I'm Rick Steves, celebrating Easter all across Europe.
Easter is the most thoughtful and sacred of Christian holidays.
It's a time of quiet reflection and passionate ritual, swinging from great sorrow to great joy.
Across generations, and across cultures, Easter celebrates both resurrection and the promise of new life.
♪♪ Across Europe, Easter is steeped in history and tradition, and it also marks the end of winter and the start of spring.
Tracing the entire two-month long celebration, we'll start with the craziness of Carnival -- in Venice with masked balls, Slovenia with monsters on the rampage, and in Switzerland, we'll see the finale of Carnival, what we call "Mardi Gras."
This is followed by sobriety 40 days of Lent.
Then, from Palm Sunday with rituals ranging from Spain to Slovenia, to Italy and the Vatican to Greece we'll trace the day-by-day story of Holy Week, when Jesus was arrested, tried, and executed.
We'll see the secular traditions that accompany Easter that world of kids, chocolate eggs, and local delicacies lots of wonderful holiday treats, home cooking, and traditional dishes.
Finally, we'll experience the joy of Easter Sunday as various cultures across Europe celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, along with the return of spring, each in their own way.
While Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, Easter remembers the central Christian event his suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection.
For Christians, it's the story of how Christ died to save humankind from sin, and bring the gift of salvation.
For nearly 2,000 years, those events described in the Bible have been expressed through great European art.
The story, called the "Passion," begins a week before Easter Sunday, as Jesus and His followers make a triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
It's called "Palm Sunday," because as he approached the city, a huge crowd welcomed him by waving palm fronds and shouting joyfully, "Hosanna!
Hosanna in the highest."
But the chief priests and Jewish elders felt threatened by Jesus, so they plotted to arrest Him.
For 30 pieces of silver, one of Jesus' 12 apostles, Judas, agreed to betray him.
Eating his last supper with his disciples, Jesus said, "One of you will betray me."
Anxiously, they asked, "Lord, is it I?"
After the meal, Jesus and his disciples went to the Garden of Gethsemane.
He asked his disciples to pray with him in his time of need, but they fell asleep.
A troubled Jesus asked God if he could escape his fate.
He said, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.
Yet not my will, but yours be done."
As Jesus prayed, Judas arrived with a group of armed men and, as was arranged, identified Jesus with a kiss.
Jesus was arrested, and the apostles, afraid for their lives, fled.
Jesus was bound, handed over to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and charged with treason.
Pilate saw no reason to convict Jesus.
But the crowd shouted, "Crucify him!"
Pilate literally washed his hands of the problem and turned Jesus over to the mob.
The crowd spit on him and whipped him.
They taunted him, mockingly dressed him in a royal robe, and crowned him with thorns.
Ridiculing him, the people said, "Hail, King of the Jews."
Jesus was then made to carry his own cross up the hill of Golgotha, the place of execution in Jerusalem.
He was stripped.
His hands and feet were nailed to the cross.
The initials above his head stood for "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews."
Dying and in despair, Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Then, breathing his last, he said, "Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit."
As evening approached, Jesus' grieving friends gently lowered his body down from the cross.
Wrapping him in a shroud of linen, they placed his body in a tomb carved out of rock and protected the entrance with a large stone.
On Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene and the women who came to anoint his body went to the tomb and saw the stone was rolled away.
An angel told them not to worry, and that Jesus had risen.
Bewildered and frightened, the women fled.
Suddenly, Jesus appeared and said, "Do not be afraid."
He instructed them to tell the apostles that he was alive.
When the apostles saw Jesus, they couldn't believe it was him.
To prove it was actually him, He encouraged them to touch his wounds, and they broke bread together.
After 40 days, Jesus blessed his followers and told them to go out and preach the gospel, the good news of his resurrection.
Christians believe he then ascended to heaven before their very eyes.
This remarkable story has helped shape Western history for 2,000 years.
While Christians have celebrated Easter since ancient times, the festival itself actually has pre-Christian roots, and it's no coincidence that it happens at the start of spring.
Like Christmas replaced the pagan festival of Saturn in the dead of winter, Easter likely replaced the celebration of Eostre, a pagan goddess of spring.
It was a time of renewal, birth, and fertility.
Imagine the bleakness of winter in ancient and medieval times the despair, the short days and long nights, barren fields, the hunger, and the cold.
Imagine the need for a promise that summer will return, and the joy when, finally, the fields spring to life and once again bear fruit.
