We don’t do bunnies. We don’t do chocolate. We don’t do pastels. Rita Wilson’s Ode to Greek Easter


Ever since Rita Wilson first penned this piece several years ago, the story has become one of the most viral and circulated in the Greek world. The actor/singer and producer speaks often about her Greek heritage in Hollywood circles and is even credited with turning her famous husband of more than a quarter of a century, Tom Hanks, into a full-blooded Greek. Below is the original piece published by Rita Wilson on her Huffington Post blog where she shares her Greek Easter.

Once every few years, Greek Easter falls the same week as “American Easter,” as it was called when I was growing up.

In order for “Greek Easter” to be celebrated the same week as “American Easter,” Passover has to have been celebrated already. We Greeks don’t do Easter until after Passover, because how can you have Easter BEFORE Passover. Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, after all. Unless it is one of the years when the two holidays align.

Here are some of the things that non-Greeks may not know about Greek Easter: We don’t do bunnies. We don’t do chocolate. We don’t do pastels.

We do lamb, sweet cookies, and deep red. The lamb is roasted and not chocolate, the sweet cookies are called Koulourakia and are twisted like a braid, and our Easter eggs are dyed one color only: blood red. There is no Easter Egg hunt. There is a game in which you crack your red egg against someone else’s red egg hoping to have the strongest egg, which would indicate you getting a lot of good luck.

Holy Week, for a Greek Orthodox, means you clear your calendar, you don’t make plans for that week at all because you will be in church every day, and you fast. Last year, in addition to not eating red meat and dairy before communion, my family also gave up sodas for the 40-day Lenten period.

During one particularly stressful moment, there were many phone calls amongst our kids as to whether or not a canned drink called TING, made with grapefruit juice and carbonated water was, in fact, a soda and not a juice, which our then 10-year-old decided it was, so we had a Ting-less Lent.

No matter where I find my self in the world I never miss Easter, or as we call it, Pascha. I have celebrated in Paris, London, New York City, Los Angeles, and in Salinas, California at a small humble church that was pure and simple.

When we were kids, our parents would take us, and now as parents ourselves we take our children to many of the Holy Week services including the Good Friday service where you mourn the death of Jesus by walking up to the Epitaphio, which reperesents the dead body of Christ, make your cross, kiss the Epitaphio, and marvel at how it was decorated with a thousand glorious flowers, rose petals and smells like incense.

Some very pious people will crawl under the Epitaphio. I have always been so moved to see this. There is no self- consciousness in this utter act of faith. There is no embarrassment to show symbolic sorrow at the death of our Saviour.

At a certain point in the Good Friday service, the Epitaphio is carried outside by the deacons of the church, as if they are pall bearers, followed by worshippers carrying lit candles protected from dripping on your clothes and on others by having a red plastic cup that sits below the flame to catch the wax drippings. Every Greek person knows all too well the smell of burning hair.

One time, in London, I smelled something and turned to look at where the smell might be coming from, only to be horrified that it was coming form me and my head was on fire. But I digress.

It is somber and quiet as we follow the Epitaphio, in candlelight, from the altar to the outdoors, in order for it to circle the church before it returns back to the altar. We sing beautiful lamentations that make your heart break with their pure expression of sadness and hope.

One of my favorite services during Easter is Holy Unction. This happens on the Wednesday of Holy Week. Holy Unction is a sacrament. It is for healing of our ills, physical and spiritual. It is preparing us for confession and communion. This sacrament has always been so humbling to me.

When you approach the priest for Holy Unction, you bow your head and as he says a prayer and asks you your Christian name, he takes a swab of blessed oil and makes the sign of the cross on your forehead, cheeks, chin, backs of your hands and palms. It is a powerful reminder of how, with faith, we can be healed in many ways.

The holy oil is then carefully dabbed with cotton balls provided by the church so you don’t leave there looking as if you’re ready to fry chicken with your face, and before you exit the church, you leave your cotton balls in a basket being held by altar boys, so as not to dispose of the holy oil in a less than holy place. The church burns the used cotton balls.

There have been times when I have left church with my cotton ball and have panicked when I am driving away. At home I take care of it. Imagine a grown woman burning cotton balls in her sink. But that is what I do.

Midnight Mass on Saturday night, going into Sunday morning is the Anastasi service. We will arrive at church at around 11 p.m., when it starts, and listen to the chanter as he chants in preparation for the service. My kids, dressed in their suits and having been awakened from a deep sleep to come to church, groggily sit and wait holding their candles with red cup wax catchers.

As the service progresses, the moment we have all been waiting for approaches. All the lights in the church are turned off. It is pitch black It is dead quiet. The priest takes one candle and lights his one candle from the one remaining lit altar candle, which represents the light of Christ’s love ( I believe).

