Saturday, March 31, 2018

Greek Easter--The Drama Begins

I first posted this in April of 2010, when Orthodox Easter and Catholic Easter happened to fall on the same day.  This year Greek Easter is celebrated a week later than Catholic Easter.  Why? Because Orthodox Easter has to happen after Passover.  So we usually get to buy our Easter goodies at half price.  But not the paschal lamb.  I've already ordered our lamb from Bahnan's, described below.   This blog post seems to be becoming an annual tradition, so I'd like to start today to wish Happy Easter  to all and to our Greek friends, Kahlo Pascha!

Next Friday is Good Friday on the Orthodox calendar and in a Greek household that means we can’t eat dairy or meat (that’s been going on for 40 days) and also we can’t eat oil, so on Good Fridays we usually end up surviving on things like plain baked potatoes and peanut butter on crackers.

But the Big Eleni, who lives with us and is the best cook in the world, has all sorts of “fasting” food ready for Holy Week, which starts on April 2 with "Clean Monday".  She's cooking up Halvah, stuffed grape leaves, rice-stuffed tomatoes, taramasalata (made from fish roe) and some sort of artichoke/spinach/ hummus concoction. And boiled shrimp.


Next Thursday, April 5, will also mark the annual dramatic journey into Worcester to collect the lamb which we ordered from Bahnan’s Market on 344 Pleasant Street. As you can see from the first sign below, the people at Bahnan’s are ready to sell you your Easter needs in four languages: English, Greek, Turkish and Arabic.


And they  have a café where, according to local Greeks, you can get the only authentic gyros for miles around.


Shopping at Bahnan’s is like a visit to the United Nations, but on Easter week it’s like several festivals rolled into one.

There is usually a considerable line of people waiting to get into the refrigerated back room to receive the lamb they had ordered and have it cut up to their specifications.   By Friday afternoon the line will be out the door.

I don’t last long in the refrigerated room, because of the cold and the proximity of all those lamb corpses, some of which look the size of a small horse. (Our lamb will be very small—20 to 25 pounds.)

I usually escape before the butcher starts sawing,  but this process is still easier than some early Easters in Nick’s northern Greek village, when the adorable baby goats were tied to each house’s front door knob and my offspring loved petting them. Then I had to drag the children, (all three under age ten) out of town on Holy Saturday to prevent them seeing the general bloodshed as the baby goats were slaughtered and blood ran in the street.

In the village on Easter Sunday you see spits outside every house, each one tended by the patriarch who is drinking homemade moonshine called Raki and having a good time. We sometimes do the lamb on the spit outside in Grafton, but not when Easter comes with weather this cold.


In the photos above you see the Big Eleni shopping for Greek cheese at Bahnan’s. She's about to make our large round Tsoureki bread with the red egg in the middle. And on Holy Thursday, as always, we will dye dozens of eggs red for the Saturday-night egg-cracking duel, after we all return from the midnight church service,  when you challenge everyone – saying “Christ is risen” “Indeed he is risen”. Crack! And whoever’s egg comes out the winner gets the other guy’s egg.

On Holy Saturday, we will all go to church very early and without consuming as much as a drop of water beforehand. We line up to take communion and then are free for the first time in seven weeks to eat dairy (not meat. Not yet. But we are free to rush to the Pancake House where we traditionally stuff ourselves with high-calorie breakfast treats that have been forbidden for weeks.)

Then it’s back to church again at midnight.—for the dramatic Midnight Mass on Saturday night when the church is plunged into darkness and the priest comes out at the exact stroke of midnight with a single candle and announces ‘Christ is risen!” Then the flame passes from his candle to everyone else’s and the church fills with light as we sing the Resurrection hymn: “Christos anesti!” We try to keep our candles lit as we drive home to break the Lenten fast by cracking eggs and eating the delicate dill-and-egg-lemon soup called "mayeritsa" made by the Big Eleni out of the lamb's intestines.

(Actually, she doesn’t put in the intestines, because she knows that our kids would never eat it. In fact two are vegetarians. And after my visits to pick up the lamb, I understand perfectly.)

I hope wherever you are celebrating Easter or Passover -- in any language – you are enjoying spring weather. Here in Massachusetts, they're predicting snow in two days on everybody else's Easter.  So when the Greek Easter Bunny comes around on Sunday April 8, he will probably have to hide the Easter eggs inside instead of outside this year.  But the azaleas and the forsythia, as well as the crocuses, will be in bloom by then, so whether you're celebrating Passover or Easter this weekend or Orthodox Easter next Sunday, let me wish you  "Kalo Pascha!"  (And don't put away the snow shovels yet!)

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