Imagine also the comfort in knowing that God or the gods had not abandoned you and your family.
Rituals, whether Christian or pagan, gave people hope, reminding them that the darkness of winter is always followed by life-giving spring.
The Church wisely adapted the pagan seasonal calendar to fit the story it wanted to tell.
It rebranded this winter season of scarcity as a time of purification for Christians, and called it "Lent."
But before the deprivation of Lent, there was a rowdy festival period of "anything goes," and this hedonistic fling is Carnival.
Carnival, which culminates in Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday" in English, has a wild modern interpretation: big parades with marching bands... crazy costumes... and overindulgence of every kind, such as here, in the Swiss city of Luzern.
But these modern traditions actually have pre-Christian, pagan roots.
A memorable way to experience these traditions is in the countryside of Slovenia.
Whether it's in the mountains or the valleys, a common theme is a visitation of masked, hairy creatures.
Some are called "Kurents," and others are called, simply, "the ugly ones."
These woolly monsters parade through villages, making a racket -- rattling and clanging their bells from door to door, chasing away evil spirits, and trying to frighten off winter.
Homeowners eventually come to the door and, to quell the clamoring mob, they give the leader a sausage... ...and a few cups of wine for the gang.
The "ugly ones" swing their hips wildly with satisfaction.
This ritual is a remnant from the distant past, when families were persuaded to share food during hard times.
Another band of characters also roves from house to house.
A group of ploughmen pull a colorful wagon decked out in flowers, representing fertility and the coming of spring.
The homeowner is asked for permission to "plough for the big turnip."
The ploughmen then drag the fanciful plough behind men dressed as horses.
This "wakes up the soil" in preparation for a season of bountiful crops.
Cracking whips announce the procession.
[ Whips cracking ] After the symbolic ploughing and sowing, the homeowner offers the merry band eggs and sausage, and wishes them good health and a good harvest.
The best-known Carnival celebration in Europe is in Venice.
Each winter, Carnival casts a spell on Venetians and visitors alike.
Following a tradition that originated in the 13th century, the city slips behind a mask of anonymity as Venetians promenade, pose, and pretend to be someone they're not.
Authority is challenged.
Rules are broken.
The goal: to indulge in all the pleasures that will be forbidden in Lent.
An elegant disguise is both transformative and liberating, but it's the mask, so symbolic of this enigmatic city, that functions as a cloak of invisibility.
The pleasurable appeal of anonymity is as powerful today as it was in the Middle Ages.
As dusk falls, the back streets come alive with strangers.
Now as then, in Venice, decadence rules the night.
In palazzos off the Grand Canal, elaborately staged parties take the aura of mystery a step further.
Behind their masks, all people from bankers to bakers are equal.
Tonight, no one knows who is who, and reality seems a distant dream.
And, as it was centuries ago, what happens in Venice stays in Venice.
[ Bells ringing ] Finally, with the arrival of Ash Wednesday, the party's over.
Repentant revelers go to church for a Mass that marks the beginning of Lent, a 40-day period of fasting and reflection as Christendom prepares for Easter.
The priest marks each worshiper's forehead with ash, which symbolizes purification by fire.
The 40 days of Lent represent the time Jesus spent in the wilderness.
He was preparing for the culmination of his ministry on Earth and being tempted by the Devil.
It's a time when Christians reflect on Christ's suffering and on our own sins.
During Lent, people give up a favorite activity or food.
It's a time to put aside distractions and focus on God's presence in our lives.
Historically, Lent was the final stretch of winter.
The last of the meat was finished during Carnival.
There would be no eggs until spring.
Through centuries when simply surviving the winter was a challenge, this was a time that required a strong faith.
As the world awakes from winter, the austerity of Lent gives way to Holy Week.
This week, from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, is the most sacred of the Christian year, and Europeans mark each day in unique ways.
Holy days build emotionally to the Resurrection.
Ranging from Spain to Slovenia and Italy to Greece, we'll peek in on each of these days.
[ Bells ringing ] Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, the day Jesus entered Jerusalem to a hero's welcome.
In Rome, the Vatican kicks off Holy Week with a beautifully orchestrated High Church event.
The faithful fill St. Peter's Square, facing the greatest church in Christendom.
Forests of palm fronds are a reminder of Jesus' triumphant entry.
Cardinals and bishops add to the glory of the day, and the pope arrives with fanfare to bless the palms.
While the pope gets the TV coverage, Palm Sunday is celebrated across Europe in churches both grand and humble.
