Pascha (Easter)

The Byzantine religious festival which is first in order of importance in the Byzantine world was Easter.1 The dates of this festival differ from one year to another, but was always celebrated after the spring equinox. In the East Christian World, according to the Jewish calendar, Easter occurred on April 14; the time when Jesus Christ was crucified on Golgotha Hill during the 1st - 2nd centuries AD coincides with a date between March and April in the present calendar.2 On the other hand, the Western Christians used to celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the full moon after the spring equinox. There were endless debates between religious representatives of both parties which remained unresolved. According to the biography of Emperor Constantine I, written by Eusebius, before the Emperor Constantine I succeeded to the throne, Christians used to celebrate Easter with the Jews sometimes on March 25, sometimes in summer and sometimes in winter.3 Finding this very odd, the emperor arranged a new regulation so that Easter would be celebrated on another day. One of the decisions taken in the first council, in which the creed of Christianity was formed in Nicaea (İznik) in 325, was that Easter was to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the full moon, “just like the Romans” (when the day and nights are equal in length).4

According to the Orthodox Christian belief, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which occurred two days after his crucifixion, was a reason to celebrate.5 According to the words of Christophoros Mytilinaios, who lived in the 11th century, people used to paint caustic soda on their houses or paint their walls in different colors, covering the floors of their basements with bay leaves, myrtle, rosemary and lemon tree leaves. The Byzantines, who attended the service that would start a day earlier, would wear their newest and smartest clothes on the day and illuminate their city and houses on official holidays.6

The illuminations would continue all night long and during Easter the Byzantine tables would contain meat and dairy products in abundance; this holiday followed Lent, which lasted for forty days. It was traditional to bake Easter buns, bagels and to prepare red-dyed eggs, especially made for the Easter; this was also the time of year when the most delicious meals would be cooked. The grave of Jesus Christ and the symbol of his resurrection would be depicted on the red-dyed eggs, which would be distributed on the Thursday of the “Holy and Great Week” before Easter. The egg also symbolized abundance, and thus rebirth and recreation in nature. Red symbolizes the blood Jesus had shed during the crucifixion. It was traditional for the attendants to carry out an “egg-duel”; a pair would repeatedly knock the pointed ends of the eggs together until one of the eggs cracked. This activity would be carried out during Maundy Thursday dinner. According to tradition, the smashed egg represented life and the grave of Jesus Christ from where he was resurrected. It was believed that the feast, which included bread, symbolizing Christ’s flesh, and wine, symbolizing his blood, was representative of the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made to liberate the world and to purify mankind of sins.

The Ancient Greeks used the egg as a holy symbol of Asklepian and decorated their graveyards with them; the Romans used eggs in dishes served after a funeral and left eggs inside graveyards. Thus, it can only be considered natural that the Byzantines, as heirs to the Roman Empire, continued this tradition; indeed, it is still followed today.

Easter falls on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25. The ceremony and the celebrations for the Easter holiday, held in a greater respect than the Christmas by the Orthodox Christians, lasted for a week. According to the decision of the Trullo Council, Rule No. (Canon) 66, the Byzantines would not work during this period except on the Wednesday. There would be shows for the public held on these non–working days and the people would enjoy themselves. It is also known that some councils forbade the public from attending entertainment at the Hippodrome in fear that this would keep the people from attending church during Easter.7 The fact that the bishop who attended the Carthage Synod in 424 asked Emperor Theodosios II (b.401–d.451) to ban all entertainment, such as the Hippodrome and the like on Sundays and on other holy days during Easter is proof of this. The decisions arrived at by the councils establish how successful the clergy was in their initiative.8

According to the work De Ceremoniis, written by Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, in the tenth century, at Easter the Blues and the Greens would go the house of the chief of the demos with which they were associated; they would take with them an instrument known as an armonion. Their chief would meet them clad in his formal attire and on horseback. The members of the Blues and Greens would express their wishes, for example, the longevity of the emperor and his empire, a healthy life for their chief, days of peace for the public and harmony between the two teams. After this ceremony each team would accompany their chief to the Hippodrome. They would also make similar wishes there.9

