This year due to COVID-19 our churches are closed. However, within the church the Easter spirit still shines brightly. For centuries their traditions have kept them together even during the most devastating earthquakes of the past, they did not stop or think twice to close their church’s doors. Ton between their faith and what is the “right” thing to do, Zakynthians will be celebrating at home. What I have experienced over the last few days, and brings a smile to my face, is the fact that still Zakynthians are still holding strong their traditions. Even if the “doors” of our churches are closed the faithful have found a way to celebrate their Easter in true Zakynthian style.
Today, Saturday before Holy Week, Zakynthos commemorates a major feast of the year, the miracle of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ when he raised Lazarus from the dead after he had lain in the grave four days. Here, at the end of Great Lent and the forty days of fasting and penitence, the Church combines this celebration with that of Palm Sunday. It’s a day that the Holy week celebrations start and every church up until Easter Sunday will celebrate in their own special way, even if it is behind closed doors.
Some of these events have been influenced by the long presence of western Europeans on the island (mostly from the Venetians) and others are attributed to blessed Bishop of the island, Dionysius Lata, who lived in Jerusalem and brought, according to sayings, many of the traditions of the Holy City to our Island.
As I mentioned above, Holy Week starts on Saturday of Lazarus, when at 11 am the church bells ring solemnly and the “vagi” (decorations made out of palm leaves) are hung on all the Church Bell Towers throughout the city and villages of our island. At the Cathedral of St. Nicholas , located in Zakynthos town close to St. Marcus square, the hanging of the “vagi” is held with special grandeur, at 12 o’clock noon on the same day. After the priest makes his way up to balcony of the Bell tower then with an olive branch along with chains of ‘Vagi’ decorates the church. This custom was transferred to the Cathedral after the earthquake of 1953 when the Church of All Saints was, unfortunately, destroyed. The bell towers of Saint Dionysios and Faneromeni were decorated with palm leaves in celebration today and most were watching for their balcony as the ancient tradition took place.
The “vagi” in Zakynthos is made into different designs of decorations but are all made from the fresh yellowish leaves of the palm tree carefully stranded into crosses, stars and even donkeys. These decorations are used to decorate the church ready for the Sunday service of Palm Sunday.
As you walk into the church you will be greeted with ‘vagia’ a simple decoration of three thin palm leaves which have been decorated with an olive branch (peace sign), laurel (symbol of victory), rosemary (symbolizes remembrance, and as a medicinal herb sage (salvation) symbol. This year the Vagia has made its way to the church for blessing and when the restrictions are lifted the faithful will be able to collect their “Vagia” to place before their icons at home.