Now that Easter is approaching, I can’t help but think of the celebrations, religious and otherwise, with which I grew up. Living in Europe with my family has many advantages, it’s true, but one of the downsides of living away from my home country is losing touch with traditions, handed over from one generation to the other, preserved in the hearts and souls of the people. Every community has its own set of events, food, songs, music, parades, prayers, and folklore through which community members celebrate belonging, identity, survival- the new generation learning from the older one, continuity.
The things that I still remember about Easter in our Greek Orthodox community are the austere rules about not eating the wrong foods during lent, especially during holy week where my great aunt used to wear black (I think she still does), listen to Fairouz, our legendary artist singing sad chants about the via dolorosa’s happenings, adults would adopt a forlorn look of sadness and forbid any sign of happiness on the face of us kids. A kind of mini flagellation to feel the passion of the Christ.
We kids hated it. We wanted to watch TV but were sternly told we couldn’t as it was holy week and in Arabic the literal translation is ‘sad week’, a label that was very fitting. A small coffin filled with flowers would be carried from the church in a procession across town on Good Friday (or Sad Friday in Arabic-everything was sad during that last week before Easter, especially when grandparents spoke about what they and their grandparents used to witness during their trips to Palestine-often coinciding with Easter. “In Palestine is where he was born and lived and was crucified, that’s where the best processions take place, the real ones”).
During the procession, people firmly believed the mini coffin was touched by the spirit of Christ, and felt a thrill mixed with pride if they could touch the small black box or snatch a flower or two from inside it. Everything was holy, or somber, or sad during that week, and we kids enjoyed the parade for the main purpose of angling for the flowers, but hated the predominantly sour food we were made to eat that week prepared solely from plants, the sadness, the black clothes, the lemon juice on everything edible, until God almighty gave us relief on Easter morning.
That was the magic that I first experienced, discovered the hoax and moved on. Yet until now I can’t quite grasp how many of my old neighbors and family members still believe that the big church door is opened by a holy force. Let me explain this one. At dawn on Easter Sunday, the villagers congregate in church around 4 a.m. all wearing their most somber faces, some come in pajamas covered by long coats that everyone pretends not to notice. The priest and a few volunteers close the big Church doors while the whole village (minus whoever was drunk the night before and women who are breast feeding at the time) stand around in a big semicircle outside the church building, staring at the large door, as if it were the last thing they will see. The priest would go through many many prayers – this was Byzantine liturgy after all, so compact or concise are a not words that can be easily associated with what happens during those dewy, misty dawns. Then, after what seemed like hours to us kids, people glare at the door, and lo and behold, a yearly miracle, the doors open of their own accord to symbolize the gates of heaven opening to receive Christ after he is crucified.
The sign of the cross travels like a break dance wave washing over the stunned congregation, some crossing themselves repeatedly to show extreme reverence and a sense of awe at the momentous miracle they had just witnessed. “Kirie eleyson, Kristie eleyson”-words etched in my memory since childhood. Everyone’s voice rises in prayer. Every one conveniently disregards the volunteer who opens the door wider to allow the parishioners in, himself emerging from the inside of the church. We all preferred to believe the door opening to let us in was a miracle, brought on by faith. We entered the church, finished the byzantine mass, then ran to my aunt Jamileh’s house to witness another miracle.
Easter cakes and colored eggs. My aunt Jamileh basically used two kinds of dyes. Boiling dozens of eggs on Easter morning either adding onion skins and fresh mint from the garden. Onion gave a dark brown color while mint yielded a sickly green hue. The cakes would be sent in large trays to the communal bakery to be cooked to a golden color, then returned to be served for breakfast along with the boiled eggs to those returning from the ‘hajmeh’- the early morning miracle mass.
Epic battles of cracking eggs took place all day, and spilled over to Easter Monday. We had useless tricks to make the eggs stronger. We alternately rubbed the tips of our warm eggs with vinegar, olive oil, salt, but sometimes our egg ended up with a cracked shell during the rubbing phase. Some kids would perforate the raw egg the day before on both ends with a pin, empty the insides then painstakingly pour hot wax in and let it set, only for the fake egg to slip from the cheating kids’ hands during battle, which was further proof to us that cheating does not pay, unless you can make sure the wax egg doesn’t slip and fall down.
We had techniques, wrist holding the egg at an angle, as Tiger Woods would with his golf club, bent knees, breath held in, approaching the point of impact and fiercely eyeing the enemy’s egg hoping our xray vision would crack it before the actual impact with one of our sickly green or dark brown boiled wonders. We sometimes asked the store owner where we bought the egg cartons the week before if he knew whether the chickens were well-fed to produce sturdy eggs. Did the hens eat some pebbles with their feed? We had heard that pebbles make strong egg shells. The store owner was always evasive about information regarding egg origin, he just wanted to sell his eggs. Kids were so annoying, he must have thought, including his own kids, who were in his shop all day long closely inspecting eggs to choose the sturdier looking ones for their own boiling pot.
Nowadays, where we live in Europe, we either get already boiled and colored eggs and hide them for egg hunts-very much an American tradition, or boil eggs and color them with colorful pens, paint and stickers, to be hidden for yet another egg hunt. I miss our town ways, the rivalry, the battles, the egg indigestion threatening to shut down our liver after being forced to eat every egg we cracked and we usually cracked a lot.
I miss the traditions of the Easter processions, the Palm Sundays with the decorated candles, Sunday clothes for kids who refuse to take them off when they get home, decorated Olive branches and sometimes trees celebrating a new birth, these processions, with the handsomest guy in town chosen to be Christ, an honor his proud mother would never forget. Little girls chosen to be angels in the procession and once carried in their angelic white boxes decorated with clouds, would invariably announce that they wanted to pee-to their parents’ extreme embarrassment. The horrible Judas and the terrible Romans were played by less good looking individuals and were always heavilyd booed. These dramas were taken quite seriously where I come from. Whoever accepted to use the whip on the handsome Christ with the proud mother, had to contend with horrible looks from everyone for weeks to come. “He must be evil to accept to play that part”, was the professed collective reasoning for hating him.
Every year around Easter time, I miss my dearest aunt who passed away at a young age, and who was the guardian of the best Easter morning traditions in her welcoming home. She was also my Godmother, and since she was gone, I feel spiritually unprotected, orphaned. I wish I could see her one last time. She was my favorite person. Kind, giving, loving, suffering quietly until her heart gave up.
I miss Easter in Lebanon, I miss Lebanon with all its traditions, communities and celebrations. This week I am remembering my home and Godmother and missing them.
Happy ‘sad week’ everyone.
My favorite Fayrous prayer, singing to my boy, the loved one, who is in pain