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FEATURE 16 Apr 17

Christians Celebrate Easter Around the Balkans

While each country has its own way of celebrating the greatest Christian holiday, they also share many common traditions, such as dying eggs.

Belgrade, Bucharest,Sarajevo, Skopje, Sofia, Tirana, Zagreb
Easter eggs in Bulgaria. Photo: Greta Georgieva/Flickr

As home to large Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communities, the Balkan region is a vibrant place to spend the Easter celebrations.

The different states share many common traditions in celebrating the most important Christian holiday, including the 40-day Lenten fast, a tradition of dyeing Easter eggs, eating rich feasts and visiting churches to light candles on Holy Saturday.

Hristos Voskrese! Voistina Voskrese!” (Christ has risen! He has risen indeed”) are greetings often to be heard among people, while the smell of sweet Easter bread scents the air.

Each country has its own customs, however, from lighting bonfires in Croatia to spraying young girls with perfume in Serbia to passing under the table in Romania – that make celebrating Easter throughout the region a vital experience.

This year, both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches will also be celebrating Easter on the same date, guaranteeing a hotch-potch of traditional rituals and tasty meals.

Croatia – striking religious processions

Easter procession in Dubrovnik. Photo: Moira Mehaffey/Flickr

With a predominantly Catholic population – 86 per cent, according to the 2011 census – Croats pay Eastern much attention. Already on Maundy Thursday evening, the commemoration of Christ’s journey to Golgotha is marked by processions.

One of the oldest and most impressive of these Thursday processions takes place on the southern island of Hvar, starting at 10pm and lasting for eight hours. It covers 22 kilometres, wending its way through a number of villages.

On Good Friday, there are more processions, while in towns and villages in the coastal region of Dalmatia, young men play Zudijas – re-enacting the Roman soldiers who guarded Jesus’ grave, thus re-enacting also the events preceding Christ’s Resurrection.

On Good Friday, Croats traditionally eat meat-free suppers of fish and other seafood as well as beans or dry fruit.

On Easter Saturday, in some regions in the north-west, Easter is heralded by the lighting of large bonfires – an old Slavic ritual.

On Sunday, after Passion Sunday Mass, people tuck into a family breakfast including boiled ham or ham baked in bread, along with green onions, radishes, horseradish, pinca – a sweet bread cake – and coloured hard-boiled eggs.

Children smash the eggs, some of which are dyed in a traditional way in brown onion, with the goal of breaking the opponent’s shell.

Serbia – smashing dyed eggs

Photo: Ingrid Krammer/Flickr

A mainly Orthodox Christian people, Serbs prepare themselves for Easter long before the actual celebration with a fast avoiding any kind of fat, meat or eggs. The fast is considered an act of spiritual cleansing of the body, soul and mind of evil thoughts.

Some of the more devout Orthodox Christians consume only bread and water in the first week of the seven-week period, which ends on Easter Sunday.

On Maundy Thursday, families stay at home, doing their chores. Good Friday is widely observed as a fast even among those who do not abstain over the previous weeks. Fish, potatoes, baked beans and lots of vegetables are on the menu, as well as certain sweets.

Unlike Bulgarians, Macedonians and Romanians, Serbians boil, dye and colour their Easter eggs not on Thursday but on Friday. The first coloured egg is always a red one, which people keep until the next year, because it has a role as guardian of the household.

Easter eggs in general symbolise the Resurrection and eternal life that Jesus promises to believers; the red colour symbolizes life.

They are the central attraction over Easter, when the whole family, especially the children, enjoy smashing them. The surviving egg is the champion.

In the village of Mokrin in the northern province of Vojvodina, villagers traditionally organise a world egg-smashing competition.

Among Vojvodina’s ethnic Hungarian communities, the day following Easter Sunday is called Locsoló Hétfő, “Watering Monday”.

On this day, men usually visit families and sprinkle them with perfume or water, receiving an egg in exchange.

Bosnia – sharing feasts with neighbours

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnian Croats celebrate Catholic Easter, while Bosnian Serbs celebrate Orthodox Easter. Holiday customs for each of these groups mirrors those in neighbouring Croatia and Serbia.

The most numerous ethnic group in the country are the Muslim Bosniaks, who naturally do not observe a Christian holiday. However, thanks to a long tradition of multi-ethnicity co-existence, many Bosniaks join the Easter family feasts of their Christian friends and neighbours.

