As someone with a German last name that was given me by way of a literal Romanian gypsy, you might not think I’d be Greek or that I’d have the ethnic wherewithal within myself to celebrate Greek Easter. With a last name and some of my lineage described in such a way and such a manner, you’d think I’d be improvising revamped beat poetry over a line of Django Reinhardt guitar as international workers lazily wandered around in search of lunch in Zurich.
But I am Greek. My Mother is Greek, and we have celebrated Greek Easter my entire life. Easter may be a noisy holiday, one that takes up a lot of mental space — enough so that there may have been one or two shopkeepers who were surprised to learn about the existence of a second Easter along the way — and I’m aware that people seem to struggle with is what exactly Greek Easter is and how it’s different from ‘regular’ Easter. Let me explain.
When is Greek Easter?
Part of the difference between Greek Easter and ‘regular’ Easter is when it takes place. Orthodox Christians use a different calendar than non-Orthodox Christians when determining the date of Greek Easter. For Orthodox Christians, the calendar that is used to determine the date of the holiday is called the Julian calendar. The Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar in 1582, but a sizable majority of Orthodox churches have refused to acknowledge the shift.
To determine the date of Easter for each branch of Christianity means figuring out which day is the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. The Eastern Orthodox Church, per Borga Brunner —
The Eastern Church sets the date of Easter according to the actual, astronomical full moon and the actual equinox as observed along the meridian of Jerusalem, site of the Crucifix and the Resurrection … The Eastern Orthofox Church also applies the formula so that Easter always falls after Passover, since the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ took place after he entered Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. In the Western Church, Easter sometimes precedes Passover by weeks.
Sometimes that formula plus the calendar ends up pointing towards a different day. Sometimes that means the same day.
1. There will be lamb.
The ‘why’ of why we eat lamb at Easter may come across in the abstract as a little on the nose: we eat lamb because the lamb carries religious significance. As — I have no doubt — almost all of you know, a sacrificial lamb is a person or animal sacrificed for the common good. In The Bible, John the Baptist refers to Jesus by saying, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
The practical ‘why’ of why we eat lamb is because it’s slow-cooked to the point where it seems to slip off the fork and disappear into the sluices of saliva with ease. If you’re lucky, you might see a whole lamb being roasted and spun on a spit. This isn’t necessarily a typical way of cooking lamb — it’s a little bit more traditional and a little bit more old-fashioned — but it’s worth bearing in mind.
Recipes for kitchen-bound lamb that litter the web put the cooking time around four hours. This may seem like a lot, but for anyone who is even passingly familiar with high-quality BBQ, the amount of time invested in the meat often bears enormously pleasing dividends. The same also holds true for lamb here.
2. Our eggs are always red.
The ‘on the nose’ aspect returns once again: there are eggs at Greek Easter, and the eggs are dyed red to signify the blood of Jesus. (And, for what it’s worth, these traditions aren’t introduced every year with the kind of potential for portentous phraseology one might hear in reading about this, i.e., “And now, it’s time for your Jesus dinner followed by your Jesus eggs.” And, let’s be clear — this isn’t to say that the eggs aren’t always red: they are. The eggs are always red. My including this lighthearted parenthetical quip and my consistent use of cautious rhetorical qualifiers like ‘on the nose’ is to indicate that the tone of Greek Easter is much more informal and much more social than what my descriptions of the religious underpinnings here would otherwise suggest, as — for instance — a phrase like ‘portentous’ would also indicate.)
After we eat, the eggs are cracked in the spirit of a mini-competition, and that is the gist of the game: one person tries to crack another’s egg. One person approaches a second person. Each has an egg gripped in their hand. One person is on ‘offense.’ The other is on ‘defense.’ The person on ‘offense’ may take the time to examine their target. They may take the time to examine how the person on ‘defense’ is preparing their defenses. (Are they only trying to leave an exceedingly small portion of the egg visible, for instance?) The person on ‘offense’ raises the egg in their hand, perhaps no further than the bottom of their chin. (After all, the ‘attack’ here is no more than one egg tapping another. One doesn’t slam their egg down on another egg. One doesn’t throw the egg and attempt to hit the other egg being held. One simply taps.) They bring the ‘attacking’ egg down on the ‘defending’ egg, which can either be held low in the way that one holds a glass by the hip, or it can perhaps be held a little bit higher up, high enough to encourage a horizontal ‘attack’ from your opponent.
If the ‘attack’ is successful — if the otherwise smooth red surface breaks into a spider’s web of red and white — the attacker moves onto the next person with the next egg. If the attacker fails, the egg that withstood the challenge can now go on the attack. Groans abound. Rhetorical quips fly. The noise of the family crowd moves something like fans reacting to a slow-moving basketball game. Sometimes a mischievous cousin will find a wooden egg, paint it red, and hope no one notices.
The last remaining egg at the end of this process is declared the ‘winner.’ The oldest grandparent or the youngest grandchild stands a chance of winning this competition, and to win it all means a year of good luck.
3. We Have A Fancy Concept Called ‘Xenia.’
Broadly speaking, the celebration of Greek Easter means taking part and participating in a lateral kind of gentleness. When you arrive to Easter dinner, for instance, you say, ‘Christos Anesti’ as a greeting (meaning: ‘Happy easter!’; literally translated, ‘Christ has risen!’) and ‘Alithos Anesti’ as a reply (meaning: ‘You, too!’; literally translated, “Truly, he has risen!”) It pops a bit when you say it, and the uplifting emotion accompanying that tone isn’t a coincidence.
I’d argue that there are two Greek-specific reasons for this gentleness. Given that it is a religious holiday, it’s worth noting that — as Borgna Brunner again notes — that the “division [of Easters] between the Eastern and Western Churches has no strong theological basis.”
Though there is relative religious difference here, there is no religious conflict, and that’s worth noting. Christians aren’t going after Orthodox Christians for celebrating Easter on the wrong day. For a world that gave us strife even when mass was simply said differently in Northern Ireland, that’s worth noting. The ease with which the difference between Orthodox Easter and Easter is taken for granted is nice.
I’d also argue that part of the difference with regular Easter also stems from the Greek concept of xenia. Xenia means ‘hospitality,’ but literally means ‘guest-friendship,’ and it is the kind of ethnic ideal and ethnic trait that can so easily be otherized (let alone for its similarity with other iterations of this trait across the globe), but it was and remains a very real thing. I once wandered into the back of a Greek kitchen at a restaurant to say hello and ask what was on, and no one kicked me out. Mi madre has told more than one story about encountering that kind of friendliness again and again as she travelled through Greece.
4. There’s (a lot of) heavy food.
Not only will there be lamb, but there will be golden potatoes. Not only will there be lamb and golden potatoes, but there’s a good chance there might be meatballs, too, i.e., keftedes. Pork chops aren’t unheard of either, nor are grape leaves, nor — indeed — is spanakopita, a savory pastry filled with gobs of spinach, feta cheese, onions, and other items, too.
Since you’ve smashed the eggs and left a trail of bitterly defeated egg warriors in your wake, you might be thinking that you have noting going in terms of desert. You’d be wrong: there is the elegantly wound and crunchy koulourakia, as pictured above, the surprisingly potent combination of honey and crunch in loukoumathes (that is, a miniature doughnut-like ball), and the always essential gentle wave of honey and crushed almonds that comprises any good slice of baklava.