Photo by Aglaia Kremezi
Easter is for Greeks what Thanksgiving is for Americans: a glorious family feast with dishes that make the most of the young season's early produce. Unlike Thanksgiving, though, Easter is a four-day celebration, the religious reconstitution of ancient pagan rituals that celebrate the return of spring: the feeling of the sun's warmth, the renewal of the earth, the blossoming of plants after the dark and cold winter.
Like all big Orthodox festivities, a 40-day period of Lent precedes Easter. Four weeks before Easter, all foods derived from animals with warm blood--meat, dairy, and eggs--are prohibited; during Holy Week, especially on Good Friday, even olive oil is banned from the table.
The exclusion of a plant oil seems most peculiar, especially as the use of sesame oil is permitted. But there is historical justification. Regulations regarding Lent strictly bar all foodstuffs that have been in contact with animal products: Broadly interpreted, olive oil falls into that category. In the old days, olive oil was extracted by pressing ground olive paste between mats woven with goat's hair. Though technologies have since changed, certain traditions have not, at least come Good Friday.
We celebrate Orthodox Easter the first Sunday following the full moon after the spring equinox, which always falls after Passover, as both holidays follow the lunar calendar. This year we will celebrate on April 19, a moderately warm time of the year, suitable for the traditional lamb roasting and al fresco lunch. But in 2010, Easter coincides with the Catholic calendar, the first Sunday of April--a cooler and likely damper early day in spring will follow.
Whatever the weather, people like my sister, her husband, and their close friends brave the chill and visit a different island or corner of the mainland to celebrate. They rent a summer cottage, buy a local lamb and a bag of charcoal, and head for the nearest beach. An impromptu fire pit is constructed. They light the fire and roast the meat, with everybody helping to turn the spit for two to three hours.
Octopus, Calamari, and Classical Music
Not just church-going older Greeks, but many young people who normally eat meat twice a day fast during Holy Week. They become temporary vegetarians not so much for religious as cultural reasons--and, recently, to "detoxify" themselves. Even the Greek McDonald's advertise Lenten "burgers" made with seafood or beans.
Cuttlefish, octopus, and calamari, our beloved cephalopods, together with shrimp and, of course, lobster, replace meat in the seasonal, one-pot family meals: cuttlefish stew with spring onions and spinach; octopus youvetsi, with orzo pasta baked with the octopus in a wine and tomato sauce (the seafood variation of the traditional lamb youvetsi); or octopus stifado, a hearty stew usually prepared with hare or other game, simmered in a rich sweet-wine sauce with pearl onions, scented with cinnamon and allspice.
Photo by Aglaia Kremezi
Lentil soup, simply dressed with vinegar, was the traditional dish prepared for Good Friday, but I propose a warm salad of mixed beans with garlic-lemon-tahini dressing--still within the rules of Lent and much more interesting. Sesame halva is the Lenten sweet par excellence, and bakeries have started to create elaborate sweets and even ice creams based on halva, which is often paired with bitter chocolate.
Schools close for two weeks, but when I was growing up Easter was the most frustrating "vacation." Theaters and cinemas were dark during Holy Week, except for the few that showed The Passion of Christ and other biblical Hollywood films, which we ended up seeing repeatedly.
Most were low-budget, black-and-white movies, which my friends and I identified with code-names. One we called "the merci" because, although dubbed into Greek, Mary Magdalene in one scene thanked Christ in perfect French. In another, dubbed "the bicycle," an anachronistic two-wheeler was clearly visible traversing the background of the frame during the climactic crucifixion scene.
Later, those films replaced regular programming during the early television years, together with boring talk shows, dated documentaries, and classical music concerts. In fact, for most Greeks not familiar with classical music--the vast majority, up until the late '70s--Beethoven, Bach, and even Mozart, were considered funereal tunes. "Is it Good Friday already?" asked a plumber who came to my flat in Athens to fix a leak in the kitchen. I think I was listening to a Bach concerto, and he was really perplexed that anybody could listen to such music without a crucifixion looming.
Fireworks and Magiritsa
Those restrictions of the recent past don't hold any longer. Cinemas and TV continue with their regular schedules, even promoting action movies, cartoons, and films that appeal to children. But church ceremonies still draw crowds on the last days before Easter. Practically everybody leaves the cities to celebrate Easter in their villages and islands, staying in restored ancestral houses, newly built summer homes, or hotels. Kea, so close and yet so far from Athens, is flooded with people for Easter celebrations. There are more visitors than even at the height of August.
Even non-believers, or those who see the inside of a church only during weddings and funerals, hold dark candles and follow the solemn procession of epitaphios, the wooden reliquary decorated with the season's most fragrant flowers, paraded on the streets on Good Friday after sunset.
On Saturday, everybody attends Easter midnight-mass, holding white candles which they bring home, still flickering with the "holy light" spread from the priest's candle out to the entire village. The ceremony takes place outside the church, and the moment Christ's resurrection is announced, bells toll frantically, setting off a celebratory pandemonium.