In Tuscan villages, parishioners have olive branches blessed.
Whether palm or olive, both are evergreen, and both symbolic of the promise of new life.
♪♪ In Spain, Holy Week is called "Semana Santa."
It's celebrated with unrivaled pageantry and emotion, most famously in Seville, (or "Sevilla").
Here, Semana Santa is an epic event that stirs the soul and captivates all who participate.
On Palm Sunday, families dressed up for this important day head into their parish church for Mass.
Then, promenading with palm and olive branches, they make a loop through the neighborhood, eventually returning to their home church.
Afterwards, they visit other churches throughout the city, each displaying elaborate floats.
Sevilla has many religious brotherhoods, or "fraternities," that are entrusted with the care of venerable floats that carry a statue of Christ and the Virgin Mary through the streets during Semana Santa.
These floats have a dual purpose: to teach and to honor.
They provide parents with a way to talk to their children about the last days of Jesus' life, as well as how to deal with complex emotions like suffering and grief.
Sevillanos hold a special place in their hearts for Mary.
Floats with Mary evoke great emotions, and remind them of the grieving mother who has lost her only son.
Every neighborhood church has its own unique Mary.
All are the grieving mothers of the crucified Christ, but each one represents a different aspect of her sorrow.
And there are other floats.
This one, nicknamed La Borriquita, or "The Little Donkey," depicts Jesus' grand entrance into Jerusalem.
♪♪ La Borriquita leaves its church and begins its procession through the narrow streets.
This marks the official start of Holy Week.
From now on, every day until Easter Sunday, the city is enlivened with dozens of such processions.
These ritual parades first filled the streets of Sevilla 400 years ago.
They're designed to present the story of the Passion the death and resurrection of Jesus in a way the average person could understand.
Today, some 60 fraternities each make the journey on foot, carrying floats in processions like these from their parishes to the city's cathedral, and back.
The journey, through miles of passionate crowds, can take up to 14 hours.
Strong men called costaleros work in shifts.
As a team, they bear two tons of weight on the backs of their necks, an experience they consider a great honor despite, and indeed because of, the pain involved.
The caped and hooded figures of devoted penitents surround the floats.
These are an icon of Semana Santa celebrations.
Unfortunately, for most Americans, these masked figures evoke the Ku Klux Klan.
But these outfits pre-date the racist KKK by centuries.
And ironically, the original purpose of the hoods was to show that everyone is equal in the eyes of God, and to ensure that sinners could repent in anonymity.
Unaware of the confusion their cones may cause many visitors on Palm Sunday, the youngest penitents continue on their way.
Some are into it, and others not so much.
But all take their place in a sacred Easter ritual that's been practiced for hundreds of years.
While Palm Sunday kicks Holy Week off with grand spectacle, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are quieter.
According to the Bible, Jesus disappoints those expecting a conquering hero, and things move step by step toward his execution.
In every culture, communities take these days to prepare for Easter.
While traditions vary, eggs are a recurring theme at Easter time.
In Greece, Orthodox churches display exquisitely painted ostrich eggs.
Symbolic of rebirth and resurrection, they hang prominently from ornate chandeliers.
WOMAN: [ Speaking Greek ] STEVES: Greece celebrates Easter with particular gusto.
In fact, all of Holy Week is a school vacation.
Children like Evelina drop by their godparents' for a little quality time, which, today, includes dyeing eggs.
Here in Greece, the color is always red, to symbolize the blood of Christ.
These will be great to share when Easter Sunday arrives.
[ Conversing in Greek ] Godparents also give a big chocolate egg and a special candle to their godchild to hold at the Resurrection ceremony on Easter Sunday.
As spring emerges, trees blossom, flowers bloom, and fields green up.
We're reminded of the earth's newborn fertility.
It's easy to understand how eggs, symbolic of new life, have become tied to the Easter theme of rebirth.
In beautiful Slovenia, in the remote region of Bela Krajina, where many of Slovenia's folk tales were born, old customs have been kept alive in villages tucked among the hills and forests.
The region's isolation has preserved these traditions, which, over the centuries, have morphed from those prescribed by the seasons, to those prescribed by the Church.
In medieval times, to celebrate the arrival of spring after months of scarcity, decorated eggs were offered as gifts.
Many families still dye their Easter eggs according to tradition: spring leaves and flowers from the garden are pressed onto an egg, wrapped in gauze, and then boiled in onion skins.
After the gauze is removed, the eggs are left to cool, now beautifully decorated with stamps of springtime.
