The Chios Rocket War: Unorthodox Easter on a Greek Island

Eating chocolate eggs is one way to celebrate Easter. Blasting your neighbors with homemade rockets is another -- if you live on the Greek island of Chios, that is.

For most of us, excitement on Easter Sunday is limited to the search for Easter eggs and seeing just how much chocolate we can eat before falling into the traditional early afternoon food coma.

On the Greek island of Chios, however, the locals have devised a way to liven things up a bit. Two opposing parishes in the town of Vrodados spend the evening just before Orthodox Easter Sunday firing thousands of homemade rockets at each other's church -- while the more pious among them attend mass inside.

The result looks a lot like warfare. Tens of thousands of missiles -- some estimates go as high as 80,000 -- fly back and forth through the night sky, leaving streaks not unlike tracer bullets. The projectiles are prepared throughout the year by so-called "gangs" from the two parishes, Saint Mark and Panagia Erithiani. Even though making such rockets is illegal, the authorities mostly turn a blind eye to the fireworks tradition.

There are some in the town, however, who wish they wouldn't. Injuries during the unorthodox Easter battle are not uncommon and some rocket builders have even been killed when their potent gunpowder mixtures have exploded prematurely. Fires started by wayward missiles are a constant hazard and buildings surrounding the two targets are boarded up and covered with wire nets to protect them. "We can't breathe when it takes place," a resident of Vrodados told the BBC in 2004. "We have to be on standby in case a fire breaks out, because if you are not careful you can even lose your house."

Just why residents of Chios -- located just off the coast of Turkey -- try to blast each other with rockets every year is something of a mystery. One story has it that the custom goes back to the 19th century, when the island was occupied by the Ottomans. The theory has it that the ships on the island were outfitted with cannons to battle off pirates and that ship owners liked to fire their guns to celebrate Easter. When the Ottomans confiscated the cannons in the 1880s, the locals turned to rockets instead.

Nowadays, the Chios rocket battle has turned into something of a spectacle for tourists to the region. Visitors swarm to the island from all over the world and a Reuters video clip of the event ran on hundreds of television stations in 2007.

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