This week is the Big Week of Greek Easter, ‘Big’ in this instance meaning Most Holy or of great import. It’s a time when the sweet smell of baking fills the village streets and thousands of eggs are being dyed the traditional ruby red, when immaculately dressed children are being ushered into churches by their Sunday-best grandmothers and hungry men gather in the tavernas in the evenings to break the strict ‘no meat, no oil’ fast with pork chops eaten surreptitiously at tables not visible from the street.
And on some of the Greek islands, it’s a time when the unsuspecting visitor might ask themselves, as great explosions from the mountainsides rattle windows and throw dirt and rocks high in the air, whether they have missed a vital item on the news declaring Greece is at war. But it isn’t war. It’s Easter dynamite.
The force of the explosions can be both terrifying and dramatic, occurring at random intervals in the two-week run-up to Big Week and reaching an unwelcome crescendo towards midnight on Easter Saturday, when the blasts interrupt the church services and cause the priests to curse the perpetrators. If you’ve never witnessed it, you can get a sense of what it can be like in this video from Kalymnos.
It’s not news, of course, that the Greeks are fond of explosive celebrations. The firing of shotguns at weddings is well known in Crete and on other islands (maybe the origin of the tradition is obvious!), and fireworks are a part of New Year as they are all over the world. But bringing dynamite to the Easter party seems to be unique to parts of Greece, especially to islands like Kos, Kalymnos and Symi once at the forefront of the sponge-fishing industry. The origins of the ‘tradition’ are unclear, with some suggesting it was an act of defiance beginning in the Italian occupation (1912 – 1943). Certainly the sponge-divers made use of unexploded bombs found on the sea-bed following WWII, and there is a suggestion that as the sponge-diving industry waned, the redundant men began to use the Easter dynamiting to prove their continued bravery. (As an aside, an unexploded WWII bomb was found in Thessaloniki only a couple of months ago, buried beneath a petrol station – its removal required the temporary evacuation of 72,000 people).
Are the dynamiters brave or foolish, mad or bad? Whichever they are, they serve their dynamiting apprenticeships in the village streets, starting out as small boys lobbing firecrackers at passers-by – especially women like me on their daily visit to the bakery – who are shocked and angry to find themselves having to skip smartly out of the way of a spitting, crackling Jumping Jack or frightened half to death by a compact-but-deafening Chinese banger tossed at their feet.
I was mother to one of those boys. Around the age of nine, my son – encouraged by his cousins – began to take a great interest in fireworks during our Easter visits to Symi. He’d beg a little money from me or his father, and run down to a hardware shop, only to emerge with pockets stuffed with bangers, which – unknown to me – he and his cousins ignited in empty plastic bottles to amplify the bang.
Heading home one year, my son seemed rather quiet. We checked in at the airport, said goodbye to our bags and went to find lunch, but as we sat down, there was an announcement on the tannoy, a request for my son to return to the check-in desk. I was mystified, but my son went pale. When I asked him what was wrong, he squirmingly admitted to having hidden a load of fireworks in his suitcase.
I went pale too. Plainly the scanners or sniffer-dogs had found explosives in his case. Furious and terrified, I led my son back through passport control and reported as requested at the airline check-in desk.
‘Yes?’ asked the clerk. My son stood tearfully beside me.
‘This is Vassilis Zouroudis,’ I said. ‘You put out a call for him.’
The clerk looked at my son, and seemed puzzled. She leaned over and spoke to her colleague.
‘No problem,’ she smiled. ‘Not this Vassilis Zouroudis, we have another one flying with us today.’
We laughed (rather weakly, in my case) at the coincidence, and the fireworks went undetected to arrive safely in the UK. But as far as I’m aware, it was most definitely a one-off, and my son has never since carried explosives in his luggage. Not even at Greek Easter.
I wish you all a Happy and Peaceful Easter.
Author of the Mysteries of the Greek Detective, books with a touch of mythology set in almost-contemporary Greece, and featuring lots of fabulous Greek food.