“He don’t eat no meat? That’s ok, I make lamb.”
–My Big Fat Greek Wedding
You’ve seen the movie, now learn the symbolism and history. We don’t do our lamb in the front yard, but we do enjoy the crowd that shows up to celebrate the return of spring.
It’s Not About the Chocolate Bunnies
We tend to forget, in our shopping-centric society that focuses the holiday highlight on Christmas gift-giving, that for the Christian church, Easter is the year’s prime holiday, celebrating the miracle of the resurrection. But no matter what you believe, the seasonal cycles are universal. Christian communities use the cycle of ritualized feast represented by Carnival, Lent, and Easter to declare an identity and respond to the seasonal availability of food, but the cycle is universal, down to the very words that describe the holidays.
- The Latin word for Easter, Pasqua comes from Pesach, meaning crossing over.
- The word Easter is speculated to come from the celebration of the feast day of pagan goddess Eostre, a Norse goddess of rebirth whose sacred animal was the hare—thus the Easter bunny.
- The ancient Greek myth of Persephone, who returns to the earth from the underworld, is a metaphor for the change of seasons, but with her mother Demeter, goddess of agriculture and fertility, the story becomes one of life, death, and the lost paradise of year-round fertility that was imagined to have existed before mother and daughter were separated.
You can name it and tie it to rules, but Easter is fundamentally a celebration of the earth’s return to life after a period of darkness, seeming death.
A Bit of Confusion
There are plenty of doctrinal differences between the eastern and Roman churches but they both celebrate Easter as a movable feast. They just can’t settle on the same calendar. Greeks use the Julian calendar, Romans the Gregorian. Greek Easter differs from Roman Easter by always placing the celebration after the Jewish holiday of Passover, recognizing that you can’t celebrate resurrection until after the last supper.
Even though the First Council of Nicea decided that all Christians would celebrate on the same day, in true bureaucratic style, the Council left the specifics vague, and naturally, each church stuck to its own calendar. As recently as 1997, an attempt was made to align the dates based on astronomical observations, but none of the participants adopted the standard and the division remains. I simply consult the internet for the date each year.
In Honey from a Weed, Patience Gray is writing on Naxos in 1987. “From Ash Wednesday to Midnight on Easter Saturday, the diet is reduced to haricot beans, lentils, rice, spaghetti, and weeds.” (Doesn’t this sound like cabinet scrapings left after holiday excess?) “The normal standbys—goat, lamb, pork, cheese, eggs, and olive oil are eliminated.” She marvels that on an already restricted diet, the islanders are able “to deprive themselves even further.”
In shades of Demeter and Persephone, she continues: “during the summer there had been no difficulty about food…” and recounts a mouthwatering list of fruits, vegetables, fish, and meats. Gray points out that islanders make the most of summer bounty, but that “fasting is therefore in the nature of things, and feasting punctuates it with joyous excess.”
The phrase “difficulty about food” is very telling. We can always get food these days—it may be expensive or not what we want, but it is always available. But when food is scarce, having a reason to fast makes scarcity palatable. Gray points out that fasting periods, ritualized by the church “correspond with moments when on Naxos, there was hardly anything to eat.”
Lent begins with Clean Monday, which I can’t help think answers the urge for spring cleaning and mirrors the preparations in an Orthodox Jewish household for Passover, removing every crumb of leavened bread. In Greece, some people spring clean, others use it to clean their bodies by beginning a leaner lenten diet, and others to re-orient themselves spiritually.
Lenten menus focus on non-meat dishes like fasoltha (bean soup), lentil soup, eggplant, and vegetables. As Elizabeth Luard points out in Sacred Food, the proscriptions of what is allowed vary by country, region, church, and culture based on what is available. In Greece for example, fish is allowed, well timed to when fish are running in the Mediterranean. While some lenten foods are given symbolic meaning—lentils symbolize Mary’s tears—they are also a thrifty cleaning of the winter’s stores.
My own interpretation of Lent is to stop baking for a while. After the Christmas cookie swap and New Year’s foie gras it feels good and right to slow down on the butter. I lose a pound or so, and after some initial grumbling my son and husband adapt to the warming stews that get us through the dark months.
