The celebration of Easter in Corfu is a unique experience,
completely different from anywhere else in Greece and particularly impressive for first-time visitors to the island. It is a huge festival, in which various components come together harmoniously, the Orthodox Christian faith, pagan traditions, the powerful presence of Saint Spiridon, the Roman Catholic community, the Venetian influence, genuine Corfiot humour, the music of the philharmonic bands and of course the spring atmosphere.
Palm Sunday is the day when the deliverance of Corfu from the plague in 1630, thanks to theintervention of Saint Spiridon, is celebrated. The Body of the Saint is taken in procession around the streets of the town, accompanied by all the island’s philharmonic orchestras. The procession sets off from the Saint’s Church at 11 in the morning and follows the line of the old town walls, from where the Saint drove off the plague. People from all over the island pour into town, lending a festive feel to the day. At midday, in homes and tavernas, the traditional dish of the day is served - stockfish or salt cod.
Good Friday is the day of the Epitaphios, the funeral of Christ. All over the island, as all over Greece, every church brings out its own funeral bier and parades it around the parish. In Corfu however, the attendant philharmonic orchestras and choirs, the presence of thousands of Corfiots as well as foreign visitors, give another dimension to the gravity of the occasion. It is worth noting that the Old Philharmonic Orchestra (in red uniform) play Albinoni’s ‘Adagio’, the Mantzaros Orchestra (in blue) Verdi’s ‘Marcia Funebre’, and the Kapodistrias Orchestra the ‘Elegia Funebre’, Mariana’s ‘Sventura’ and Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’. The town processions start in the afternoon to give the orchestras time to escort them all. As the hours pass, the processions become thicker on the ground, until they all converge on each other and people don’t know which way to look first. The first epitaphios leaves the Church of the Blessed Virgin of Spiliotissa in the New Fortress and the Church of Pantokrator in Kampielo at two in the afternoon, and other churches follow, until ten in the evening sees the exit of the Epitaphios from the Orthodox Cathedral.
On Holy Saturday, at 6 a.m. in the morning, the custom of ‘the earthquake’ is carried out at the Church of the Blessed Virgin of Strangers. This is a re-enactment of the earthquake which took place after the Resurrection, as described in the Bible. Later, at 9 a.m., the procession of Saint Spiridon, which was consecrated in 1550 when the Saint saved the island from famine, takes place. The Saint shares the stage with the Epitaphios of his own church, a custom which was established during Venetian times when, for reasons of security, epitaphios processions were forbidden, whereas the procession of the Saint was permitted to take place. The accompanying orchestras play Michelli’s ‘Calde Lacrime’, Faccio’s “Hamlet’ and Beethoven’s Funeral March.
At 11 a.m. the First Resurrection and the ‘Pot Throwing’ custom take place, and the local people throw pots out of their windows, smashing them onto the streets below. This noisy custom, originating with the Venetians, began in the
town and spread to the villages. The Venetians used to throw all their old and useless objects out of the window on January 1st each year, so that the New Year might bring them new ones. The Corfiots adopted this custom and moved it to their great Easter celebration. Nowadays, instead of throwing out old crockery, the people use big, specially made pots (called a ‘botis’), filled with water to make a louder crash. Another explanation for the custom gives it a pagan provenance. At Easter, nature starts its new year and re-awakens after winter. The fruits are collected in new receptacles, throwing out the old ones. After the breaking of the pots, the philharmonic orchestras tour the streets playing joyful songs. At Pinia, the old commercial centre of the town, the custom of the ‘mastelas’ (washtub) has been revived. A half-barrel decorated with myrtle and ribbons is filled with water, and passers-by are invited to throw coins into it for good luck. When the first bell sounds for the Resurrection, someone jumps into the barrel and collects up the money. In old times the diver was not a volunteer but an unsuspecting passer-by, thrown in against his will.