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April 23, 2006

Our first Orthodox Easter

Eastercandle So last night we went down to the Orthodox Cathedral in town for the traditional midnight Easter service. It is funny really, back at home it would never have occurred to me to attend a midnight service at Christmas, but here we really wanted to go and witness this event, which is the main focus of the religious year in Greece.

We got to the square outside the Cathedral just before 11pm. It was already filling with people, and shortly after we arrived a troop of young army and navy cadets marched into the square and lined up along one side.

We'd already learnt our first lesson for next year - we'd bought some candles in advance, but on the night we spotted that most people also had little plastic or paper cups that went at the top of the candle to protect the flame from the wind, and to protect the hand from the dripping wax. Next year, we'll have those.

When we first arrived the church bells were being rung constantly, but about an hour before midnight they stopped and the service started. There was a lot of chanting and plainsong, broadcast by speakers out to the crowd who couldn't fit into the church. Various dignitaries arrived, some of whom were given a fanfare by the small military band that had swelled the ranks of the cadets. Greece's Foreign Minister arrived to applause - which was lucky for us as she is the only member of the Greek government that we recognise.

As we stood around and it approached midnight, it wasn't only the Easter celebration that was the attraction - nature was putting on a show as well. Circling around the square were some bats, emitting their high pitched squeaks. Suddenly a moth appeared in the middle of the square, captivated by the dazzling lights shining out of the church to illuminate the square. Within in an instant one of the bats had swooped down and gobbled it up. It was like watching Wildlife on One.

Easterprocession At about 11:40pm all the lights are put out in the church, and a priest emerges with the Holy Easter light. He begins to light the candles in the congregation, they light the candle of the person next to them, and so forth, until gradually a river of lit candles leaves the church and the light makes its way to the people standing outside. A priest then mounts a platform outside the church, and begins to read from the Gospel until at midnight the cry of "Christ is risen" goes up. Then everyone gradually drifts away, carefully protecting the flame of their candles.

We didn't do very well with ours, we only managed to keep them lit up to the junction of Halidon with Platiea 1866, when a gust of wind extinguished both at once. Up to that point although each had gone out a few times, we had always been able to rekindle them. The idea is to keep the flame alive until you get home, and then use it to light candles on your own shrine. I also managed to get myself covered with wax. I had to do my coat up as my top now looked an embarrassing mess - only, of course, to then drip wax all over my jacket as well. So, definitely a candle with a cup-holder next year!

After the service people began letting off fireworks. There didn't seem to be one big organised display, which we had hoped for. It was rather more like odd groups of adolescents letting of fireworks in the street. Our 45 minute walk home in the semi-darkness was illuminated by the cars going past, with people still huddled over lit candles inside them.

As we neared our home Claire suggested "If we light them again at the bottom of our street, everyone on our street will be really impressed that we kept them alight this long"

"Yes", I cautioned, "but in his heart, Jesus will know."

"Yeah", said Claire, "but the neighbours would think it was cool!"

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