Today, Slovenian decorated eggs are a revered folk art and prized gifts at Easter.
This woman is using a delicate technique of drawing on the shell with a tool loaded with hot beeswax.
She then dyes the egg with natural colors.
Finally, eggs are rubbed in pig's fat to lend a nice sheen.
While techniques vary, decorated eggs with designs inspired by nature add heritage and local pride to Easter celebrations.
Slovenes today value this humble gift just as they did in medieval times.
[ Women singing in Slovenian ] As their grandmothers did, these village women enjoy working together as they embroider cloths to cover the Easter baskets that'll hold their eggs and special foods for a blessing.
[ Singing continues ] The giving of eggs can come with a playful twist.
In Italy, chocolate eggs contain hidden gifts for loved ones.
Here, in a backstreet of Rome, a fine chocolate shop embraces Easter with enthusiasm.
And Antonello is on a mission.
With some help from behind the counter, he arranges to have a necklace planted inside a big chocolate egg.
The plan: on Easter Sunday, his sweetheart will discover the gift as a re-affirmation of his love.
[ Conversing in Italian ] Back in Sevilla, we saw no chocolate Easter eggs.
But there are still plenty of Semana Santa penitents, and the week is in full swing.
This shop's been selling penitent cones for 200 years, and is full of locals getting a last-minute fitting.
Behind the busy shop, a woman stitches the cones by hand, just as she's done for 40 years.
Nearby, another shop makes the woven belts and necklace cords that penitents wear over their robes.
The shop is so small, the spinning spills into the street.
Bakeries are filled with holiday treats, like sweet cookies and spicy pestiños.
Hungry patrons at this tapas bar enjoy meatless pre-Easter plates of salt cod fritters.
And the walls are completely covered with historic photos of Semana Santa, while a TV set shows coverage of the float procession rather than football.
At home, children get ready with a dress rehearsal, practicing the big moment when they get to join a procession.
Juan and Irena patiently review the plan, and dress up as young penitents.
As a reward, they help Mama and Papa make torrijas, another Semana Santa favorite this one made with bread, honey, and cinnamon.
Families wait in long lines at various churches for a chance to kiss the foot of Jesus or the hand of Mary.
This intimate moment is treasured by the people of Sevilla.
It's only possible after a statue's brought down from the altar, and before it's hoisted atop its float.
The most revered of these encounters is with El Gran Poder, The Great Power.
Here, Jesus, exhausted from his humiliation and beating at the hands of his captors, prepares to take up the cross, an acknowledgement of the burdens we all must carry.
Rituals like these make Jesus accessible to Sevillanos, who are visibly moved by the encounter.
All across town, churches are enlivened with ritual, and various Marys play a prominent role.
This Mary is called "Soledad," or "solitude."
She traditionally adorns the last float of Semana Santa, poignantly reminding people of her great loneliness after the death of her son.
The Mary of Solitude is beloved by those who wait for this once-a-year opportunity, convinced she will empathize with their needs and hear their prayers.
Easter is a time of family and feasting.
In every culture, special foods weave together religious and folk traditions.
It's a time of music, blessings, and community as Holy Week builds to Easter Sunday.
Deep in Italy's Marche region, the mountains seem to cradle more time-honored Easter rituals.
♪♪ A folk band of troubadours goes farm to farm to help bless the coming harvest.
They rouse the family with their music.
[ Conversing in Italian ] And then, as is the tradition, they're invited to enjoy a rustic meal: farm-made cheese, salami, and wine.
[ Conversing in Italian ] The holiday spirit in Italy can be found in larger cities, too, like Siena.
[ All singing in Italian ] Like anywhere, in Italy, Easter is a time when generations come together.
Preschoolers bring some Easter joy to this retirement home with skits and songs.
The touching scene takes these seniors back to their distant childhood, and they respond with gifts.
Back in the Tuscan countryside, locals bring baskets of eggs to their tiny church to be blessed by their priest.
These will be enjoyed by young and old alike on Easter Sunday.
In Slovenia, Lake Bled is nestled at the foot of the Julian Alps.
This spectacular and romantic location is famous as a summer resort, although in the springtime it can be chilly.
But the weather doesn't stop townsfolk from making the short trip on a pletna boat to the lake's island.
Next to the island's church is a bakery famous for Slovenia's Easter bread, called potica.
This holiday treat, much loved by Slovenes, represents Jesus' Crown of Thorns, and is eaten for Easter brunch.