Starting a week before Easter week the emperor would order the courts to go on recess (out of respect for this sacred period of time); this would continue during the Easter week. Similarly, only those who committed serious crimes would be sentenced to jail at this time and the criminals in the prisons would be released. In the magnificent reception hall, the Chrysoktriklinion, the emperor would hold a feast for high-ranking officials; the hall would be sumptuously decorated in honor of the day. The table in this hall was made of gold. The high-ranking officers who would attend the feast on the first day would wear their formal attire and would be seated around this table according to rank and protocol. Envoys from foreign countries who happened to be in the capital city would also be entertained at this table. Lower-ranking government officials, political personages, and officers and less important foreign representatives, wearing formal attire or official uniforms, would be seated at other tables.

It was also part of the tradition for some of the prisoners who had been released to attend these feasts. The formal dinner receptions would be accompanied by music. The guests would stand up and make a toast to the emperor and express their best wishes for him and the nation.

On Thursdays, the patriarch and the metropolitans, the priests who worked at the palace and the abbots of the capital’s twelve monasteries would be invited to dine at the palace. The patriarchal staff and those who belonged to lower ranks would be seated at the other tables. The emperor would sit at the golden table with the clergy. All Byzantines, aristocrat or not, would wish each other a happy Easter, saying Kalo Pascha.10


Theophania, meaning the manifestation of God, or the Epiphany or Nativity, which is also related to Jesus Christ, is the oldest festival after Easter on the Orthodox calendar.11

It was decided that this holiday would be celebrated on 6 January of the Church calendar. The earliest information regarding Theophania dates back to Clement of Alexandria, who died around 215 AD. Clement writes that the gnostic group observed the christening of Jesus; they believed that the divine characteristic was imbued in his flesh and bones at the time he was christened.12 The reason behind determining this day as January 6 is because, according to the calculations at this time, this was when the days started to get longer. For this reason, the pagans celebrated this day as the light conquering the dark. Besides, the birthday of Sol Invictus (the invincible sun) was also celebrated on this day.

Theophania replaced the pagan festivals both in the East and the West. This new Christian holiday was celebrated as the proof of the manifestation of “the sun of justice” and “the real light of the World”. While Theophania started to be celebrated on December 25 in Rome, both Theophania and the baptism of Jesus were celebrated on January 6 in the East. In the fourth century Ioannes Chrysostomos separated these two holidays from one another; the birthday of Jesus Christ started being celebrated on December 25 after this date and the anniversary of the manifestation of the Holy Trinity was celebrated on January 6.13 By the end of the 4th century and onwards the Eastern World adopted and celebrated December 25 as the birthday of Jesus and January 6 as the anniversary of Jesus’s baptism.

The most prominent characteristics of Theophania in Orthodox Byzantium is the event in which the Holy Spirit appeared in the form a dove above Jesus when he was being baptised, leading to the blessing of the water. In the early Christian congregation (ekklesia), those who joined the congregation for the first time would be baptized prior to the Eve of Theophania (as during Easter). According to the information provided by Ioannes Chrysostomos, the hagiasmos (blessing of the water) for the baptismal ceremony was traditional. Once the Theophania ritual was over the Byzantine Christians would drink some of the blessed water. Some would take the water back to be used in their houses, gardens or other property that that they wanted to protect and bless. Some would keep this water all year long and use in cases of illness or difficulty.14 The dodekaimeron, which lasted for the twelve days between December 25 and January 6, was a significant holiday period. It is still being celebrated today (12 days of Christmas). While December 26 is significant as being the day when the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, January 1 is significant for being the anniversary of his circumcision. The Byzantines would avoid all kinds of work or occupation during this long holiday season, except on the eve of Theophania. They would fast to cleanse both their souls and their bodies before Theophania and would celebrate during the dodekaimeron. Before the tradition of baptizing babies began the same practice was followed for anyone who wanted to convert to Christianity. This ceremony was held either before Christmas or Theophania. The Byzantines would attend the church service throughout the night before the day that marked the anniversary of Jesus’ baptism, and the celebrations would continue until the morning.

