Easter, which is the greatest feast of the year in Greece, is celebrated in Oia with all the appropriate sobriety and splendor.
If you visit Oia in April, apart from the superb limpidity of the atmosphere, the light emphasizing crisply the curves of the vaults and the domes (light which in the summer months is filtered through the heat haze and the mist), it is interesting to observe the way in which the islanders celebrate Easter.
The Holy Week services all take place in the church in the square, which is dedicated to the Virgin Platsani, a local epithet.
Tradition has it that some fishermen brought up in their nets an icon of the Virgin, which originated from Crete. They brought it up to the village and placed it in a church that faced towards Crete. Because the Virgin in the icon splashed about in the water (πλατσουρίζω - platsourizo) she was called Platsani, and the church was named after her. Until the 1956 earthquake this church stood in the Kastro, inside the Goulas. Long after the earthquake that reduced it to rubble, the inhabitants of Oia decided to rebuild the church, not in the same place as the previous one, since the area was very badly damaged, but on the site where it stands today.
The decoration of Christ’s bier (Επιτάφιος - Epitaphios), early in the morning of Good Friday, at the back of the church forecourt, is done by the women and girls of the village. Each one brings flowers from the flowerbeds or their little gardens. Violets, yellow and mauve spring snapdragons, roses, carnations and wonderful white lilies. With these they adorn the baldachin of the Epitaphios, which is of carved wood and in many churches in Pano Meria was brought from Russia (churches of St. George, the Resurrection etc.).
The ceremony of the Deposition from the Cross (Αποκαθήλωση - Apokatheloses), at noon on Good Friday, is a special experience in Platsani. Women and children, up in the gallery (gynaikonitis) of the church, sprinkle the Body of Christ removed from the Cross with colorful rose petal, that fall softly above amidst the white smoke from the aromatic incense, while at the same moment the bell tolls the funerary lament of the year.
It is not unusual at that noon hour for the siren of the ship entering the Caldera to be heard, bringing those Oians, who had not managed to come to the island earlier to celebrate Easter in their native village. And then prayers and Byzantine hymns (troparia) and sweet fragrances are all united, creating a timeless image of the village and of Greece.
The same evening the procession of the Epitaphios takes place, through the village. The large Cross, without the body of Christ, the flower –bedecked bier, the priest, the altar boys holding the banners, the cantors chanting the encomia, all these proceed, while behind follow the faithful with the lighted candles in the dark. They proceed down the main street to the east and head for St. George at Perivolas.
Before the new church of the Virgin Platsani was built, the church of St. George was the metropolis (Greek Orthodox cathedral) of Oia. There, in front of the royal door, the men bearing the Epitaphios begin to sway it right and left. And this is seemingly inexplicable rocking of a boat has passed into folk consciousness as a representation of the earthquake that followed the death of Christ, when … And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split … (Matthew 27:51).
How could such an event be forgotten in Oia!!
After St. George, the procession embarks on a longer route in the dark, through the narrow streets of the village. In the courtyards and on the yard walls of the houses, the people light fires in the tin cans, while the women stand in the doorways, some censing and some sprinkling the faithful with rosewater.
Until the early twentieth century Oia had thirteen parishes (in 1890 Pano Meria had a population of 2500) and the meeting–up of the many bedecked Epitaphioi in the streets of the village was very impressive. As to the following evening, Easter Saturday, the eve of the Resurrection, before the priest had finished declaring, from the dais set up in the church courtyard, the first joyous Christos Anesti (Christ is risen), the men and the boys begin throwing firecrackers and other “ammunition”, which they had prepared beforehand, and then the whole village shook from the deafening sounds and the satisfied shrieks of the “manufacturers” at the success of the explosions – while simultaneously the terrified screams of the rest resounded.
In front of the church, on the parapet of the square, hangs the effigy of the “traitor” Judas. A kind of scarecrow filled with firecrackers which, immediately after the first Christos Anesti, are set alight and blazes noisily as the crackers explode.
The rest of the night is spent with the family, in the joy of the long-awaited dinner after the strict fast forty days that the Oians observe piously, with the cracking of the red eggs, the meat stewed with greens, the Santorini wine and the local Easter sweetmeat, melitini, a little tart filled with a mixture of eggs, soft white cheese (myzithra) and flavored with mastic.
On the morning of Easter Sunday, which is usually a sunny spring day, the priest, cantors and congregation leave from Platsani and proceed towards the church on the south cliff, in the neighborhood of Monastiri.
The church of the Resurrection (Ανάστασης - Anastasis) is a very large one and together with St. Spyridon, to the east of it, they are a conspicuous point of reference for this side of the village. Their two huge blue domes are indelibly impressed on the memory of Oia, “hallmark” of all those on board ship who first behold or bid farewell to Oia.
The truly splendid procession with the banner of the icon of the Risen Christ in the lead, gold flabellae held by the altar boys, joyous psalms, all these within an unbelievably clear light, descent the narrow alley and the steps that reach to the church like a multicolored ribbon which is trailed between courtyards and vaults, sanctifying the hovering buildings of Pano Meria.