuce, onion and, traditionally an egg and lemon juice broth (avgolemono).
But the highlight is, of course, the Easter Sunday on the 28th of April! Families and friends are united around the festive table where various dishes are served over wine. Lemony artichoke lamb stew, delicious antikristo lamb, roasted slowly across the flames, celebrations, accompanied with mantinades (rhyming couplet folk songs) and lyra playing, last all day long.
Celebration of Easter in Rethymno is a unique experience. Don’t miss it!