Potica is a log of sweet bread filled with a paste of walnuts and honey, chopped almonds, and fruit.
It's placed in a ceramic Bundt pan, and after baking it's flipped to reveal the finished potica.
This busy baker will make a couple dozen of these today in anticipation of the coming feast.
Back in Slovenia's Bela Krajina, a self-sufficient old farmer wears the region's traditional white linen, which he wove himself.
He packs up his Easter feast for a blessing: smoked pork, representing Christ's body, horseradish root for the nails on the cross, potica for the Crown of Thorns, and hard-boiled eggs dyed red for the blood Christ shed.
It's all packed into a basket and covered with the embroidered cloth.
For centuries, it's been a tradition for Slovenes to gather during Holy Week to have these baskets of symbolic Easter foods blessed by their priest.
Some go by boat to the island church.
Some gather at humble roadside chapels.
And others bring their baskets to timeless village churches.
On Thursday of Holy Week, the events of the Passion accelerate.
Jesus, whose ministry lasted just three years, knows his destiny: betrayal, followed by execution.
Back in Italy's remote Marche region, in the stony village of Cantiano, Jesus' destiny is brought to life for all to see.
In the evening, the entire town participates in a dramatic re-enactment of the Easter story, retelling it as they have for centuries.
Townspeople consider it an honor to play a part in this epic Biblical story.
On this night, Jesus gathers his 12 apostles for their Last Supper.
Villagers and visitors alike are transfixed as he tells his disciples, "One of you will betray me," and they respond, "Lord, is it I?"
With Good Friday only hours away, Cantiano's church is dressed in mourning.
Crosses and artwork are covered, draped in purple, representing the Passion.
Holy Thursday is one of the most sacred Masses in the Catholic calendar, full of ancient ritual and mysticism.
This day is also known as Maundy Thursday: "Maundy" means "mandate," and refers to Jesus' new commandment.
On this day, according to the Bible, he told his apostles, "Love one another as I have loved you."
[ Priest speaking Italian ] Jesus demonstrated this commandment at the last supper, when he washed the feet of his disciples.
When a priest washes the feet of his parishioners, he's reminding them of this mandate.
Doing this humble job, customarily given to the lowliest servant, illustrates the depth of Jesus' love and the love he called others to show each other.
[ Speaking Italian ] STEVES: This gesture is followed by the Eucharist.
Also called Holy Communion, it symbolically re-enacts that last supper, and is a reminder of the great sacrifice of the Crucifixion.
The bread and the wine are taken together by Christians to remember the body and blood Christ gave so they could be forgiven and saved in the eyes of God.
For Christians, this is the essence of the Easter story.
Back in Spain, in Sevilla, various religious fraternities parade on different days during Holy Week, so preparations continue all week long.
This fraternity is putting finishing touches on its float before it hits the street.
Men, women, and even young children are all members of neighborhood fraternities.
For centuries, these groups were mission-based, and today, all are still involved in social causes, such as helping the poor.
Excitement fills the air, and so does laughter, as flowers are prepped and arranged... ...candles are set out for the penitents, and petals are plucked for showering upon Mary when she takes her turn parading through the city.
This is tender work, and great care is taken to make sure that the floats are perfect in every way.
Floats with Mary are often the most anticipated during Semana Santa, as she is beloved for the suffering she endures and her empathy with the people.
This Mary is known as "Estrella," and inside her namesake star she carries a relic of the cross.
She'll have her moment later this evening.
Out on the crowded streets, floats slowly make their way to the cathedral.
[ Man singing in Spanish ] Centuries of Flamenco singers have serenaded Mary and Jesus with love songs as they process through the city.
Traditionally spontaneous, these passionate songs occur when a singer is so overcome with emotion, he must break into song.
[ Singing continues ] [ Applause ] As dusk settles on Sevilla, a long line of silent, black-clad penitents escort one of the city's most moving floats toward the cathedral.
The float portrays the dead Jesus, taken down from the cross and mourned by the people who loved him most.
Among the most dramatic of the week's processions, the float is decorated simply with purple iris and a single red rose, symbolizing the blood Jesus shed.
As night closes in, penitents' candles sway like fireflies dancing in the dark.
The entire Holy Week in Spain is a glorious spectacle.
After a full day, it's hard to imagine more, and then the Mary known as Estrella appears, ethereal and radiant.
A shower of petals rains down upon her as if heaven itself is thanking her for her immense and loving sacrifice.
