During Greek Pascha (Easter) the air reverberates with greetings of Χριστός ανέστη (Xristos anesti: Christ is risen) and responses of Αληθώς ανέστη (Alithos anesti: Truly, he is risen). For many followers of the Orthodox faith, Pascha is one of the holiest and most beautiful of holidays, preceded by Holy week which begins with the Saturday of Lazarus, and continues to the celebration of Pascha on the following Sunday. Church services during Holy week remember and mark Christ’s last week before his crucifixion and also his resurrection.
Pascha is also referred to as the Feast of Feasts, and that’s no joke. On Holy Saturday night, church services celebrate the resurrection of Christ. This Divine Liturgy ends in the early hours of Sunday, after which families gather to break their fast and to play a game of tsougrisma with their dyed eggs. Traditionally, the meal served at this time is a soup called magiritsa which is made of lamb offal flavoured with a lemon-egg sauce. As kids, we would declare this lamb offal soup…awful (see what we did there?) To this day, we don’t really like it. Our parents however, still enjoy breaking their fast with this soup, while we typically enjoy a fast-food burger picked up at the 24 hour drive-through. New traditions are fine too.
The next day family tables will differ in their offerings of course, but there are typically a few things you can count on. The first is roasted lamb. Eating lamb at Pascha is a tradition with biblical meaning; John the Baptist referred to Jesus as the lamb of God, who would bear the sins of the world with his sacrifice. Along with the lamb you will also usually find other roasted meats, Greek cheeses, spanakopites, tyropites, dyed eggs, pastichio, and various side dishes and salads. Remember that many people have followed at least some period of fasting prior to Pascha, and this may be the first time in over 40 days that they will be able to enjoy meat, dairy and eggs.
For our family, as with many others, the celebration of Pascha is probably one of the most joyous occasions we share. Growing up, our parents and aunts and uncles would roast an entire lamb on a souvla (a spit) in the backyard of the apartment complex we grew up in. It was a very Greek neighbourhood and people were out in droves, all preparing their Easter feasts in backyards and driveways, anywhere you had some concrete to set the souvla on. In those days, the souvla was turned by hand, and each of us, young and old, had several shifts where we carefully turned the lamb to be sure that it cooked evenly. This went on for hours (at least 4 – 6 hours, depending on the size of the lamb). This was a beautiful tradition to grow up with; our families, regardless of the weather (often problematic in Canada), would spend hours outdoors laughing, talking, dancing…and of course, eating. If you were on souvla-turning duty, no worries; you were delivered your appetizers of spanakopita, Greek cheeses, souvlaki, and loukaniko (Greek sausage). You had to keep up your energy after all…the family lunch depended on you.
As years passed, our family’s Pascha traditions changed venue, but not much else. When we moved out of our childhood neighbourhood and our parents and aunts and uncles bought homes, the celebrations moved, and for many, many years Pascha was hosted by our aunt Voula (our mom’s sister) and her husband, uncle Trifona. Their souvla set up was in the driveway, right outside of their garage, in the front of their home. Because they live in a very Greek neighbourhood no one was shocked to see an entire lamb roasting and people gathered in the driveway and garage, having a party. We were not the only ones; in fact, you could smell food cooking in the surrounding blocks.
We know that many people take offence to the idea of roasting an entire lamb on a spit, particularly if this is not something you were used to seeing growing up. We also recognize that many people who were raised this way, also find it disagreeable. We respect that. In our view however, given that most (but not all) of our family are meat eaters, we don’t see the difference between roasting a leg of lamb in the oven and roasting an entire lamb on a spit; certainly, one method is more shocking, but it’s honest. This is where meat comes from folks.
As our parents and aunts and uncles have gotten older (not old, mind you, just older), the next generation (that would be us) has taken over hosting Pascha. The first time we hosted, and roasted an entire lamb, we rented a souvla from a party store. It was a beauty! Sturdy, looked like new, motorized…pretty fancy. It worked like a charm too, but there was just something missing. It was too perfect. Too functional. Too devoid of history. That souvla (which, incidentally, was called a charcoal rotisserie roaster and grill in the party store catalogue) lacked personality. And so, the following year we asked our uncle Trifona if we could borrow his souvla; the one he had been using for so many years. This beauty has more personality than some people we know! Hand crafted by our uncle by splitting an oil barrel in two, a stand fashioned out of scrap metal, and a motor which he made himself using an old washing machine motor and a light switch…this thing oozes character. That year, he brought it over on the Saturday before Pascha (in pieces) and he assembled it, with the help of cousins and husbands, all the while giving play-by-play instructions, clearly (and rightfully) proud of his creation. It was clear that he had an ultimate plan; after the party, he gifted us that souvla and in so doing, officially passed the torch to a new generation of Pascha-hosters. We were so moved, and so honoured.
