Being a bit melancholic while awaiting this year’s Easter, I remembered that I had an old notepad where I used to collect articles of old newspapers. I always liked reading about the everyday life of Greeks during some very interesting periods of our history. Among other things, I found a few notes about Easter celebrations in Athens, of certain years that were different to any ordinary year.
1896 – 4 celebrations in 1
That year, Easter Sunday was on March the 24th . The next day, March 25 (celebration day of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the national holiday for the Greek War of Independence) also was the opening day of the first International Olympic Games in Athens. It was just three years after the 1893 bankruptcy of Greece, and the city is being decorated and the Athenians celebrate this weird combination. On Easter Sunday, the Georgios Averof’s statue is unveiled in a ceremony at the entrance of Panathenaic Stadium. Greece owes a great deal to Averof. Among other things, he has sponsored the National Technical Institute of Athens and the Panathenaic Stadium, where the first modern Olympics were held.
During Holy Week, all buildings and shops of the streets Ermou, Aiolou and Mitropoleos are decorated with flags and myrtles, and crowds of local and foreign visitors are filling the streets. Shop owners and errant sellers are selling votive candles, red eggs, toys and sweets. Shepherds from Parnitha, Kifisia and Skaramagkas come as usual to the central market to sell their lambs and kids.
On Holy Friday, the huge throng in Athenian streets near the epitaph procession is phenomenal. All streets around the churches of Kapnikarea, St. Eirini and Metropolis (Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens), from Omonoia Square to Syntagma Square, are congested. The night was clear and mild and you could smell the sweet aroma of flowers decorating houses, streets and squares. The Athenians were calm and peaceful while following the procession and the foreigners were delighted to witness this original spectacle for the first time.
On Easter Sunday, at 9 a.m. the first trumpets sound, the army marches downtown, the marching bands play their melodies, and people feel moved and applaud in the streets and squares or from their balconies. The royal family, the government and other officials come to the Metropolis for the liturgy. The bells of all churches ring, incense fills the air. “Christos Anesti” (“Christ rose from the dead”) and with him, hope rises again for devastated Greece which is back on the feet again and can look Europe in the eye.
1897 – Silent Resurrection and sad Easter for the defeated
On April 6, the Greco-Turkish war begins, which will bring great distress to the country, not only during the conflict, but also for the years to follow. The next is the first day of Holy Week. Distressed, mute and dark. This Holy Week seemed like no other.
On Holy Thursday, Archbishop Gaetanos De Aggeli (Den of Angels), initiates a mass for the success of the Greek army in the Catholic church of St. Dionysius. The litany of the icon of Virgin Mary follows, an icon from Byzantine times with the writing “Kyria Skopiotisa”. It is the Madonna delle Vitorrie, which initially stood in the Monastery of Skopiotisa in Zante, and later on came into the possession of Rivellis family of Corfu, who signed it over to the church of St. Dionysius. The attendees are weeping and sobbing and the Archbishop is too emotional to continue. As the procession with the icon of Virgin Mary is going through the streets Academias, Homer, Sina and Panepistimiou, people throw flowers from their balconies.
On Holy Saturday, the Turks are already on Greek soil. Larisa is evacuated and the city residents flee to Volos and Chalkida. “End to end destruction”, is what the newspapers write and now the defeat of the Greek army is inevitable.
“It is a mournful and sad Resurrection. All the people are wan and disappointed, no one is in the mood for rejoice. Christ was resurrected in silence at midnight and the guns fired in honor and people lit their candles only because it is customary… The city is grieving, it is justifiable, and only a redress, any redress, would be able to console our mourning.”
1941 – Easter under the sound of sirens
“This year, once more, there are no believers with candles in their hands, and no sacred processions in the streets to follow the pure relic of the God-man…”
It was a year when World War II had made the whole world dark, and Greece had to fight almighty Germany that Easter. During Holy Week, the German Luftwaffe bombards Piraeus, Kea, the sea area of Ikaria, Aliveri, Kimi, Karditsa, Trikala, Sparta, Larisa and Crete. Food supplies are running low and distribution is done with vouchers: 300gr sugar, 600gr rice… On Holy Thursday all hope is lost. The attacks of the German forces can’t be confronted any longer.
On Holly Friday the churches are filled with people who gather to decorate the Epitaphios. The government had made prepayments of salaries and offered interest free loans, and now at noon everyone runs to the shops to buy whatever necessary. The queues outside the shops on the streets Aiolou, Ermou, Stadiou and Patission were so huge that the police was brought in to bring the situation under control. At 4pm Prime Minister Alexandros Koryzis kills himself, after a conversation with King George. The newspapers conceal the cause of his death. Late in the evening, the Epitaphios is brought into procession inside the churches while the war sirens sound; but no one moves.
On Holy Saturday, Koryzis is buried at 1pm at the Metropolis and the Liturgy of the Resurrection is postponed until the next morning, Sunday 7am. Easter Sunday, April the 20th, on Adolph Hitler’s birthday.
Hoping that next year’s Easter will be joyful and full of smiles, like in 1896.
Acropolis, 1896 and 1941