In Europe, Easter rivals Christmas
Throughout Europe, Easter-related festivities fill streets, squares and stores. For the religious, it's a time of rituals. For the secular world, it means feasting, candy, and games.
Every Good Friday, this three-ton float, depicting the Sentencing of Christ, is carried through the streets of Sevilla by teams of 48 men. For the rest of the year, it resides here at the Basilica de la Macarena. (RICK STEVES PHOTO / March 23, 2010)
Easter begins in earnest with Holy Week, the seven days leading to Easter Sunday. Semana Santa processions clog the streets not just in Seville but all over Spain. In Britain, Holy Week heralds the arrival of the Morris Dancers. Men wearing black and white clothes, straw hats, red sashes, ribbons and ankle bells dance in the streets to chase away winter. They also chase young women, hitting them with an inflated pig bladder on a stick to summon good luck.
Easter markets in Prague sell traditional foods and crafts, including hand-painted eggs personalized with your name. From Thursday through Saturday, boys go door to door, shaking rattles to scare off the betrayer, Judas. People give them money in return. Throughout the week, girls paint eggs and boys braid pussy-willow-twig whips. On the morning after Easter, the boys go from house to house, gently hitting the girls with their whips to grant them good health. In return, the girls give them hand-painted eggs, and, for the grown-ups, shots of alcohol. Later that afternoon, the girls splash buckets of cold water on any boys who arrive late and vow to not speak to those who haven't shown up at all.
On Easter all over Europe, people gather in their Sunday best for the biggest church services of the year. London holds an Easter parade in Battersea Park, and ladies get decked out in fancy handmade bonnets, decorated with ribbons and flowers.
Florence's Scoppio del Carro is one of Europe's grandest Easter spectacles. During Mass in the Duomo, a mechanical dove is sent flying from the altar along a wire. It soars out the doors and into the main square to a centuries-old, two-story, ox-drawn cart. Upon arrival it triggers a magnificent fireworks display — like a time-release booby-trap left over from the city's Carnevale (pre- Lent) celebrations.
Greece traditionally celebrates Easter a week or two later than the West (because Eastern Orthodox churches use a different calendar), though this year, the two Easters happen to coincide. The seaside village of Kardamyli takes its celebration very seriously: On Good Friday, a procession passes through town, and the priest blesses each house. At midnight on Holy Saturday, townspeople turn off their lights and go to the main square. The priest emerges from the church with a candle and spreads light through the candle-carrying crowd, who then take the light home with them. Gradually the entire town is illuminated … and the fireworks begin.
As in the United States, many Europeans celebrate Easter with candy, chocolate eggs ( Cadbury Creme Eggs in Britain), gifts and the Easter Bunny. The English host Easter egg hunts; other countries hold egg-rolling and egg-tossing contests. Germans hang hollowed-out, decorated eggs from trees and bushes (or on special contraptions called "Easter trees").
In France, it's not about bunnies but bells. The Flying Bells — having left on Good Friday to magically fly to the pope to drop off everyone's misery over the crucifixion — return on Easter morning with joy and chocolate and eggs. Kids wake to find decorated eggs in their bedrooms and in nests they've placed outside.
Easter day culminates with a big meal, in which friends and family gather to gorge on meats and sweets. The Brits cook up ham, the Danes eat herring, and the French and Italians serve up lamb. In Greece, people rise at noon for the big goat-on-a-spit family lunch. Rather than a big fat Greek wedding, it's a big fat Greek Easter family party.
From floats to fireworks to feasts to family, Easter is a celebration that rivals Christmas in Europe.
Rick Steves (ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.