Josna Rege

107. Kalo Paska

In 1960s, Childhood, Food, Greece, Inter/Transnational, Stories on April 23, 2011 at 2:35 pm

by Nicholas Econopouly, greecetravel.com/photos/sixties/

In Greece in the 1960s Easter was the biggest holiday of the year, bigger than Christmas and much more eagerly anticipated. The blessings of Easter, or Paska, lasted all year long. Although we weren’t a religious family, in the spirit of Indian secularism and my mother’s unitarian socialist agnosticism (“God is all the Goodness in the world,” she told us), we celebrated every holiday there was, and the Greeks knew how to celebrate. All through Lent people had been fasting, denying themselves meat, fish, dairy products, wine, and even the ubiquitous olive oil that seemed to form the basis of every dish. They had also been cleaning and whitewashing their houses, purifying themselves inside and out.

Holy Friday was the most sombre day of Holy Week, one of deep mourning. All the lights of Athens were turned out, plunging even the Acropolis into darkness. Late on Saturday night, people bundled up warm and made their way to churches and monasteries all over the city. Since we lived at the base of Lykavittos, the tallest hill in Athens, with a monastery at the very top, we joined the throngs who walked up the steep, narrow path in single file, pairs, or small family groups, maintaining near-silence in keeping with the occasion.

At the top, the faithful entered the church to pray while the overflow waited expectantly, looking out over the city uncharacteristically wreathed in darkness and silent as the grave. Finally, at the stroke of midnight, all the lights came back on, brilliantly illuminating the Acropolis and the major churches throughout the city. The formerly subdued, almost sleep-walking crowds around us broke into lively cries of Xristos Anesti! (Christ is Risen), to which the reply was Alithea Anesti (Indeed, He is Risen)! And in the same instant came the sounds of the cracking of eggs, as people retrieved hard-boiled eggs from the depths of their coat pockets, dyed dark red, and cracked them against their neighbors’ eggs, wishing Kalo Paska (Happy Easter) to one and all and sharing freely with anyone who had come without.

Then came the lighting of the candles. Everybody had brought a candle from home, stowed in their pockets with the hard-boiled eggs. The first candle was lit from the ever-burning flame within the monastery, and one by one everyone lit their candles from the just-lit candle of their neighbors. When the last candle was lit, the return procession began, people talking animatedly now, but taking care to keep their candles alight and maintaining a joyful solemnity. Looking down from Lykavittos, we could see candlelit processions like our own winding their way home all over the city. When people reached home, they would make a cross with the smoke from their candles on the newly whitewashed walls above their front doors, to keep them safe from evil spirits throughout the coming year.

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I supposed that the Greek children went to bed when they got home, as we did. But I suspect that the women of the household got very little sleep that night, as they made the final preparations for the massive Easter feast that would break their fast on Easter Day. One Easter in Greece we were visiting the ancient city of Delphi, and the townspeople were roasting whole lambs on spits and dancing in the streets, spirits lifted high and wine flowing freely. Kalo Paska was on everyone’s lips and nobody was made to feel a stranger.

Greeks followed the Orthodox calendar, and when, years later, I married into a Ukrainian American family, I discovered that they did as well. Ukrainian Easter rarely falls on the same day as what they call “regular” or “American” Easter, and many of its customs and practices are very similar to the ones we first encountered in Greece. After midnight on Holy Saturday, the Ukrainians, like the Greeks, greet each other with Christ is Risen: Khrystos Voskres! and reply, Voistynu Voskres! They too crack and eat hard-boiled eggs, dyed dark red, although they spread them liberally with an eye-wateringly pungent horseradish sauce.

As I write, my sisters-in-law Eve and Vera are washing the dozens of coffee cans that Eve saves from year to year for baking babka, the Ukrainian sweet bread eaten only at Easter, spread with a heavenly soft cheese called paska. Eve has perfected her own recipes for both, which seem to get better every year. Vera is the guardian of the egg-painting supplies, so in keeping with the Ukrainian tradition of pysanky, we may decorate eggs tomorrow as well, although our  skills do not extend to the artistry and delicate precision of our cousin Juliana.

Kalo Paska and Happy Spring!

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  1. Thank you for this lovely reminder of how Easter is celebrated in other parts of the world! How wonderful to know that there are people all over the globe who celebrate Easter and understand how special it really is.
    He came and died and rose again so we could all be together for eternity, forgiven and made new.
    At this age I am finally starting to really understand what that means.

    • Dear Marianne, the whole family gathered yesterday at Andrew’s cousin’s grave at Mount Olivet Cemetery in New York. It was St. Thomas’ Sunday, always the Sunday after (Russian) Easter, but we have always called it Cemetery Day. It was a sad day of course, because Andrew’s dear cousin had passed away much too young, but it was so good to be together, three generations of us. Her sister had brought eggs to put at the family graves, and everyone who knew the Russian sacred choral music sang at each one as well. x J

  2. I really value the way you connect to traditions, including religious ones, and seem to have such an intuitive, benevolent way of interpreting them. You remind me of the lighting of candles from one to the next, the palm leaves on Palm Sunday, the Easter eggs. Presbyterian rituals are less glorious than Catholic or Orthodox ones, but we still do have them, and it’s a place that secularism has not been able to fill: that feeling of being connected through time to previous generations and, possibly, to future ones, too. I like the way nowadays we can mix things up. On Saturday, I went to a friend’s home for Greek Easter/Seder. It’s been a while since I laughed so much (and ate so well). And on Sunday, it was “Non-Denom,” nondenominational Easter/Pagan/Secular feast, where many who come have known each other for decades (and I am glad to be a newcomer).

    • What a beautiful response, Sarah. Yes, that feeling of connection through time is so important. And yes, here’s to mixing things up! Where is “Non-Denom” held–Greenfield? It sounds like a lovely tradition.

  3. Thank you for reposting this. sounds so beautiful. I think your mother and my mother shared the same sentiment regarding religion.

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