The Theophania holiday would be celebrated spectacularly, as befit a capital city. The celebrations would start with the ceremony of blessing the waters, in which the emperor, the staff of the palace and the senate would be present; this ceremony would be held on the eve of Theophania at St. Stefanos Church. The emperor would wear all white clothes, embroidered with gold thread on the day of Theophania. The eparchos, the mayor of Constantinople, would order for the city to be cleaned and decorated for the occasion. He would give orders to have wood shavings, pine needles, bay leaves and myrtle branches scattered along the roads.15 He would also order that the road which connects the palace to Hagia Sophia, where the pageantry would take place, be covered in carpets. The public would cheer for the emperor, shouting “may the God bless your empire with longevity” as he returned from the church. The Blues and Greens would sing hymns. As soon as the emperor returned to his palace there would be a large, formal feast.

Christougenna (Christmas)

The Byzantine emperor, being the representative of Jesus Christ on earth, would always carry out specific tasks on the most significant sacred days or the most important holidays. It was a pagan tradition to arrange entertainment for the public on December 25 in honor of the sun god (Sol invictus); later this same date was decided upon by the Byzantine Church to celebrate the birth of Christ. The emperor, who represented the Sol invictus, would wear a wreath with candles, a symbol of the Sol invictus, and would carry out a ceremony that followed the pagan traditions. The birth of Jesus Christ continued to be celebrated on 6 January until the end of the third century.

According to tradition, the Christougenna holiday (birth of Jesus Christ (Christos) is first mentioned in 376 by Great Basileios of Caesarea.16 Other sources quote the celebration of this holiday starting around 355 in Rome. Based on the oldest hymns that mention the motif of the birth of Jesus Christ, some researchers believe that the first steps towards celebrating this holiday date back to the third century.17 The joint celebrations of both the birth of Jesus Christ and the Theophania holiday ceased during the era of Pope Julius I (337 - 352). According to a commonly held belief, it was research carried out in the Roman archives during the era of Octavius Augustus that resulted in the date of December 25 being accepted as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ.18 Following this, the birthday of Jesus Christ was determined by the winter solstice, when the days grew longer.

The acceptance of the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25 was also celebrated as it coincided with both the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, one of the most important holidays dedicated to an ancient Greek god “the Invincible” Helios, and supposedly with the birth of Mithra. The pagan Roman holidays, which were very popular since the era of Antiquity, such as Saturnalia or Burmalia, were also taken into the Christian religion. When Christianity became the official religion of the empire, it also tried to internalize and maintain the old pagan festivals and traditions. Despite all the prohibitions of the Church, these festivals, which lasted for twelve days, continued to be celebrated until the fifth century, that is, the late Roman Empire, particularly in rural areas. The following period saw activities such as the exchange of gifts and playing cards become part of the New Year celebrations. The December 25 celebrations were also transferred to the Eastern Roman Empire in 376. As a matter of fact, St in 386, Ioannes Chrysostomos, one of the important figures of the Eastern Church, suggested that the Christian congregation celebrate this date (December 25) as the birth of Jesus Christ.19 This date took on another dimension when Emperor Justinian I made it an official holiday in 529.