From this one candle, the priest approaches the congregation and using his one candle he shares his light with a few people in the front pews. They in turn share their light with the people next to them and behind them. In quiet solemnity, we wait until the entire church is lit with only the light of candles, the light that has been created by one small flame has now created a room of shared light.

And at a moment that can only be described as glorious, the priest cries out, “Xristos Anesti!” “Christ is Risen!” We respond with “Alithos Anesti!” “Truly, He is Risen!” We sing our glorious Xristos Anesti song with the choir. That moment, which happens about an hour, to an hour and half into the service and seems as if the service is over, actually marks the beginning of the service. The service then continues for another hour and a half.

When I was a kid, after the service was over, we would go to the Anastasi Dinner that the church would throw in the church hall, where we would break our fast, drink Cokes at 2:30 in the morning, dance to a raucous Greek band and not go home until our stomachs were full of lamb, eggs, Koulouraki, and we saw the sun rise. Or was it the Son rise?

But usually now, after Midnight Mass, we drive home with our still-lit candles. I always love seeing the looks on peoples faces as they pull up to our car seeing a family with lit candles calmly moving at 65 m.p.h. down the highway. When we get home, we crack eggs, eat cookies, drink hot chocolate (so not Greek) and I burn a cross into our doorways with the carbon from the candle smoke to bless our house for the year.

There have been many times when painters touching up the house have wondered why there was this strange black cross burned into our doorways. The next day is usually followed by a late sleep in, then getting up and doing the same thing you just did but in the daytime at the Easter Picnic, usually held at a local park.

I have to say, the Greeks know how to do Easter. Make no mistake. This is the most important holiday in our church. It is a beautiful week. I haven’t even begun to touch on what the week is really like. This is a sampling of a sampling of what it is like. It is so much more deep, so much richer than I have written here.

But one thing is clear. It is a powerful, beautiful, mysterious, humbling, healing and moving week. It is filled with tradition and ritual. It is about renewal and faith. And even though it is still too early to say, Xristos Anesti! Alithos Anesti!



  1. Thank you for sharing Greek Easter With me. All that you described is exactly like it was when I was growing up, except we had no car; we walked to and from church. Imagine the candle lit all the way home. Holy Week we called it, and is just as you described. Beautiful memories of Easter abound.” Xristos Anesti .”

  2. What a beautiful article. I am a Jordanian (Greek Orthodox domination) and we do the same in our church and chant in Arabic & Greek languages except for driving with the candles lit, which I found very funny. Xristos Anesti, Alithos Anesti!

  3. Lovely to hear that a whole congregation celebrate Easter is a way that a is really spiritual and full of ritual. thanks for the article.

  4. I got goosebumps reading this! Iam an antiochian orthodox ( Arabic orthodox)
    And I love Holy Week services for the deeply felt prayers and chants. The renewal of our faith. It’s all so touching and so beautiful! Thank you for sharing this for your voice is heard by millions and I love sharing our eastern faith of the old church where Christianity started. Greek, Antiochs (Arabs), Russian, coptic, Armenian and so many more eastern churches share the same faith! And we are called Christian orthodox!
    Let’s get our faith out there!

  5. LOL Gianni, were you implying that only Italians or Catholics attend church on Sundays? Greeks and all other Orthodox Christians have weekly church services too. There is a Mass service every single Sunday in the Greek Orthodox church.

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  7. Alithos Anesti! Christ has risen from the dead trampling down death by death. And upon those in the tombs, bestowing life!

    Wonderful description of the Eastern Orthodox worship of Holy Week and Pascha. So few ever experience it, and it is a wonder every year. Thank you!

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  9. This is truly a beautiful time for the “Eastern Orthodox” – Pascha is one of the most beautiful weeks for the Greeks – I was told when I was a little girl – I was told that you do not say Xristos Anesti until Saturday night at church – because that’s when he truly has risen – I want to wish Rita an Tom and all the greeks here a Kalo Pascha and Rita I could not have said it better –

  10. I enjoyed your description of greek tradition before Easter, during the holly week and your Easter Celebration. I am Lebanese and in our country also we do almost the same. It is a shame that in some countries they know nothing about all these traditions and the meaning of Easter. Thank you for sharing this article.

  11. Thanks for the wonderful article. Attending an Orthodox Midnight Resurrection service should be something everyone should do at least once. (and then hopefully more than once!)

    Most of this is not just Greek, but encompasses all Orthodox churches of all nationalities.

    Two points though. Plenty of Orthodox Christians do observe more of the Western traditions as well, including chocolate, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Also, this is the first I have ever heard of anybody fasting from soda! From what I’ve observed as a convert to Orthodoxy, that’s not the norm, but again, that’s her personal piety and nothing wrong with that, as long as it is fine with her Priest that she fasts that way.