Religious and political leaders of the three main groups in the country also send each other greetings on religious holidays and exchange visits in religious or governmental institutions in a show of peaceful fraternity that is especially important after Bosnia’s recent violent history. 

At last year’s Easter celebration, hosted by Catholic Cardinal Vinko Puljic, the Church leader cracked eggs with the head of Bosnia's Islamic Community, Husein Kavazovic.

Romania – crawling under a table

Traditional Romanian Easter Eggs. Photo: Horniman Museum and Gallery

The Easter celebrations start in Romania with Palm Sunday processions and are followed by different religious services every day of Holy Week.

On Maundy Thursday, people take food and drink to church and boiled eggs are painted.

Painting eggs is an ancient tradition in Romania. Colours and patterns vary from region to region. Although most households in urban areas choose red dye, in rural areas women still use plants to dye the eggs – boiling red onion leaves is the most common way to make red dye.

In some regions, such as the northern region of Bucovina, egg painting is a real art; women there use coloured wax to manually paint the eggshells. These painted eggs are sold later in fairs and can be quite expensive.

On Good Friday, Romanians take flowers to church and pass three times under a table with a large painting of Christ on it, signifying the pains that Christ endured when he carried his cross to the hill of crucifixion at Golgotha.

On the night between Holy Saturday and Passion Sunday, people go to midnight mass and light candles. They take these lighted candles home to keep the Holy Spirit alight in their homes, souls and lives.

The traditional dish for Easter is based on lamb, and Romanians sacrifice lambs on Good Friday as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. The also bake a round cheesecake, called Pasca, and eat a brioche, called cozonac, which is similar to the Polish babka.

Macedonia – housewives rising at dawn

Macedonian lighting up candles for Easter. Photo: Zoja Neskova/Flickr

As in other Orthodox countries, in Macedonia, Easter preparations also involve a 40-day period of fasting, prayers and penance.

But Macedonians have adopted many rituals and customs that at first sight might seem strange to foreign visitors.

At dawn on Maundy Thursday, housewives wake up before sunrise and dye three eggs red. The first egg is considered the most important as it is devoted to Jesus. It is placed in sunlight, usually near a door or a window, as it is believed that when the sun rises it will shine the rays of God on it.

The housewife must not be hungry, or have any negative thoughts during this ritual, as they are considered a bad omen.

At midnight on Saturday, everyone gathers at the local church, holding lit candles. In most regions of Macedonia, a rich feast of traditional dishes prepared in advance stands ready for Passion Sunday, when the fast is over and when everyone sits down together to eat.  

Albania – guarding the holy candles

Christians gathering for Easter in Albania. Photo: Valpumlee/Flickr

Albania’s Catholic and Orthodox Christians will be celebrating the Easter together this Sunday, while families have started to prepare their traditional dishes and rituals well in advance. 

Albania is a mainly Muslim country but the Christian churches are well represented. In the 2011 census, about 10 per cent of people identified as Catholics and 6.75 per cent as Orthodox believers. As in other Orthodox lands, believers in Albania will be attending midnight masses over Easter, lighting candles in the churches and trying to bring the lit candles home without extinguishing them.

Bulgaria – fasts followed by family feasts

A family dying eggs in Bulgaria. Photo: Joy/Flickr

In mainly Orthodox Bulgaria, Easter is an important celebration. Bulgarians share many traditions with their neighbors from Serbia, Greece and Macedonia – dyeing Easter eggs being at the top of the list.

While the red egg plays the central role in this ritual, Bulgarian families often release their creativity while dyeing eggs, using different techniques and materials to produce coloured eggs that they use for family egg fights and give as presents to friends and relatives.

People visit their local churches in large groups on Easter Saturday at midnight, lighting candles that they carry home, circling around the churches and greeting each other in the name of the Resurrection.

Easter Sunday is a fun day in Bulgaria, when families visit each other, eating lots of eggs and lamb, which is the traditional meat for Easter. While most Bulgarians spend the holidays at home, sticking to family traditions, many use the free days to travel all over the country and abroad. It is estimated that around 70,000 Bulgarians will travel abroad this Easter, mostly visiting neighbouring countries. Another 200,000 will spent the days off in the country’s own tourist resorts.

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