The Byzantines would construct a cave and place a mattress and a baby upon it to symbolize Jesus. In the Byzantine Era, pregnant women were treated to a dessert made with semolina, butter and honey, known as lohozema, which must be similar to a dessert eaten in Istanbul today, known as smigdalenios halvas (tr. irmik helvası). It was tradition to make this dessert in honor of the birth of Christ by Virgin Mary, on the day after Christmas; this dessert would be sent to friends and neighbors. However, according to Rule Number (Canon) 79 of the Trullo Council, the Byzantine Church did not approve of this tradition; it was decided that should anyone from the clergy continue to celebrate this day they would be defrocked and those who were not clergy would be subjected to anathema. This was due to the official view of the Church on this matter; “the Panagia, i.e. Virgin Mary, did not go through labor” (ουκ έγνω λοχείαν). According to one of the authors of the 10th century, Symeon Metaphrastes, this prohibition did not discourage the ordinary Byzantine public. According to Theodoros Balsamon, this tradition only ceased in the twelfth-century in Constantinopole.

The Byzantines believed that how one spent this day would indicate how they would spend the following year. For this reason, they would try to make the most of the day and have quality experiences. The tradition of decorating the door sill and cleaning the roads was kept alive. The eparchos, who was responsible for tasks regarding the municipality of Constantinople, would order that on the birthday of Jesus the streets of the city be cleaned and that the columns lining both sides of the road be decorated with the myrtle branches, rosemary sprigs and seasonal flowers.20

The Byzantines would then spend the day putting on various costumes (such as camel, goat, deer, etc.) and visit other people’s houses. Others would make jokes about these people who were in disguise. This was a time that children in particular would look forward to. It is known that children would wake up with the first light of day and wander through the city playing instruments such as the aulos (the flute) and the syrinx and sing songs known as kalanta; they would visit other people during the day, bringing their visits to an end at sunset, throughout the twelve days of the holiday. According to the famous grammarian and poet Ioannes Tzetzes (1110 - 1180), who was one of the Byzantine critics of Homer, this tradition not only meant that children visited the houses to give best wishes and compliments to the residents; they also asked for money. The children used to visit those who were wealthy, carrying either apples or oranges; the residents would thrust metal coins into this fruit. At the same time, adults would wander around the city singing Christmas carols and songs; they would not leave until they received money. Both the children and the adults were in disguise when they rang the doorbells of the houses in the capital; they could be seen wandering around the city making a great deal of noise, clad in costumes, faces painted and making jokes throughout the twelve days, including the day marking the birth of Jesus.

The residents of Constantinople would be able to watch races at the Hippodrome which were organized to honor the birth of Jesus; that is, as long as the emperor gave permission for the races to be held. Great crowds would attend these races, at which the emperor would also be present in the imperial box. In keeping with a tradition that survived until the 12th century, the route that stretched from the Great Palace to Hagia Sophia Church would be spectacularly decorated on this festival day. When the emperor reached the gates his crown would be removed by the praipositos, a high-ranking palace official. The patriarch of Constantinople would meet the emperor at the narthex of the church and accompany him inside. The emperor would enter the church first to pray and then move to the resting lounge to wait for when it was time for the Holy Communion.

When the ceremony at Hagia Sophia was over and the emperor was on the way to the palace, the team members, the leading actors in the Hippodrome races, would be situated at five different spots and cheer for the emperor, presenting him with their best wishes. The emperor would have an official dinner reception held at the Chrysoktriklinion (golden hall) of the Great Palace at which all high-level officers and foreign ambassadors were present. The diplomas and appointment certificates were given to government officials, who were promoted or appointed to their new position by the emperor in a ceremony held at the palace; both the military and civil high officials would be present at this ceremony. High-ranking security guards would receive their certificates while kneeling in front of the emperor.

It was a tradition to extend the dinner invitation to twelve poor people in commemoration of the twelve apostles of Christ. These people would eat their meals in keeping with the ancient traditions; they would recline on a piece of furniture, which resembled a klene; from time to time they would stand up to cheer for the emperor. In the meantime, the chorists of both Hagia Sophia Church and Church of the Holy Apostles would sing a hymn the birth of Jesus Christ in their beautiful voices about: “With thy birth Jesus, our Lord, the light of knowledge has descended upon the earth”21 The Byzantine emperors would forbid the arrest and imprisonment of those who committed petty crimes on this sacred day. Those who satisfied these conditions would be released by a special decree from the emperor. However, this was not the case for serious crimes.