  12. So beautifully written, Rita! You brought back many priceless memories when I was young… my Russian Orthodox father would pack us all (6 kids) in the car at 10 pm Saturday night and travel 20 miles to our church in Boston. There were no pews or seats, so those were very long memorable nights! I loved walking outside following the priest around the church, and always cherished my red egg, although it rarely made it home unscathed. My father always would drive some of the elderly ladies to their homes where we watched many sunrises and were treated to delicious Russian treats! Your story has inspired me to awaken that tradition again with my own family… thank you for sharing… an early “Xristos Anesti!” and “Xristos Voskres!” to you and yours!

  13. The statement about Passover is untrue, but a widely believed myth. We have celebrated Pascha many many times before jewish passover recently.

  14. Great in a similar fashion we have our coptic Easter. It’s the holiest week of the year . Services extend for hours . The good friday is 10 hours at least though the church is full with no room to stand. .. Easter is about Jesus death on the cross instead of me to give me life back after I died because of my sins. Xrestos anesty

  15. God bless you Rita!
    This is how we celebrate Easter in Serbian Orthodox Church.Xristos Anesti and Xristos Voskrese!

  16. Petula Lintzeris on

    Χριστός Ανέστη to you and your lovely family! It is wonderful to see that you follow your Greek traditions and culture. God bless you!! It is exactly the way you described it even the car with the candle lol now we also bring little lanterns to church to avoid burning hair and the car upholstery lol one thing that is certain there is nothing more spiritual than Holy Week.

  17. Thank you for sharing this beautiful tradition of Orthodox Easter. I am Serbian Orthodox (which is the same as Greek Orthodox) and we have 99% same traditions. Also, since my husband and I have a lot of Greek friends then we sometimes celebrate Orthodox Easter with Serbians and sometimes with Greeks. I can only confirm that no matter where you celebrate Orthodox Easter (Greece, Serbia, Russia, Ukraine, Jerusalem, etc.) it is very holy and lots of fun!!!!!! Christ is born! Hristos Vaskrese! Χριστός Ανέστη!

  18. Nice description of how Greeks celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord.
    I’d just like to make a clarification. Christian Orthodox do NOT celebrate Easter; we celebrate Pascha.
    Rita does finally mention it about a third of the way through her blog:
    “No matter where I find myself in the world I never miss Easter, or as we call it, Pascha.”
    This is not simply a matter of using different words that have the same meaning. It is a difference in the origin of the word and a HUGE DIFFERENCE in MEANING!!!. Pascha comes from Passover whereas Easter comes from Eostre. I won’t go into the details of the meaning here. Anyone interested can look it up.

  19. Most of what Rita says is true. But one very large description is totally Incorrect. As Greek Orthodox members, our church services are never referred to as a “Mass”. Rita says the midnight mass begins at 11 pm. We call our church services Liturgies, NOT “Mass”. Mass is used in the Catholic religion and never used in the Greek Orthodox Churches. Ever.

  20. Are you aware that the Greeks are not the only Orthodox Christians in the world? To refer to Pascha as “Greek Easter” is a misnomer. The feastday is Orthdodox Easter / Pascha, observed and celebrated by people OF MANY ETHNICITIES, ALL OVER THE WORLD. Also, Eleni is right. There are no masses in Orthodoxy.

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  23. I went to Greece last year for the very first time and was there during Holy Week. On Good Friday in Athens, we walked with the Epitofio through the streets. On Easter morning we sang Christos Anesti at the small little church in the heart of the town center. Probably he most symbolic Easter of my entire 62 years.

  24. Very nicely written, Rita.
    After teaching Sunday school for more than a decade, I learned that the egg breaking competition would be won by the one who’s egg actually broke open, representing the rolling away of the stone to open the tomb of Jesus. Either way, the Orthodox celebration of Pascha is beautiful.

  25. Arline Veres Alto on

    Thank you Rita! I used to teach Sunday School and I was born in Greece, and came to the USA as a toddler,
    need I say more? I LOVE be Greek Orthodox!

  26. Wonderful article!!! We expect you here in Greece to celebrate Πασχα together, wich is also with the 1st of May. Love u & your family very much. May Christ always be with u!!! xxx

  27. Chris Papayianis on

    Great article, made me laugh from the funny truisms and cry with happy memories of all the beauty of Holy Week. What a beautiful time of the year and looking forward to an equally moving feeling in the coming weeks. It’s funny because here we refer to Catholic or the western Easter celebration as Aussie Easter which you refer to American Easter. Kalo Pascha to all Orthodox Christians!

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