♪♪ On Good Friday, the day Jesus was crucified, in churches and communities throughout Europe, the rituals of Easter intensify with more processions, plays, and Holy Masses.
[ Clattering ] Back in Italy, in Cantiano, the pre-dawn streets stir with groups of young men.
Their purpose: to awaken the town.
According to tradition, no church bells ring on this sad day.
That's why it's these crude noisemakers that announce the Good Friday message: Jesus is dead, and it's time to gather at church.
In the dark and gloomy main church, the community many people just moments out of bed gathers, dressed for the mountain chill.
The mood is somber as the priest leads prayers.
The ritual Procession of the Seven Churches begins.
The priest leads his congregation to the next church for more prayers.
From there, with the priest continually praying and reciting psalms, the procession continues.
PRIEST: [ Speaking Italian ] STEVES: Eventually, the entire gathering reaches the cemetery, where hundreds of candles illuminate both graves and burial niches.
The living remember their departed loved ones in this time of communal mourning.
In many Christian traditions, during Good Friday the bells are still and the services are stark, without music.
People leave in silence.
It's a time of mourning.
[ Monks chanting in Latin ] In monasteries, like Monte Oliveto Maggiore, monks chant to sanctify the day.
The music and rituals of Good Friday are less joyous as the focus is on Jesus' suffering and death.
[ Chanting continues ] Nearby, in the hill town of Gubbio, hooded penitents, like those in Sevilla, take the sadness of the day into the streets.
As they leave the church and process through town, they sing the Miserere, a lament expressing the pain of the Crucifixion.
The holy statues are carried high, as if floating above legions of mourners.
Penitents carry plaques showing icons and tools of the Passion.
And common citizens, both adults and children, are part of the procession showing that this ritual, centuries old, continues to be passed on from generation to generation.
Processions like these, with their heartfelt songs, seem to flood every corner with great emotion.
And throughout Europe, Passion Plays stir the same emotions.
In Slovenia, the medieval town of kofja Loka is famed for its Easter play.
This version was written by a local monk in 1721, and has been performed ever since.
With a cast of a thousand locals and 70 horses, the play is staged in various squares all across the town, with the action coming from all sides and captivating the audience.
It's a departure from the standard version of the Passion, a morality play that feels both medieval and modern.
One message suggests that we're all equal, whether king or cobbler.
Then, when a tormented soul is ravaged by devils, we ask ourself, "How will I choose to live my own life?"
MAN: [ Shouting in Slovenian ] STEVES: But the most dramatic moments come when things return to the traditional narrative, and all eyes are on a suffering and dying Jesus.
Passion Plays make the torturing of Jesus visceral.
As told so vividly in the Bible, Jesus suffered greatly even before being nailed to the Cross, stripped, humiliated, and whipped.
Here he hangs bloody and nearly naked in the bitter cold.
Back in Italy, at Cantiano's Passion Play, the main square becomes a stage.
Under a full moon, in the crisp air, the entire village packs the square to witness this timeless re-enactment.
Villagers take their roles seriously and perform the Passion with passion.
For the faithful here, it's an honor to participate, a sign of devotion and respect.
Some of these people play the same role for decades.
The entire town becomes a set as Jesus is led to his crucifixion.
In the final scene of Cantiano's Passion Play, the entire cast trudges to the top of the hill.
With Jesus in the lead, carrying the cross, it's an unforgettable and powerful experience.
Then, far below, the village gathers for the dramatic last scene: the resurrection of Christ, represented by a shroud blowing from a radiant empty cross.
In Greece, in the city of Nafplio, the warmth of spring is in the air and crowds of people are out enjoying the weather and preparing for the big Easter holiday.
Here, Easter is celebrated with a distinct style.
For Greek Orthodox Christians, it's the most celebrated holiday of the year.
Because Eastern Orthodox Christians use a different calendar than Western Christians, Orthodox Easter usually falls on a different Sunday.
The Greek Orthodox ritual may feel exotic and mystical to many Western eyes and ears.
But the storyline is the same, with a few mesmerizing twists.
While worshipping, Orthodox Christians believe standing empowers prayers, and incense helps involve all the senses.
The priest typically has a long beard, a sign of wisdom, experience, and respect.
He periodically retreats behind an icon-covered wall called an "iconostasis."
Then, to involve all gathered, he circulates among the faithful.
[ Man singing in Greek ] In the Greek Orthodox tradition, the events of Good Friday start the night before.
For hours people gather, eventually packing the church.
