Religion is a very traditional thing in Greece. I would even go as far as saying that religion IS a matter of tradition in Greece. Christenings are full of small procedure details that need to be observed, same when following Christmas holiday traditions, and Easter is undoubtedly the highlight of religious celebration in this country!
Easter is the time of year when you see every generation going to church. Even today’s most hip youth, the ones with the torn jeans or the EMO look turn up to join the Good Friday evening procession when priests through the streets of each community carry the Jesus grave. And absolutely everyone shows up at the evening mass on Easter Saturday. Just before midnight, candles are lit by everyone in anticipation of the “news” of the resurrection, which happens exactly at midnight. Fireworks, church bells and standard verbal exchanges accompany this between friends and family such as ‘Χριστός ανέστη’ (Jesus resurrected), which is to be answered by ‘Αληθώς’ (indeed).
One of the primary themes during this whole celebration is food. It starts with Clean Monday (or else called Ash Monday), which signifies leaving behind sinful attitudes and marks the start of a 40-day fasting period, lasting until Easter Sunday. Fasting is basically a vegan diet, i.e. products or by-products from animals are forbidden, which also excludes eggs, milk, cheese and similar from the menu. On some particular days, olive oil is added to the list of banned foods, which leaves grazing almost as the only option.
Very few people do the 40-day exercise, but quite a few people fast during the Holy Week, the week before Easter Sunday. That includes all ages, even children. This year even mine participate, more for the challenge of it, than for anything else. Their daily agony during the week before of “how many days do you think we will last?” has now been replaced by their eagerness to do it right: “Mami, does yoghurt come from an animal? Does a muesli bar come from an animal? Why are we allowed to eat honey – does it not come from an animal…!?”
The fasting period is a paradise for any vegetarian and a nightmare for the same once it is over, because abruptly the food intake is converted into almost exclusively meat. The fasting ends with two meals:
First, just after resurrection and upon coming home from the Easter Saturday midnight mass there is a massive food fiesta, featuring primarily a soup made up of lamb insides (μαγειρίτσα = mageiritsa), followed by oven roasted lamb and other sorts of meat. This is truly a bummer if you HAVE fasted for 40 days, and all of a sudden stuff yourself in the middle of the night with that kind of food. I am sure that has led at times to stomach trauma incidents of varying severity.
The second meal follows only a few hours of sleep later: It is an all day eating session on Easter Sunday which is made up of traditional Easter Specialties and spit roasted whole lambs. The day is an extremely social event: you have either invited people around or you have yourself been invited somewhere. Roasting itself is a lengthy process, it takes a good 6 hours during which the gathered crowd begins drinking and eating mezedes around 11 am, to keep spirits up and hunger at bay, until the lamb is ready.
So if for the vegetarian this is a hard day that would also hold true for WWF supporters. Traditionally our family’s Easter Sunday feast is held at our house, because we have a large garden. A few years ago, my younger son Alexander entertained everyone, when he finally noticed the lambs we were roasting and shouted: Papi, look, doggy!!
The seasoned Greek remains unfazed by such comments, keeps the routines up every year because above all, tradition counts. And that is a truly wonderful Greek trait.
This year, we will actually travel to the North of Greece for the celebration, marking the first time since I moved to Greece that I will be able to just sit back on Sunday and enjoy the food, rather than preparing it. Happy Easter!