Christos Anesti! Christ is risen. The words pop out of our mouths at the stroke of midnight on Easter Eve and for the rest of the week even if the Passion of Christ means nothing more to us than uplifting music by Bach. Even if we have not been fasting for 48 days, even if we have not darkened the door of a church.
My father, a vestryman and dedicated churchgoer, used to be very disparaging about what he called “oncers”—people who attend one service a year, at either Christmas or Easter. But though I always mean to join the procession following the Epitaphios—a flower-bedecked facsimile of Christ’s casket—on Good Friday and wait with the crowds outside a country chapel for the priest to burst out with his lit candle and announce the joyful news of the Resurrection, I don’t often manage even that any more.
I’m not at all religious in the conventional sense. Four years of enforced dogma and twice-daily prayers at an Episcopalian boarding school extinguished any residual childhood beliefs or expectations of solace from the pulpit. But ceremony is another matter and I love the drama and theatrical aspects of the Greek church, the poetry and hymns of the Protestants.
In the old days when we were new to Andros, I never missed going to the church at Fellos, the only one functioning between our house in the outback and the port. There we would greet friends, stand somewhat apart from the local congregation (being both oncers and foreigners—Athenians are regarded as alien as Anglo-Saxons), clutch our candles and wince when the lay chanters we knew as the tiler or the plumber intoned off-key.
Sadly, I have never taken part in the preparation of the Epitaphios. In some places, on islands like Spetses, Poros or Hydra, or towns like Corfu and Heraklio, where there are several churches within a small radius, the processions converge in a central square and there’s an unofficial competition as to which parish has created the loveliest bier. The equivalent of the Women’s Auxiliary meet in the morning, bringing flowers from their gardens, preferably white, and decorate the “coffin” with them.
Walking behind it in the evening with hundreds of other people, all singing the achingly beautiful Byzantine hymn, “O Glykí Mou Eár” (O My Sweet Spring), can be incredibly moving and inspiring, even to a jaded agnostic.
But when there is just one church, on a hill no less battered than wuthering heights, the straggly procession simply circles it three times and the hymn disappears into the wind and emptiness. The experience bears repeating only just so often, and I think I’ve had my share. I also no longer welcome the firecrackers and explosions that drown out the equally wonderful Easter hymn and reduce the service to a raucous charade.
This is a rather circuitous rationale for why we stayed home on both nights, cosseted in our comfort zone. The men played backgammon by the fire, we women cooked—a succulent risotto of artichokes and broad beans from our guests’ garden on Friday, and made the avgolémono (egg-lemon) thickener for the mageirítsa, Easter soup with lamb’s innards, on Saturday. We’d shamelessly finished dinner by 10 pm and then, dare I admit it, watched movies on TV until after midnight. Fireworks woke me up at 2:45!
Sunday turned out to be a perfect. Perhaps because it is also a pagan festival and older gods watch over us.
Spit-roasting a lamb at Easter always means that we anxiously check the weather reports every few hours from the beginning of the week on. Will April showers dampen our charcoal? Are fierce winds going to prevent us from lighting it? Strong southeasterlies—the worst for our terrace—had been blowing for days, but the forecasts maintained they would shift to the southwest and drop. Sure enough, Aeolos took pity on us and reduced his presence to a gentle breeze. Helios banished all clouds. And that lamb from next door tasted even better than I’d predicted.
Our team has got the spitting/roasting routine down to a fine art. The guys got up around 8—none of that rising at 6 to dig a pit and prepare the fire. They drank their coffee and then skewered the lamb, which had been delivered to our door on Saturday afternoon. I gathered bunches of all the herbs in our garden—oregano, rosemary, mint, thyme—leaving out the sage, and they stuffed them into its belly along with some garlic, salt, pepper and lemon juice. I made an oil, lemon and oregano basting sauce and the critter was twirling by 10, rotating by machine and not, as in the old days, by hand.
Our friends started arriving after 12:30, while I was still picking wild flowers—white and blue lupins, yellow daisies, pink mallows with purple stripes and many other mauve-blue combinations—for the tables. They all came laden, with wine and with food, dips and desserts to complement the pièce de resistance.
Tzatziki, hummus, taramosalata, something spicy and creamy, beet/orange salad, roast potatoes, cheeses; strawberries and cream, chocolate cloud cake, apple tart and an English simnal cake—a rich fruit cake with marzipan icing and 11 balls that symbolize the Apostles.
Many couples brought both starter and sweet as well as wine, overwhelming us with their generosity. We have enough wine left to hold another party.
Conversation stayed light. No one mentioned “the crisis” but there was a gentleness in the atmosphere, a feeling of deep appreciation for the multiple gifts of friendship, good food and perfect weather.
As for that lamb, Greeks and English-speakers alike descended on the crispy succulent beast as soon as it was laid on our (covered) marble table not long after 2 pm. Nobody bothered with plates. We all tore at the skin, offering each other the best bites, some armed with forks, others with sharp knives. Only when we were sated with meat did we retire to the tables for our salads and potatoes.
Some people might have been shocked but I was pleased. Our houseguests and family always attack the lamb this way. To serve it sliced and congealing on a plate is disrespectful to the animal. We all agreed it was the best ever.
The response to Christos Anesti is Aleithos Anesti, Verily He Is Risen! Another less religious greeting is Chronia Polla or Many Years, which is a standard wish for longevity that Greeks proclaim around any sort of holiday, be it name day, birthday, Christmas, New Year’s, whatever.
The one I like best is “Kai tou Chronou.” May we all be together again doing the same thing next year. In times like these a year is a long time, but I can think of no better wish to get us through it.