As candles flicker, all generations chant and pray together, awaiting each step of the Easter story as it unfolds.
The cantors blend music and prayer to heighten the atmosphere of reverence.
[ Men singing in Greek ] Eventually, the priest brings the crucified Christ out from behind the iconostasis.
[ Priest singing in Greek ] After being carried around the church, Jesus is lovingly decked in flowers.
The passionate congregation then crowds around to kiss the feet of Jesus.
The ritual of mourning continues through the night.
Around midnight, as Good Friday arrives, women decorate what's called the "epitaph," or symbolic tomb of Jesus, while the choir chants.
Well into the wee hours, it's a family affair filled with tenderness as flowers create a fragile and beautiful monument to their loss and love.
[ All singing in Greek ] [ Man singing in Greek ] After dawn, a Good Friday service is held.
Christ is removed from the cross.
His body is then carried behind the iconostasis.
Eventually, the priest re-emerges, carrying a shroud representing the crucified Christ.
He reverently leads it through the congregation of mourners.
Eventually, the shroud is laid out flat in the ceremonial coffin, and blessed with flower petals.
As in any funeral, loved ones pay their last respects.
Here, either with a kiss, or, if you're small enough, a trip beneath the epitaph.
Once again, the Orthodox mysticism, enhanced by music, incense, and intensely felt prayer, heightens the emotional impact.
[ Bell tolling ] On Good Friday evening, the funeral procession starts as the epitaph is carried out of the church.
Even as a visitor, I felt as one with those gathered, sharing a familiar holiday, but in a new way.
Churches from three neighborhoods all perform the same ritual funeral procession as they carry their individual epitaphs through town.
The three parades converge on the main square, and the epitaphs gather on a stage with the bishop overlooking what seems like the entire population of Nafplio.
The bishop, flanked by the town's priests, gives an Easter message, reminding his flock why Jesus died, and why there's reason for hope.
[ Bishop speaking Greek ] Holy Saturday is the day Christ's body lay in the tomb while his followers mourned.
In Western Christian traditions, it's a time of thoughtfulness and waiting, of vigils.
But in the Orthodox Christian world, like here in Greece, Holy Saturday is a celebration of what Jesus' soul accomplished on that day.
On Saturday morning, the Greeks pack their church yet again to remember how, while his disciples were mourning on Earth, Jesus descended into Hades, bringing salvation to the souls of the dead.
That's why Greeks call this Saturday the "First Resurrection."
Worshippers venerate an icon of Jesus pulling Adam and Eve out of the fires of hell.
This is the pivotal moment when Christ has defeated the devil and death.
The priest has changed out of his mournful black vestments and into hopeful white ones.
Much happier and more animated now, he tosses dried flower petals representing the broken chains of hell over all gathered.
Late Saturday night, the people spill from their churches and fill the main square yet again, this time, with a palpable sense of expectation.
[ Indistinct conversations ] It's almost midnight, and Easter Sunday is just a couple minutes away.
Here in Greece, people can hardly wait to celebrate the Resurrection.
On this day, Christians everywhere fill the churches and the squares, and they declare with great joy, "Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed."
[ Fireworks exploding ] When midnight strikes, fireworks light up the sky, and finally Easter Sunday is here.
The Holy Flame, which literally travels from Jerusalem to Athens, and then to towns throughout Greece, is shared, along with the ritual Easter "kiss of love."
And it's not over yet.
Everyone then heads home for the biggest party of the season.
People carry the Easter flame home as a burning candle.
Raising it above their heads, they make a cross above the doorway, symbolizing that the light of the Resurrection has blessed their home for another year.
A long table awaits as the extended family gathers.
They have a competition to find out whose Easter egg will be the strongest.
Sighs of disappointment from losers are mixed with the laughter of winners, until the proud victor, who'll enjoy a particularly blessed upcoming year, is declared.
Traditional holiday dishes, like a thick lamb entrail soup, are devoured.
It's a joyous family gathering.
The feast continues into the wee hours of Easter Sunday with lots of meat and eggs, and no shortage of Easter bread.
[ Bells tolling ] It's a new day, filled with promise both spiritually and metaphorically.
Flowers trumpet the full bloom of spring, and the earth reawakens from its winter slumber.
Back in Spain, the sun rises above a serene Sevilla.
It's peaceful after so many parades and ritual-filled days of Semana Santa.
Now, families simply enjoy time together.
In contrast, back in Italy, in Florence, the pageantry has yet to peak.
Easter Sunday starts with a grand parade.