According to the Roman calendar, the first day of the year was known as the Kalendae. The acceptance of 1 January 1 as the beginning of the New Year dates back to the second century. This date was considered one of the five official holidays. In 153 BC it was believed that the New Year started on December 7, and it was traditional for the officials who had been appointed to new jobs to start working on this day. Before this, March 1 was celebrated as the beginning of the New Year. 1 September was accepted as the New Year according to the religious calendar in 313 and this practice continued in the Byzantine Era.22


1 Gregorius Nazianzenus, In sanctum pascha (orat. 45), vol. 36, p. 624, line 29: “τῆς ἀγγελικῆς ἀξίαν, καὶ πάντα περιηχοῦσαν τὰ πέρατα. Πάσχα Κυρίου, Πάσχα, καὶ πάλιν ἐρῶ Πάσχα, τιμῇ τῆς Τριάδος. Αὕτη ἑορτῶν ἡμῖν ἑορτὴ, καὶ πανήγυρις πανηγύρεων, …” [] (TLG).

2 1. Novum Testamentum, Evangelium secundum Matthaeum, Chapter 26 section 2 line 2: “Καὶ ἐγένετο ὅτε ἐτέλεσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς πάντας τοὺς λόγους τούτους, εἶπεν τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ, οἴδατε ὅτι μετὰ δύο ἡμέρας τὸ πάσχα γίνεται, καὶ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου παραδίδοται εἰς τὸ σταυρωθῆναι” (TLG).

3 Origenes, Commentarii in evangelium Joannis, Book 6, Chapter 45, Part 234, line 3 (TLG); Book 28, Chapter 25, Part 224, line 1; Theorianus Magister, Disputatio cum Armeniorum Catholico, p. 184, line 32 (TLG).

4 See Eusebius, “De Vita Constantini Imperatoris Libri Quatuor”, Patrologia Graeca, edited by P. Migne, Paris 1837, vol. 20/2, p. 548; For the decision made by the Nicea Council regarding how to celebrate the Easter, see: p. 1077: “τήν ἁγιωτάτην τοῦ Πάσχα ἑορτήν μιᾷ καί τῇ αυτῇ ἡμέρᾳ συντελεῖσθαι. Οὐδέ γάρ πρέπει ἐν τοσαύτῃ ἁγιότητι εἶναι τινά διαφοράν”.

5 Asterius Sophista, Commentarii in Psalmos (homiliae 31) Homily 21, part 7, line 4; Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica, book 5, chapter 23, part 2, line 7: “κυριακῆς ἡμέρᾳ τὸ τῆς ἐκ νεκρῶν ἀναστάσεως ἐπιτελοῖτο τοῦ κυρίου μυστήριον, καὶ ὅπως ἐν ταύτῃ μόνῃ τῶν κατὰ τὸ πάσχα νηστειῶν φυλαττοίμεθα τὰς ἐπιλύσεις.” (TLG).

6 Christophoros Mytilenaeus, Poeta, Carmina varia, Poem 136, line 59 (TLG).

7 See G. A. Rhalles and M. Potles, Sintagma (Σύνταγμα των θείων και ιερών κανόνων των τε αγίων και πανευφήμων Αποστόλων και των ιερών και οικουμενικών και τοπικών Συνόδων), Athens: G. Charophylakos, 1852, vol. 2, pp. 356, 424-425.

8 Rhalles and Potles, Sintagma (Σύνταγμα), vol. 2, p. 469.

9 Konstantinos Porphyrogennitos, De Ceremoniis aulae Byzantinae libri duo, edited by I. I. Reiske, Bonnae: Ed. Weberi, 1829, vol. 1, p. 41, line 6; p. 44, line 23.

10 Porphyrogennitos, De Ceremoniis, vol. 1, 86.9-97.11, p. 761, line 1; p. 774, line 7.

11 Gregorios Nazianzos, “Λόγος 39. Εις τα Άγια Φώτα”, Patrologia Graeca, edited by P. Migne, Paris 1853, vol. 36/2, pp. 336-356.

