My First Greek Easter

Kalo Pasxa everybody!

Celebrating Easter in Greece this year has been such a great experience. I had celebrated Greek Easter with some of my Greek friends back home in The Netherlands, but this was my first actual Greek Easter here in Greece! Many Greeks return to their villages, or islands to celebrate Easter with family and friends and to create a huge Easter feast. Fortunately, we were invited by a close friend to join her and her family in Megála Kalyvia, a small village near Trikala in the Thessaly region.

Easter is one of the most important and greatly celebrated holidays here in Greece, so preparations start early. I had started to prepare labades– the candles to take to the ‘Holy Light’ on Saturday – the Thursday before leaving. Usually, this Thursday is the day to commemorate the Last Supper and betrayal of Jesus by dyeing the Easter eggs red… though, I had already dyed and eaten my eggs the week before for Western Easter…

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On Friday we left early in the morning and arrived at the house around noon where we were greeted by my friend’s mother, sister, aunt, and grandmother. As happens any time you visit a Greek’s home, we were immediately ordered to sit down at the dinner table to have a Greek coffee and a piece of tsoureki; a sweet bread flavoured with anise seed and mastixa that’s traditionally eaten around Easter. After this warm welcome, we had the chance to explore the little village and to rest a little in preparation for the next day.

The morning of Easter Saturday, preparations start for the festive dinner to be eaten later that night after the Divine Liturgy and the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. I was allowed to go with some members of the family to pick up the whole lamb that was ordered days ahead from the butcher in town. We were not the only ones who came to pick up our lamb which was very obvious by the many (oh my… so many) lambs hanging in the storefronts of every butcher. My friend’s father took our lamb, threw it over his shoulder, loaded it into the back of the car (it barely fit inside!), and we drove back to the house in the village.

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Back home, the lamb was hung onto a hook on one of the quince trees in the garden in order to be hosed down and rubbed with salt and pepper before it was taken to the nearby bakery where it would roast in the oven for several hours; the lamb is not eaten until the next day on Easter Sunday! I was told taking your lamb to the local bakery is common practice for people who prefer to roast their lamb in the oven instead of spit-roasting above an open fire, but whom lack an oven large enough for a whole lamb. Before taking away the lamb, the insides (liver, intestines, stomach) are taken out and kept aside in order to make the magiritsa (a vegetable and offal soup) that is traditionally eaten around midnight in order to break the 40-day fast of the Great Lent.

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Food is such an important part of any Greek celebration and I was fortunate enough to be able to learn how to cook authentic, traditional Greek food directly from an expert – my friend’s 92-year-old γιαγιά (grandmother). Γιαγιά allowed me to sit in the kitchen and watch her closely while she prepared the magiritsa for the entire family. You can read more about that experience and her recipe here.

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Before midnight that day, the people of the village (and Greeks everywhere) gathered around the church holding candles, which they lit with the Holy Light. At exactly 00:00 the Resurrection of Christ was celebrated with singing, fireworks and people congratulating each other with Christos Anesti (Christ has Risen). Then everybody quickly headed home where they traced a cross three times above the door with the ‘Holy Light’ in order to bless the house. Afterwards, everybody gathered around the dinner table, played a game where they cracked the red eggs (the father was the winner, until γιαγιά finally beat him) and ate the magiritsa, fried potatoes, pies, cheeses, and sweets. By the end of the night everybody retreated to their rooms, bellies full of food and drink.

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The next day, on Easter Sunday the usually fresh village air was filled with the smell of lamb slowly roasting on open fires. We first took a little trip to the monasteries at Meteora, which was amazingly beautiful, before returning home where my friend’s mother and γιαγιά were once again preparing the great dinner-table for our Easter lunch (ehhh… didn’t we just eat?!). But! Before we sat down to finally eat our oven-roasted lamb we headed over to the neighbors across the street to say Christos Anesti and watch them roast their lamb and kokoretsi (lamb pluck wrapped with intestines that’s slowly roasted next to the lamb by turning it non-stop over a fire).

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We should have known that we would not be able to avoid the Greek hospitality and that the neighbors would not allow us to merely come over to look at the lamb: we had to sit down at the table immediately! Everybody was given a small glass of homemade raki that ‘miraculously’ seemed to never empty (it was topped up every time you looked away) and that was so potent we couldn’t have run out of the garden even if we had wanted to.

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The neighbor asked if I liked garlic (boy, do I!) and immediately got up to go over to his vegetable patch in the garden to pull out some fresh garlic for me to taste. While I was still chewing on the sweet and mild fresh garlic the kokoretsi and one of the lambs were taken from the fire and quickly chopped up and served to us. Of course, I did not want to be rude (Really! It’s not my insatiable hunger, or somethin’) so I just had to taste a piece (or three…) of the crunchy kokoretsi and salty, crispy lamb skin! Nothing can beat the flavor of meat that has been slowly roasting above a fire… so delicious!

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After being “force-fed” delicious garlic, creamy tzatziki, homemade feta, and kokoretsi we really had to excuse ourselves to go back home… to eat. While we had already had our share of lamb at the neighbor’s house our own oven-roasted lamb still really hit the spot! By slowly roasting it in the oven the meat had turned amazingly soft and juicy and it formed a great contrast to the crispier lamb served across the street. I really enjoy both styles of lamb and I wouldn’t be able to pick a favorite, particularly because the next day the leftover oven-roasted lamb was mixed with rice and slowly cooked in the oven again, which created the most rich and creamy rice-dish I have ever tasted! Alongside this rich rice-dish we were served another little kokoretsi, which had been roasting in the oven since early in the morning.

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I felt like the celebrations would never stop! Though, unfortunately, they did the next day when we had to return to Athens. Sadly, now we have to wait until next year for the next Easter food and celebrations, though I might need a break from all that lamb now! Luckily, Easter also means it will be summer soon… which means more food adventures to come soon!

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