The Grecian Formula

Easter – the cornerstone of Christianity. For most kids, it means pretty baskets of candy on Easter morning, dressing up and going to church with all the other kids from school, and a big ham for dinner. For me, Easter was one huge ritual that made my family different.

Greeks celebrate Easter, but not the same way most Americans do. For starters, the Greek Orthodox Church goes by the “old” calendar, so most of the time, Easter falls on a different Sunday than regular Easter. Greek Easter does coincide with the new calendar sometimes, but Greek Easter usually falls a week to a month later.

The only advantage to having a late Easter was half-priced candy. My mom never shopped for candy until the day after Easter, so she could fill my basket for half the price. And in my mind, that didn’t make up for being an Easter freak.

Growing up in Mahopac, New York, where everyone was either Catholic or Jewish, I was always a religious outsider. All the Catholic kids had CCD – catechism classes – one night a week, and even though they complained about it, they all shared that common experience in their conversations the next day. I had nothing to add, so I’d focus on my schoolwork until they talked about something else. The Jewish kids had Hebrew school, but most of them lived on the other side of town so I didn’t hear about that until Junior High. Once the Catholic kids had their confirmations at about age 12, CCD was over, but their church experience was still different – they could go to a half-hour-long mass in jeans almost any time and day of the week, it seemed, and I had to wear skirts and pantyhose for a 90-minute Sunday morning service 35 minutes away.

Junior High made Easter a little easier on me because I had an ally – there was one Russian girl in our school who was Russian Orthodox. We weren’t friends normally – she was really popular — but we’d always wish each other a happy Easter whenever it came around to us. That was the extent of the alliance. We were still religious freaks but she had her popularity to carry her through. I did not.

Easter was when I hated being Greek the most. Not only did Easter fall on a different day, but Greeks celebrated Easter in spades. Most go to church on Palm Sunday and then every day starting Good Friday. Friday night service always lasted until 9 p.m. or so. Then Saturday night service didn’t start until about 10 and it lasted until about 2 a.m. The congregation holds candles during most Easter services. On Friday night we go outside for a special procession representing Christ’s funeral, and we usually wind up on the news. So not only was I a freak, I was a freaky enough to provide entertainment for the normal world.

On Saturday night at midnight, everyone’s candles are extinguished and the priest calls out “Christos Anesti” (Christ has Risen) and he lights the first candle from his own, and the congregation spreads this “light of Christ” from candle to candle until the whole church is ablaze. Then we spend a couple more hours celebrating the resurrection and when we’re about to collapse, we get back in our cars and go home, keeping the candles lit. Perpetuating the flame is one of those traditions that made sense back when people lived in small villages and walked to and from church, but carrying three lit candles on the 35-minute drive back from Danbury, Connecticut, never seemed safe to me.

After the Catholics had their Easter, life went back to normal and I always had to miss some social event to go to Easter services. Once I convinced my parents to let me attend a Saturday night party before church. By the time they picked me up, I was drunk. Holding the candle without setting fire to someone’s hair presented a challenge, but I sang louder than I ever had (It’s the only time the congregation ever sings in Greek church) and although I could have slept in my pew, church didn’t seem so bad that night.

If you’ve stayed until the end of the Saturday night service, it’s ok for you to miss Sunday’s service. Sometimes we’d go home early and then be obligated to attend church on Sunday. The Sunday service consists of a lot of “Christos Anesti’s,” followed by readings of the resurrection story in several different languages besides Greek and English. The church taps as many bilingual parishioners as it can for this service so it can get quite lengthy and most of your time is spent listening to readings you don’t understand.

I gave up on Orthodoxy in my twenties, well after the feeling of freakiness subsided, but Easter was never the same without the marathon church services. Over the years I’ve sporadically attended Orthodox Easter services. I even entertained the thought of enrolling my daughter, Rose, in Greek preschool and attending church with her – not for the religion, but for the language and culture. But when we went to my mother’s funeral and the drawn-out, repetitive ceremony reminded me what Greek church really was, I decided against it.

Nevertheless, what has stuck with me are the traditions. When we had Rose, I realized that, no matter how freaky, I owed it to my daughter to celebrate the Greek part of her heritage. To that end, we gave her, and her brother after her, Greek middle names.

Last year we dyed eggs with Rose for the first time. I didn’t go so far as to dye all the eggs red in classic Greek tradition (to represent Christ’s blood), but we did dye them on Holy Thursday, in accordance with Orthodoxy. I was shocked, too, that even though my husband, Matt, was raised Baptist, his family never dyed eggs for Easter. And when I told him about the Greek tradition of the egg game, he said it was stupid. “I’m glad MY heritage isn’t completely devoid of culture,” I snapped.

On Easter Sunday, Rose got her candy like the other kids, but when our friends came for dinner, I taught the girls the egg game. Each girl held an Easter egg, and the first girl would tap her friend’s egg with her own, then vice versa. The first girl is supposed to say, “Christos Anesti” and tap. The second is supposed to say “Alethos Anesti” (Indeed he has risen) and tap, but they were two years old so I forewent the Greek lesson. The girl whose egg remains intact longest wins. Well, the girls just fell in love with the game. They played until we ran out of eggs. Smugly, I told my husband, “See? That’s why this tradition’s lasted thousands of years!”

I even made lamb for dinner. The first thing people ask me when they find out I’m Greek is, “Did you eat Greek food all the time?” or “Do you cook a lot of Greek food at home?” When people ask Rose and my son, Christian, this question, I want them to be able to say, without a doubt, “Yes.” Food is a huge part of every culture and since it can be the only thing that outsiders relate to, I want my kids to have that cultural bridge in their lives.

I want them to feel American, too. Their father is Southern – a culture which overrides any ethnic heritage. My parents always pointed out the differences between “The Greeks” and “The Americans,” or “The Italians,” or “The Jews,” because Greeks like to think they’re superior to everyone else. Growing up in the suburbs, with no other Greeks around, I became more American than my parents would have liked. But now that I’ve got a family, having that history and culture means a lot to me – a lot more than I ever thought it would. I wish I spoke more Greek, so I could teach the kids more. I wish I’d paid more attention when my mother explained our traditions so I’d know how to cut Greek New Year’s bread. I wish I could pepper my kid’s experience with colorful Greek expressions. And those are a few of the reasons I want them to grow up with their new Yaya.

But for now, while we’re 3,000 miles away from most of my family, the Grecian ruins of my upbringing will have to suffice. And maybe someday, they’ll want to learn more about being Greek on their own.