At the same time Easter leaves me on a high note of optimism. Yes you heard right optimism! The window has been open at work all morning, the breeze caressing my cheeks. It is bloom time and greens are filling my cooking basket.
Greek Easter is the biggest celebration of the calendar year, and YES it IS bigger than Christmas. I think its importance goes further back than the times of Christianity. Easter is after all is a moving celebration defined by lunar cycles, which often means that the Greek one falls at a different time from the rest of the world (apart from this year!). And Easter could be any time in spring but is always around or after the spring equinox (in March), when in ancient Greek times we celebrated the return of Persephone, the goddess of vegetation and bloom, to earth from the underworld (Hades). In our part of the world it seems it was always a time to be happy.
I love Easter time… and that love is contradictory, fuelled by nostalgia of early youth and my birth land, fed by new memories of celebrating at my new home with friends, and it is deeply entrenched in my heart. I don’t know whether I love Easter because of all the beautiful memories of gatherings and celebration at my Thracian or Evritanian villages, with my Greek families. Or because it was the time we were allowed to stay up well past midnight on Greek Big Saturday after we literally played with fire, holding beautifully adorned white candles, chanting out of tune under starry skies at midnight. Maybe it is because of all the ceremonial preparations and the thoughtful selection of the red Easter eggs to withstand the ferocious, conkers-like collisions of our traditional Easter egg game (and always chasing that cheeky, fraudulent cousin that brought along a fake, wooden egg in the hope to win – you know who you are!). Maybe it is all that festivity and happiness we were ‘allowed’ after the gloomy, strict religious week of the Great Passions of Christ, when no TV or happy music were allowed (there was a period of my childhood that from Big Thursday there was no music radio broadcast on any Greek radio station!). I used to hate that week and its gloomy tone but in a non-religious way I now see it as a good opportunity to reflect on the yin and yang of my life, the trials and tribulations of our world and the suffering experienced by people around it, humbly and modestly.
My ‘church’ is out in the fresh air and in my heart. I cannot pretend I am a religious Greek but I love our traditions and ceremonies from the red eggs, to the meditative Orthodox church ceremonies and spiritual chanting in candle-lit churches infused with incense (not far from some of the yoga and meditative chanting that is so widespread now). And that amazing Byzantine hymn – the ‘Sweet Spring’ – which I secretly hummed to on the Big Thursday even when I rebelled against going to church (I just love the poetry and the music of it – it is all about love and life). And the red Easter eggs, the dishes loaded with fresh greens and herbs, foraged and grown in ‘mpaxtsedes’ (backyard allotments) – mageiritsa, kourbani (which I think is an Arab word for sacrificial lamb). And the return to cheese after fasting and going vegan for Lent. And the soft brioche breads with toasted almonds, which are a tradition mixed with that of our Hebrew communities and Armenian neighbours. And the tender lamb, which was eaten once a year at Easter only because people would not sacrifice their animals often in mass production, commercial practices. And the land’s rebirth, the rebirth of the year, which the Greeks in ancient and moderns times, share with their Iranian neighbours who celebrate Nowruz with similar ingredients and lasting festivities.
But mostly I love Easter because of what it signifies to me – hope, rebirth and a beginning. And I wish you all the happiest of seasons, feeding on the greens that thrive around you in tune with nature’s cycles. And I also wish you resilience and defiance of the darkness of times and politics. Shine a light in your own heart and the hearts of others.
To find out more about my Greece and my Greek flavours join me at Lia’s Kitchen cooking class on 5 May 2017.