Kalo Pascha!

10 Apr

I used to spend Sunday mornings lying oh-so-still in my bed, my eyes tightly shut, praying that my mom would sleep through her alarm and wake up too late to drag us to church.  My mom, born into a Russian Orthodox family, had defected as an adult into the humble Lutheran church, hating to see all that Orthodox money being spent on lavish icons and vestments instead of “being put to good use, helping those who could really use it,” as she would say, with feeling.

So most Sundays, my sister and I would fidget on the hard wooden Lutheran pews, poking each other, staring out the stained glass windows, sometimes trying on a pious face, just to see how it felt.  The only time we eagerly participated was at the very end of the service, when the staid German congregation stood up and broke into a rousing final hymn.  “Thank the Lord and Sing his Praise,” we would sing with great gusto.  “Hallelulah,  Ha-lle-lu-ja!”  we would conclude, at the top of our voices.  It was time to go!

But there was one weekend in that long procession of Sundays when I couldn’t wait to go to church.  That was the night before Easter, when my Dad would get us all dressed up, buy us beautiful three-foot tall white tapered candles, their flame protected by a bright red plastic cup, and let us stay up well past midnight.  My Dad was born into a Greek Orthodox family and he had learned to go to church from my grandmother.  My grandfather, disdaining plump priests as much as my mother, preferred spending Sunday mornings in solitude under his umbrella at the beach, contemplating the miracle of God’s creations while sitting firmly in their midst.

I’m not sure what my Dad’s theological stand was in all this, but I do know that he was just as excited as we were to go to church the Saturday before Easter.  The Greek Orthodox Church, after all, has managed to retain the high drama that the circumstances warrant, even after the passage of centuries. It doesn’t really let you forget what this celebration is about – no cute furry bunnies or pastel-pink eggs.  No glazed ham or bright yellow marshmallow peeps.

Instead, we dress in black on Good Friday, and somberly trail behind Christ’s coffin as it is carried through the streets, church bells tolling, mourners wailing.

We show up at church late Saturday night and after a long, heavy service, the priest falls silent and someone turns off all the lights, inside and out.  We are plunged into a creepy, but expectant darkness. We wait, and we wait.

And then the priest disappears behind the alter and lights the first Paschal candle, a dim, weak, pinpoint glow.  He returns, leans over and lights someone else’s candle. And that someone lights another, and another, until soon the whole church and the surrounding streets are bathed in a soft, warm glow.

And then we sound the bells, deafening, pealing, causing our non-Orthodox neighbors to roll over, pull their pillows over their heads, and mumble something that really shouldn’t be mumbled on this holiest of days.  And we shout, “Christ has risen!” “Truly he has risen!”

And then we get in our cars and drive to Aunt Soula’s and do our best to be polite and swallow a few spoonfuls of the dreaded Magiritsa, a horrid but nutritious soup made from lamb offal designed to gently break the Lenten fast.

And then we go to bed, hungry but excited, dreaming of Easter Sunday, when Uncle Sotiris and Uncle Stefos will rig a spit in the back yard and slowly, slowly, slowly, roast a newborn lamb.

And then, finally, when we are ravenous and the lamb is tender-crisp, we sit down to eat – the lamb, the body of Christ, with tangy wild greens on the side.  We dress our tables with bowls of eggs, drenched in deep red dye, and we think of blood.  We think of torture and the depths of human cruelty, and of sacrifice and the heights of human generosity.  We think how glad we are to see another spring, to have another year to love our families, and to fight with them.  And then, having done our philosopher-ancestors proud, we go back to doing what Greeks do best: we get on with the business of living, and return for second helpings.

I called my aunt and asked her how my Uncle used to roast Easter Lamb. She told me — and then she ordered me NOT to do it!  I think she’s afraid I will burn down the house, and my neighbor’s, too.  So I went online and found the following recipe from, of all places, “Cooking Light.”  I think I’ll give it a try.  If you have a recipe that doesn’t call for digging deep holes in the ground and lighting open fires, I’d love to try it!

Roast Lamb

  • 1 three-pound rolled boned leg of lamb, trimmed
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

Preheat oven to 450.  Secure roast at 1-inch intervals with heavy string. Rub the surface with rosemary and garlic ( also rub it with olive oil). Place roast on the rack of a roastin pan. Bake at 450 for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a meat thermometer reads 140.  Sprinkle with salt.  Place on cutting board, cover loosely with foil, and let rest for 10 minutes.  Remove string. Serve.

Cooking Light, December 2002


6 Responses to “Kalo Pascha!”

  1. VL April 10, 2012 at 9:14 pm #

    I loved reading your story of Paschal. I always try to explain to fellow non-Orthodox friends the beautiful services throughout Easter.

  2. greekofile April 11, 2012 at 9:59 am #

    Beautifully written reminiscences Heidi. I’ve never been to a Lutheran service but enjoyed a few village Greek Orthodox Easters over the last 20 years.
    One of the most memorable was when we were driving to Greece and stopped off at Lefkopigi, the home village of a Greek friend near Kozani, (He runs a taverna in Eresos every summer). We were on our first journey to Greece in our ‘Grekovan’ (a converted ex-Luton Airport minibus, a very comfortable if non-glamorous motorhome). Three years earlier most of the village had been destroyed by an earthquake and our friend still lived in a temporary mobile home near the small village church. The main church was still undergoing repairs. All villagers therefore had to crowd into the smaller church and inevitably spilled outside – although I think it was normal for people just to go in briefly then chat outside with visiting friends while the service continued.
    We parked outside Kosta’s home, met many of his friends returning to the village for Easter and went along to the church services. The Pappas was the father of one of Kosta’s friends who had seen us in the village and seemed to take great delight in ensuring we were splashed with holy water at the Friday night service. The candlelit procession which we joined passed our ‘grekovan’.
    Easter Sunday we joined Kostas, his widowed mother and two workers on the site where his new house was being built. He had baked a large fish and we barbecued a leg of goat to eat with salads and other food prepared by his mother and raised a glass or two to his new home.
    We’ve been in Eresos, Lesvos for a few Easters too, including a memorable one where we helped turn the spitted lamb outside a taverna, but the Lefkopigi experience was the best.
    Here in UK we had Easter last weekend and of course had to have lamb. I like the Greek slow cooked lamb with herbs (about 2.5 hours for a leg, covered in a low oven), also known as ‘kleftiko’ (not the original ‘digging holes in the ground’ version from which it got its name). There is no need to bone it as the meat literally falls off the bone. I’m sure you have a kleftiko recipe somewhere.
    Thanks again for your stories and recipes.

    • greekofile April 11, 2012 at 10:00 am #

      … and of course, Kalo Pascha for next weekend.

    • KuZina April 12, 2012 at 2:20 pm #

      You really got to see Greece, didn’t you?!!! What a lovely trip!

  3. Kathe April 12, 2012 at 2:54 am #

    I really enjoy your stories and memories and recipes. Thank you for sharing the blood red eggs!

  4. Denise April 22, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    Yes, wonderful story about Pascha. I am a converted Orthodox, your mother would probably have liked our Church in Mpls. We are very active in helping the less fortunate in our community. My husband is Greek and quite the chef. We had young goat for Pascha. He also makes a tamer version of Easter soup. Love my tsoureki and eggs for breakfast the next day.

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