In 2010, the East (Greek and Russian Orthodox) and the West (Roman Catholic and its breakaway Protestant faiths) will be booking the same banquet room, as it were, for Easter. It is only an occasional occurrence that their holiday schedules look anything alike.
Both branches might celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ with church attendance followed by a great, fast-ending bout of gluttony; after that, they seem to part ways. Even within the United States. American Christians, for example, tend to favor baking a giant, “look-who’s-not-Jewish” ham to serve as the centerpiece to the Easter feast. Greek-Americans prefer to cook up an uncomfortably symbolic-yet-undeniably-delicious whole, roasted Lamb of God.
To me, the most striking difference in East-versus-West Easter tradition involves the Easter egg.
As a Catholic, half-Italian-American child, I loved Easter– it meant candy, cannoli, and watching a holiday-mandated Judy Garland movie. My family’s Easter rituals were nearly interchangeable with our Thanksgiving ones. We just traded in the turkey for a ham and wore brighter colors. Of course, there was one notable, Easter-specific activity:
The Easter Egg Hunt.
In my family, there was a certain lack of enthusiasm for the hunt. My brother and sister were much older than I and, therefore, largely bored by it. Betty Ford may have busied herself on the South Lawn showing children how to roll Easter Eggs, but the only things rolling at my house were the jaded eyes of my siblings.
Saturday night was spent breaking out the Paas dyeing kit, creating two-toned eggs and trying to somehow work the accompanying decals onto the eggs without tearing them. My brother sometimes attempted to create narrative tension on the surface of his, which is a challenge when pastel colors and bunnies are involved. My sister’s creativity best expressed itself with menace in an egg she dyed 4/5th blue so that she could later paint the original movie poster from Jaws onto it. Once finished, we would admire our handiwork until the nausea induced by the acrid vapors of the white wine vinegar curling up from the egg dyeing cups finally drove us away.
And then, at some point during my sleeping hours, the eggs would go into hiding.
I never really understood why the eggs felt the need to hide themselves– it’s not as though anyone in my family really enjoyed eating hard-boiled eggs, so they were in no immediate danger. I would have preferred to decorate my bookshelf with them or plant one in the back yard and pray that something interesting grew from it. Perhaps they were afraid of being buried alive.
And so they hid. Usually in the same places every year: inside the piano bench, nestled in a chandelier, under sofa cushions. There were always an even dozen hidden. When ten or so were found, the already low level of enthusiasm waned to nothing. My mother would then step into the Judas role, betraying the hiding place of one of the eggs. Eventually, one hiding under the living room sofa or concealed in a recycled Country Crock margarine container would betray itself by virtue of its own putrefaction. Usually sometime in May. Or June.
The traditions involving the Greek Easter egg are much different from our own, and much more no-nonsense than, say, the Russians’. Russian Easter eggs far too expensive to be produced yearly, but they are a good investment if you have the money. The Greeks don’t bother to hide their eggs. Why hide food you know you’re going to eat later? Unless, of course, one is re-enacting an historical event and therefore hiding it from the Turks or the Germans. No, they just dye them blood red and put them in the middle of their dinner table. There’s more to it than that, of course. There’s a power game involved.
What To Do When Confronted with A Greek Easter Egg:
1. Show no fear. This egg will more than likely be presented to you by a Greek person. Greek people smell fear almost as well as they can smell lamb or a decent bargain. Just smile at them and say “Kalo Pascha,” which means “Happy Easter.”
2. The egg now in your possession will be given to you after a large dinner and many glasses of wine and/or ouzo. Take the egg and prepare yourself to engage in a symbolic and aggressive game of egg smashing.
3. One person will turn to another participant seated next to him/her and say something in Greek. The other person will respond, also in Greek, and they will smash the ends of their respective eggs together. The participant whose egg emerges uncracked moves on to his or her next victim.
4. If that next victim happens to be you, he or she will look at you and say, “Christos Anesti!” (Christ is risen!), to which you must respond, “Alithos anesti!” (He is truly risen!). You will then smash your eggs together at their pointed ends.
5. If you are victorious, repeat this process until your egg has been destroyed. If your egg happens to be the last one left that is uncracked, congratulations, this means Jesus likes you better than anyone else in the room and he will grant you good luck for the rest of the year.
What it all means.
The red coloring of the eggs represents the Blood of Christ to the Greeks. It is a fortunate coincidence that they are also highly attractive.
The cracking of the egg is meant to symbolize Christ breaking out of his tomb as he rises from the dead. If this is true, it remains to me uncertain why the person with the uncracked egg is favored. If there is a crack anywhere, it is in the logic of this game. Perhaps the others are simply masking their grief for the damned soul of someone who is now certain never rise to heaven.
If you decide to play the game but are somewhat uncomfortable with so much Jesus talk, you might try substituting your own ritual call-and-response during the game. Something non-religious, yet still meaningful. One person shouting out a love for corduroy while his challenger announces his preference for suede is one such suggestion. I find the Greek tradition of being in such strong verbal agreement with each other while engaging in such aggressive behavior unconvincing and lacking in any real dramatic tension. I suppose if the first person shouted out the usual “Christ is risen!” and the second person responded, “No, I think he’s still napping” or “Christ was a Turk”, there might be some real tension. It is undoubtedly to my own advantage that I don’t know how to say those things in Greek. It might be exciting to witness, nevertheless.
How To Make Greek Easter Eggs If No One Else Is Willing to Make Them for You:
First off, I must implore you not to follow my example. I read the badly translated instructions off the back of a Greek Easter egg dye package, which called for a cold dyeing. I was unwilling to go out and buy more eggs and dye them properly. I already have more hard-boiled eggs than I know what to do with. As a result, my eggs look more like the pocked surface of Mars than the pure life force of a Savior whose blood is said to have come directly from King David on his Mother’s side and, well, whatever flows through His Father’s side of the family.
Here is a better recipe:
Greek Easter Eggs
I have among my acquaintances a woman who converted to Greek Orthodoxy after marrying a Greek businessman. Every year, the family hosts and enormous feast, catering to more than one hundred people. One of her chief contributions to the feast is the making of Greek Easter eggs. Traditionally, she would shut herself up in the garage, open a bottle of white wine, and proceed to dye the eggs. Last year, having given up wine for Lent, she was forced to dye the eggs completely sober. I hear she has vowed never to make that mistake again.
12 uncooked eggs
3/4 cups white wine vinegar
1 package of Greek Easter egg dye
Olive oil, for polishing
White wine, for drinking
1.Carefully wash and dry each egg (I missed this part, so it must be important).
2. Set a large pot of water to boil. Add egg dye and vinegar to the water. Bring to a boil to dissolve the dye.
3. Set water aside and let cool. Refrigerate it, for all I care. It seems every recipe I’ve read calls for putting uncooked eggs into boiling or near-boiling water. This sounds plain crazy to me. Perhaps it is some odd, Greek act of faith. Perhaps it is precisely because I lack that faith that my first batch of eggs came out spotty.
4. Set now-cooled dye water over the stove and carefully add eggs. Bring water to a boil and promptly turn off the heat.
5. Let eggs sit for 10 minutes in the water, then remove carefully and leave to cool a paper towel-lined tray.
6. Wipe eggs with olive oil-soaks paper towel.
7. Wipe clean with a dry, soft cloth to remove excess oil, polishing them to a dull shine.
8. Place them on your Easter table and wait for the violent fun to begin.