A lumbering, decorated wagon is dragged by white oxen through town as it has been since medieval times.
The procession ends at the steps of the cathedral, where a crowd has gathered, filled with anticipation.
At the end of the Mass, a mechanical dove, representing the Holy Spirit, rockets from the high altar directly into the cart, igniting fireworks.
It's a spectacular way to announce the Resurrection.
And back at the Vatican, St. Peter's Square is once again filled as this 2,000-year-old tradition is celebrated with another huge Mass, bringing together an international crowd and a global audience.
In addition to St. Peter's, worshipers fill venerable churches throughout Rome, which are busy with Easter Masses all day long.
As is the case everywhere in Christendom, communities come together with splendid, yet dignified fanfare, all to celebrate the Resurrection and the promise of salvation.
♪♪ And then, as if famished by all the processing and church-going, across the lands families settle down to ritual feasts.
It seems the gift of Easter and the promise of spring brings out a deep-seated urge to gather loved ones together and embrace life in its fullest.
Throughout Italy, Easter Sunday is a special time for family and friends to celebrate the good news.
Sacred traditions rich with symbolism survive most vividly in tiny villages.
Grandmothers make holiday rolls called ciambelle.
With a gentle touch, the dough is kneaded and then shaped into rings.
The ring shape represents the Crown of Thorns.
Meanwhile, grandfather tends the oven with wood from his olive trees.
When the coals are just right, the ciambelle arrive, as if on cue.
And drawing from the practice of a lifetime of Easters, they're cooked to perfection.
In his cellar, he cuts a cured pork salami, hung there to dry especially for this Easter breakfast.
As all generations gather, the feast begins.
Grandfather slices his prized salami.
He blesses the occasion with a toast.
MAN: [ Speaking Italian ] STEVES: Eggs and a variety of holiday breads are shared.
[ Laughter ] The ciambelle are served with a small glass of vin santo, again recalling the body and blood of Jesus.
On Easter Sunday, it seems everyone has a place to be, and I'm fortunate to join friends in this Tuscan farmhouse.
To be so far from my own home and loved ones yet feel so welcome with this family is a memory I'll treasure for the rest of my Easters.
And after the meal, the kids, so obedient at the table, are now free to storm their chocolate eggs for the gift traditionally hidden inside.
[ Cheering ] Joining the parents and grandparents looking on, we all recall similar Easter moments from our childhoods.
[ Indistinct conversations ] BOY: Grazie.
STEVES: And in Rome, older celebrants embrace the holiday egg theme as well.
Enjoying a personal moment as an extravagant Easter banquet awaits, Antonello gives Manuela her big chocolate egg.
MANUELA: [ Laughs ] STEVES: She discovers her gift, a celebration of their love and commitment to each other.
ANTONELLO: [ Speaking Italian ] STEVES: In Slovenia, family and friends have also gathered.
The Easter table is laden with food thoroughly blessed the day before.
There's a timeless joy in this intimate scene, as parents laugh together, children do the serious work of cracking eggs, and a grandmother cradles her baby granddaughter trying to make sense of her first Easter.
And after a long winter and Lent, it seems like there's more than enough ham and potica to last through spring.
Children across cultures, probably yet to appreciate all this resurrection and rebirth symbolism, certainly know the excitement of an Easter egg hunt.
Back in Greece, this community has organized one in the town park.
It's a mad scramble to find as many eggs as possible as quickly as possible.
And as is so often the case, the tearful little one who missed out gets a little extra love.
In villages all across Greece, families are grilling lamb, eating, singing, and dancing.
♪♪ It seems there's a spring lamb on a spit in every backyard.
The roast takes hours, but no one's in a hurry.
It's an all-day affair.
People move between households, checking on each other's lambs and socializing.
When the spit stops, the feast begins.
Lamb off the bone, lamb off the fingers, beer, wine, music, more food, more fun, more lamb.
People party all day long.
Eventually, the village ends up back at the church, dancing and singing.
Together, they celebrate as they have every year for all their lives, celebrating the hope of renewal at yet another joyous Easter Sunday.
I've always enjoyed how exploring other cultures brings more meaning to my own cherished traditions.
I hope this holiday journey has given new meaning to your Easter as it has mine.
I'm Rick Steves.
Thanks for joining us, and Happy Easter.
ANNOUNCER: If you'd like to experience European Easter further, a DVD of this show is available for $9.99, and the full-color 200-page companion book is $14.99, plus shipping and handling.
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