Now begins the long fifty days of fasting, the "Pentikosti",-Fifty Days. The days are acctually 48 because two fasting days fall into the Carnival period. During these weeks, a very beautiful and original sermon is held every Friday evening, in the church, in honour of the Virgin Mary. The sermon is called "Heretismi" -Greetings, during which the so-called "Akathistos Ymnos" (literally translated-Without sitting down Hymn) is sung. This custom originated in 620 A.D. when Constantinople was threatened by barbarian enemies from both east and west. At that time, Emperor Herakleios was absent and the city was besieged from both land and sea. Although the citizens tried to defend the city, they knew that they were outnumbered by the enemy, so all turned in prayer to the Virgin Mary to protect the city. The whole town gathered in St. Sophia Church to pray; suddenly a terrible storm arose and sank the enemy vessels in the Hellespont. The people of Constantinople, seeing this miracle, took courage, attacked the enemy on the land and put them to flight. That night, the whole city again gathered in the Church of St. Sophia for thanksgiving. In order to honour the Virgin, everybody remained standing throughout the service which lasted the whole night, while Archbishop Sergios sang a long hymn in praise of the Virgin Mary starting each new verse with a different letter of the alphabet, and singing a special hymn depicting the triumphant victory.
Nowadays, instead of singing the whole of the hymn to the Virgin in one night, it is divided into three parts and sung on three consecutive Friday evenings, while, on the fourth, very nearly all the verses of the hymn are repeated. These services start at about 5 o'clock in the evening and in town churches the singing is usually performed by choirs of school-children. This particular hymn is, in my opinion, the most melodious in the Orthodox hymnal. To celebrate Easter everything should look clean and new, so houses are cleaned, painted or white-washed, and new clothes are a "must", especially new shoes. Holy Week is dedicated to church-going and to baking, etc.
The Saturday before Holy Week is St. Lazarus Day. St. Lazarus is considered to be a very special saint, for it is said that after his resurrection by Christ he lived, and died, in Cyprus, at Kitium. He is the Patron Saint of Larnaca and a big church stands there in his honour. His relics were taken to Constantinople in 890 A.D. On this day, priests in the villages go around with two boys holding baskets, blessing every house and gathering eggs which will be dyed and then given to the poor for Easter. The children of Cyprus have their own special sing-song about St. Lazarus :
"Lazarus, the shrouded one
who longed to be in purple
when the hens got word of him
they all sat down to lay;
then dyed the eggs in red
to crack the Easter fete".
At seaside places preparations for Palm Sunday can be seen from the previous Friday. In the coffee shops, fishermen sit and plait intricate "vaynes"- palm-leaf flower holders - which when finished, resemble little swallows' nests perched on sticks. The fishermen sell these and the young children fill them with flowers and take them to church on Palm Sunday when they follow the icon of Christ around the church in a procession commemorating Christ's entry into Jerusalem. The older boys hold large palm leaves. Olive leaves are put into pillow-case like sacks which are taken to church; there they are kept for forty days after which they can be used for incense burning. From now on there are church services morning, afternoon and evening.
On Thursday most women do their Easter baking of "flaounes", a kind of cheese pastry found only in Cyprus. It is made of short-crust pastry with a cheese, egg and mint filling, formed into triangular or square shapes. Koulouria are baked with milk, spices and a little sugar, and Tyropittes-loaves with small pieces of cheese added and rolled in sesame seeds. Eggs are dyed as well. Traditionally they are dyed red with a special root called "rizari", that is sold in bundles at the market during these days. They are also dyed yellow; for this purpose the yellow marguerites that cover the waysides and fields during April are used. These are boiled until they yield their colour, then the eggs are put into the coloured water and hard boiled. However, in the towns you can buy small packets of different coloured dyes from your grocer. Some dye their eggs in a more artistic way by tying the marguerites onto the eggs with a piece of muslin before boiling them in a colour. The end product is most effective. Trays and trays of Koulouria are carried to the bakery ovens (fournous) in each neighbourhood and hundreds of eggs are used this day.
Good Friday begins with everyone taking flowers to church so that the young girls can decorate the "Epitaphios" - Holy Sepulchre. This, in our church, is a four-postered litter with a canopy in which the icon of Christ is laid in state. The whole structure is completely decorated with flowers, a job that takes the greater part of Good Friday morning. At lunch-time the traditional "Faki Xidati" - lentil soup with vinegar - is eaten, containing vinegar because it is said that when Christ asked for water on his way to Calgary (Golgothas) He was given vinegar instead. From early afternoon you will see streams of cars and pedestrians going from church to church to pay their last respects to Christ - and to compare the decoration of their own parish "Epitaphios" with that of the others. In the meantime, all the streets along which the "Epitaphios" will pass in the solemn procession later that night are being decorated with coloured lights.The procession starts after the evening service with the priests preceding, then the Scouts or young men carrying the litter of Christ and then the choir, singing hymns. The whole congregation follows, and children light sparklers on the way. Fireworks are lit from the balconies while the procession moves around its parish boundaries and ends up at the church again.
Saturday is a quiet day, although there is a sermon towards lunch-time during which the church doors are banged and candleholders shaken, when the news are brought that Christ is no longer in His grave. The real sermon of the resurrection (Anastasis) is about mid-night. Everybody goes to church with a candle and the sermon is held to the accompaniment of firecrackers. A big bonfire is lit in the church yard. When the priest proclaims that "Christ has risen" , all candles are lit and everyone greets one another with " Christos anesti" - Christ has risen, to which the other answers "Alithos anesti" - Indeed He has risen.
On Sunday morning most people who have not taken Holy Communion during the Holy Week take it now and afterwards they go home, where red eggs are cracked, flaounes eaten and the fast broken. The children go around, cracking and winning coloured eggs, for if your egg cracks then you lose it and the child with the unbroken egg gets it. At lunch-time picnics and family gatherings are held everywhere; lambs are roasted on the spit and wine flows freely. In the villages, Easter is an all-village affair apart from being a big holiday. On such days after Mass, the priest stands at the church door with the Cross and everyone leaving kisses the Cross, then shakes and takes the hand of the person in front, thus forming a large circle in the church yard which symbolises the renewal of friendship with one another. After this, all friends and relations, but especially people from other towns and villages, are invited to the villagers' homes where they sit down together, eating and drinking until late in the afternoon.
In many villages it is also the custom on Easter Sunday and Monday for everyone to have lunch in the church yard and each family brings its food and wine and everybody eats at long "tavles" - tables made out of stands and long wooden planks. After lunch there are various games, dances and jokes. The young people celebrate by hanging up "souses" - swings. For this purpose young men and girls hang ropes from trees and, while the girls swing, they all sing gay songs or love songs, or teasing songs called " Tsiattismata"(pronounced-Chattismata) - rhymes. These rhymes are made up at every festive occasion and there are even professionals who sing them. The characteristic of the "tsiattismata" is that someone gets up and starts by opening the subject in reciting praises for the host, something to tease a friend, or a love song for a girl. If he can, the one who has been made the subject of the rhyme, gets up and replies by reciting his views on whatever has just been said. More usually, however, there are two people singing the "tsiattismata" by making up the rhyme as they go along, one making up the first few lines, the other answers back with the next few and so it becomes like a singing conversation.
"My God, I wish it were Easter time
Time to hang up the swings
and all the streets will be full again
of dark - eyed damsels
Forty days after Easter comes the Day of the Ascension which is considered such a great holiday that it is said that "even the swallows do not build their nests" on that day. It is a fasting day and one should not work at all, but spend the day praying and meditating. Incense should be burnt in the houses seven times.