12 Clemens Alexandrinus, Stromata, Book 2, Chapter 11, Part 51, lower part 2, line 3 (TLG); G. G. Bekatoros, “Χριστούγεννα (Christougenna)”, Θρισκευτική και Ηθική Εγκυκλοπεδία, 1968, vol. 12, pp. 351-352.

13 For holiday festivities, see: Basilius Caesariensis, In sanctam Christi generationem, vol. 31, p. 1473, line 4; Gregorius Nazianzenus, In theophania (orat. 38), vol. 36, p. 313, line 44 (TLG); Joannes Chrysostomus, Scr. Eccl., De beato Philogonio (= Contra Anomoeos, homilia 6), vol. 48, p. 752, line 55 (TLG); Joannes Chrysostomus, De beato Philogonio (= Contra Anomoeos, homilia 6), vol. 48, p. 752, line 58 (TLG); Joannes Chrysostomus, Scr. Eccl., De cognitione dei et in sancta theophania, vol. 64, p. 43, line 24 (TLG); Synaxarium Ecclesiae Constantinopoleos, Synaxarium mensis Januarii, Day 6, Part 1, line 1 (TLG): “Τὰ ἅγια Θεοφάνια ἑορτάζομεν τοῦ μεγάλου Θεοῦ καὶ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐν τῇ ἁγίᾳ καὶ μεγάλῃ ἐκκλησίᾳ καὶ ἐν ταῖς κατὰ τόπον …”

14 Ioannes Chrysostomos, “Λόγος εἰς τό ἅγιον βάπτισμα τοῦ Σωτῆρος”, Patrologia Graeca, edited by P. Migne, Paris 1862, vol. 49, pp. 365-366.

15 Eparchicon Biblion, Chapter 15, Part 5, line 2.

16 Του εν αγίοις πατρος ημων Βασιλείου, Αρχιεπισκόπου Καισαρείας Καππαδοκίας, Ομιλία εις την αγίαν του Χριστου Γέννησιν, Sanctus Basilius Magnus Caesariensis Archiepiscopus, Homilia in Sanctam Christi Generationem, Patrologia Graeca, edited by P. Migne, Paris 1857, vol. 31/3, p. 1457, especially see p. 1473, line 3-6.

17 St. Papadopoulos, Patrologia, Athēna: G. Gkelmpesēs,2000, vol. 1, p. 474.

18 Yuhanna, 3:30.

19 Ioannes Chrysostomos, “Sermones Panegyrici. In solemnitates Domini Nostri Jesu Christi et Sanctorum. In Homiliam in Diem Natalem Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Monitum (Εἰς τὴν γενέθλιον ἡμέραν τοῦ Σῶτηρος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ἄδηλον μὲν ἔτι οὖσαν τότε, πρὸ δὲ ὀλίγων ἐτῶν γνωρισθεῖσαν παρά τινων τῶν ἀπὸ τῆς Δύσεως ἐλθόντων καὶ ἀναγγειλάντων.)”, Patrologia Graeca, ed. P. Migne, Paris 1859, vol. 49/2, pars 1, pp. 351-352.

20 See Φ. Κουκούλες, Βυζαντινών Βίος καιΠολιτισμός, τ. ΣΤ’, Αθήναı, 1955 (Greek) (Ph. Koukoules, The Lives and Civilisation of the Byzantines, Atina: Ekdoseis tou Gallikou Institoutou Athenon, 1955, vol. 6, p. 152).

21 “Η γέννησίς σου, Χριστέ, ο Θεός ημών ανέτειλε τω κόσμω το φως το της γνώσεως”.

22 G. Wissowa and M.P. Nillson, “Kalendae”, Paulys Realencyclopadie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 1919, vol. 10, fascicule 2, pp. 1560-1562.

This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.