The faithful treat Holy Week as a time of mourning, recreating Jesus’ last steps with a very strict fast. Gray points out that on Naxos, by this time, nothing much is cooked, beyond plain bread and a pot of beans. This simple household menu conveniently makes time for the housewife’s preparations—dying red eggs and prepares dishes for the Easter meal.
After midnight services on Saturday, the Anastasi meal (Anesti means risen) celebrates Christ’s emergence from the tomb. Its central dish, Mayeritsa, is a soup thriftily made from the innards of the lamb that will be roasted on Sunday. Julia Kouki in Evia, Tradition and Diet writes, completely devoid of romance, that “Tripes and Herbs Soup is a very tedious and tiring food” for the housewife to prepare.
Traditionally the red eggs are served at the Anastasi, the first egg to be eaten after the Lenten ban. The hard-boiled eggs are dyed bright red to symbolize the spilt blood and the promise of eternal life. Luard points out that while eggs, as an animal product, are not allowed during Lent, the chickens keep laying and their output can’t be wasted, so the eggs are hardboiled and stored.
More faithful families than mine will follow this progression with real feeling. For us, Easter is a celebration of the warm weather to be shared with friends and family. Through repetition it has become a tradition, and we have our own secular countdown that involves ordering the lamb, making a freezerful of spinach and cheese pies, baking cookies, buying drinks, and checking to make sure the spit is in working order.
The Big Day
There is hardly a meal larded with more symbolism than a Greek Easter dinner, whether it is prepared sedately in the oven or more raucously on a backyard spit. In fact, when people ask if they can bring something, I always say just drinks, because it is such a symbolic menu.
Here’s where it gets grisly. Gray writes that “Meat only figured on feast days,” and goes on to say that butchery as we know it, the neat packets of shrink-wrapped supermarket meat, doesn’t figure. “The guilt one feels is an old legacy from which we are saved by the slaughterhouse and which was once expunged by sacrifice.”
Luard expands on the rather obvious comparison of the blood sacrifice of the lamb and Jesus’ sacrifice, writing that when Jesus likens the Last Supper’s bread and wine to his body and blood, he is “invoking the specter of blood sacrifice.” Celebrating is a way to tame our greatest taboo—cannibalism. And again, seasonal imperatives play a part in the menu—in the southern Mediterranean, Easter is when the first spring lambs are ready for the spit.
In another sign of universality, we get our lamb from a Halal butcher, who may not share our faith, but recognizes the value of tradition and always comments when my son and husband pick up the lamb, that this is a fine thing to do together, with the father passing on his expertise to the son.
Eggs hold life and Luard points out that most northern European countries have traditional Easter breads that feature eggs. In Germany particularly, they are symbolic of fertility and perhaps the time choose a mate. In a Greek Easter, the red eggs show up in tsoureki, a lightly sweet yeast bread.
We serve the eggs with our Easter dinner on Sunday because the tradition of egg cracking is fun for a group of people. Each person takes an egg, and taps large end to large end, eliminating all but one uncracked egg. The winner will have good luck all year.
Kouki writes that the eggs used to be colored with onion skins that the housewife would start to gather at the beginning of Lent. She calls this “romantic” and points out that in Greece, the already colored eggs can be bought in shops.
You don’t serve the village salad, horiatiki, at Easter; the tomatoes and cucumbers haven’t had all summer to grow. Instead the newly sprouted greens, traditionally gathered on the hillsides, show up in pies with eggs and fresh cheese as a symbol of growth and renewal.
As the seasons change so do the dietary restrictions. Palm Sunday is also called Cheese Sunday, and is the first time cheese is allowed after Lent. Again, Luard points out that this is also when lambing begins, fresh milk is flowing, and peasants were expected to pay their “cheese rent” to landowners. On the Easter table the cheese is served as tiropitas.
In Greece, Bright Week follows Easter Sunday, meant to continue the joy of the resurrection. But in my house it’s really about cleaning up after the party—washing and folding the linens, sorting the silverware, tucking the spit back into the corner of the garage, and finishing off the last of the hard boiled eggs in egg salad for lunch.