This year, Greek Orthodox Easter falls on the same day as Easter celebrated by other Christians. Growing up with a Greek Orthodox mother and a Lutheran father, we celebrated Easter twice, except on years like this one, when the two Easters coincided.
Then we celebrated with a hybrid holiday that included both Greek Easter traditions and “American” Easter traditions. As kids, we broke out the Paas kits and dipped eggs, transforming them into shades of robin’s egg blue, lavender, yellow and green eggs and always delighting in creating those half and half combinations and starburst patterns.
Besides those “American” eggs, there was always a bowl of deep red (kokkino) eggs, the traditional color for Greek easter eggs to symbolize the blood of Christ, made with a special packet of red powdered food coloring that we had to buy from a local Greek foods store. We would always fast the week before Easter Sunday — no meat, no fish, no milk, no eggs, no cheese — basically nothing with any connection to an animal. Today, you’d call it vegan, but as kids we didn’t quite know what to make of it, other than the strange looks we would get at the local pizzeria when we ordered a pie without cheese. That week, we would enjoy halvah — one of the few sweet treats we could have during Lent. This year, I continued the custom in modified form with my two kids — who gave up meat and chicken this week (my 11-year-old was surprised that his standby chicken nuggets were off limits, but fortunately there was peanut butter, pasta with sauce and fruit and vegetables).
The fasting ends at midnight tonight (Holy Saturday). Greeks celebrate this moment by gathering at church at 11 p.m. for a service that culminates with a holy flame being passed candle by candle from priest to parishioner to parishioner, one by one, until the entire church goes from complete darkness to a sea of flickering flames. This happens at midnight and it never ceases to move me. Then the beautiful hymn Christos Anesti (Christ has risen) is sung. Everyone takes care not to get their hair burned as the crowds of parishioners work their way out of church, carrying their lit candles with cups to protect the flame from wind. The challenge was to get the flame to the car and then back to your home, where you could light a candle, bless your home with the flame, and as we did, light the pilot light with the holy flame. On rainy, windy Easters, this was tricky (often you’d lose your flame and run back to find someone walking to their car who still had a candle burning), but there was always this tremendous sense of well being and triumph, when you crossed into your home with that flame, still burning bright. If you drive by St. George’s in Clifton just after midnight tonight, you’re sure to see crowds of people carrying candles.
Some will go break the fast that night, going home to have mayiritsa, a traditonal Easter soup. Some will go the unconvention route and head to a diner or White Castle as we did growing up, to have our first taste of meat (serious fasters give up meat for the entire 40 days).
Greek families celebrate on Easter Sunday, traditonally with a feast of lamb, potatoes, vegetables, olives, cheese and of course, the Greek Easter bread, which is similar to challah in taste, braided and baked with hardboiled red eggs inside the braids. We hunted for eggs in the house before dinner but after the main meal we always played the Greek egg cracking game. Everyone takes an egg and takes turn tapping another person’s egg with that egg. The person at the table who emerges with an intact egg (no cracks) is the winner. Try it at your Easter — it’s fun and when it’s done, you peel your cracked egg and eat it. If you want to wish a Greek a happy easter, you can say Kalo Pascha (Good Easter). What Greeks say to each other is: Christos Anesti (Christ has risen) and the other person replies back Alithos Anesti (He has truly risen).
(Photo: Flickr / ccarlstead)