This year, we were once again fortunate and blessed to be able to spend this glorious holiday with our families, our extended family and our friends, who are like family. It was a beautiful, albeit rainy, day of celebration, tradition and love. In reflecting upon why Pascha holds such a dear place in our hearts, we thought about what makes it so special. Certainly, the religious meaning is paramount, but beyond that, here are a few additional reflections on what sets it apart from our other family gatherings:
- What other celebration begins at 6:00 am, following a church service and meal which has you going to bed at approximately 3:00 am that same morning?
- Although the Pascha celebrations start in the wee hours of Sunday morning, the prep work, which is a community affair, starts days earlier. Whether it is getting together to bake koulourakia and tsourekia, dyeing eggs with the children, or setting up the souvla, there is much work to be done, and many hands required to do it. Everybody pitches in.
- No matter who actually hosts, Pascha in our family is a team effort. Everyone brings something to the table (and the drink table) to be sure that there are no duplicates, and more importantly, to be sure that nothing essential (like loukaniko) is missing. Our parents buy the lamb from a local butcher (apparently, that is their responsibility) and then they, and our aunt and uncle, announce that they will bring a few souvlakia and loukaniko as appetizers. Certain things get lost in translation. Between them this year, they showed up with: about 100 souvlaki sticks (we’re not even kidding), 40 marinated chicken drumsticks, more loukanika than I can count, 6 loaves of bread, 3 pounds of cheese (yes, 3 pounds), tyropites, a jar of oregano, a lemon-olive oil marinade, Greek style potatoes and a huge bag of charcoal. This was to accompany the lamb, 4 chickens, and the rest of the deliciousness that everyone else contributed. We were about 21 people. Come over, we have a few leftovers.
- Regardless of the weather, as much as possible, Pascha is meant to be celebrated outdoors. This is the second year in a row that it has rained on our Pascha party, but with a few feats of engineering, good spirits from all (and some good spirits for all 🙂 ), and a few gazebos and beach umbrellas, the party remained, for the most part, outside.
- Because we are in Canada, by the time Pascha rolls around, winter has usually only just ended, and we are not yet in “good weather” season; this comes later, for about a week in July. So, the party which takes place outside, does so in an outside which is usually muddied, not yet prepared for summer, and frankly, quite ugly. That is part of the charm. Pascha is not the time to worry about making sure that everything is pretty and proper. Save that for Christmas. Our come-as-you-are surroundings are part of the reason that the charcoal rotisserie roaster and grill, just didn’t fit in.
- Many of us refrain from eating meat, dairy and eggs for Holy week, and some of us do so from the beginning of Great lent; that’s 6 weeks of very restricted eating. Regardless of the length of the fast, for people who are not usually vegans and vegetarians, the Easter feast is very, very welcome.
- This amazing home made souvla that our uncle made…it has 2 spits. That means that while the lamb is roasting on one, a row of chickens roasts on the other. We look forward to this chicken all year…it is so, so good.
- But we don’t just eat! With the Greek music blaring, we laugh, enjoy each other’s company, stress about whether or not the lamb is cooking properly, lament over the fact that we shouldn’t have worn tight fitting jeans, we break into dance and promise that we will never overeat again…while eating, of course.
- Whereas other Christians may go on Easter egg hunts, our dyed and boiled eggs are not hidden; they are at the center of our table. With these eggs we play a game of tsougrisma; two people, each holding an egg, (traditionally dyed red) tap them together. Usually only one egg will crack, and the person with the unbroken egg is declared the winner. That person then takes their winning egg and tries to crack others. The eggs are then eaten…just in case anyone was still hungry. It is a fun game which holds an important religious significance; the cracking of the eggs represents the breaking open of Christ’s tomb.
We hope that you too had a joyous Pascha weekend, whether you are Orthodox or not (this year, as you all know because we couldn’t get the discounted chocolate, the western Easter fell on the same weekend). And if you don’t celebrate either Easter, we hope you had a wonderful weekend too, and that it was filled with family and love!
How to dye really cool eggs:
Take your eggs and wrap some outer yellow onion peel around it (the drier the onion peel, the better). Secure this in place by wrapping the egg and onion peel with a piece of nylon from an old pair of stockings. Tie the ends together to make sure that the egg does not slip out of the nylon.
Immerse your eggs in a pot of water to which you have added some egg dye. Follow the instructions on the packaging, and add the amount of white vinegar which is recommended. Boil your eggs for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit in the dye for another 5 minutes or so.
Carefully remove the eggs from the dye and allow them to cool completely. Using a pair of scissors, carefully release the eggs from the nylon. Carefully, with your fingers, remove any onion peel which may still cling to the eggs.
Take a paper towel soaked in olive oil and gently rub the eggs all over. Set aside and store in refrigerator until you are ready to play a game of tsougrisma, or when you want an egg salad sandwich.