For Greeks, Easter is the most important holiday of the year. As I understand it, the birth of Jesus (Christmas) isn’t nearly as miraculous as his death and subsequent resurrection (Easter) for those of the Greek Orthodox faith. I think this is because no one disputes that Jesus Christ existed. The miracle of the Christian faith is in the resurrection. Hey look mom, Sunday school lessons are paying off! What’s funny is that when I was a child, I thought that Jesus was born on Christmas and died just three months later on Easter. I thought the miracle was the fact that he managed to age 35 years in a matter of three months. Imagine my disappointment to find out that I was wrong and that he was only the son of God taking human form to save us all from damnation. Just kidding. Not really.
Okay, back to Easter traditions. The Thursday before Easter (Holy Thursday), we bake tsoureki, a brioche-like. It’s sweet and shiny, apparently meant to symbolize the light brought to the Christians during the resurrection…or something like that. My mother fussed at me because I requested that we start baking the tsoureki on Wednesday night, but by the time that she baked it, it was technically already Holy Thursday in Greece, so we were good.
Here is our lovely tsoureki, which I made by myself for the first time…ever.
In case you’re interested, I’m going to include the recipe at the end of this post. Mostly, that’s for my own personal Easter-traditions reference, but it really is a delightful and sweet bread, which would make a smashing French toast or bread pudding (but please don’t tell the purists on me).
Next up on the menu for Holy Thursday is the dying of red eggs.
The egg in general symbolizes the renewal of life (you know, the whole chicken or the egg question) and the red symbolizes both the blood of Christ as well as the victory over evil. Pretty deep, huh? There’s no Easter bunny hanging around here during Easter – just the battle of good and evil and blood and death. Oh and if we had any baby lambs, we’d dab their heads and tails with red dye to ward off the evils. No, I’m so not making this up, but I’m not sure if people on the motherland still do that or not.
So, with our tsoureki made and our eggs dyed, our duties for Holy Thursday are over. The church services on the evening of Holy Thursday are focused on the crucifixion and a 3-day period of mourning begins. The Holiest day of the week is Great Friday. It’s a day of mourning and Greeks will neither cook nor work. When I was growing up, we would go to the church on Great Friday to attend Jesus’ funeral. We would walk behind the Epitaphio, the symbolic bier of Christ, carrying candles. There were literally hundreds of parishioners in attendance and the Broward County Sheriff’s Office would shut down streets for the procession.
On Saturday, we will make mageritsa, a traditional lamb stew, to break the 40 day fast when we get home from midnight services. My ever-adaptable mother has devised a vegetarian version for me. I have to say that the midnight mass on Easter Sunday was the coolest experience growing up. Right before midnight, all of the lights were extinguished and there was dead silence. The only light in the church is a single candle on the alter, the Eternal Flame. At the stroke of midnight, the priest calls, “Xristos Anesti,” which means Christ has risen. The Eternal Flame is passed to the altar boys’ candles and is then spread to the parishioners. As the light passes from candle to candle, a traditional Byzantine hymn begins. It is haunting and beautiful. You can’t help but feel caught up in the elation of the moment. In a matter of minutes, thousands of people are illuminated only by candle light and singing the hymn. Typically, this can last an hour or so, but I recall that one year, our priest kept up well into the wee hours of the morning. That priest was FatherNick, whom you may recall is the same priest that my father and I hid from in a xenophobic event.
After the hymn singing is over, you carefully bring the Eternal Flame home and bless your house and all of the doorways. Then, you eat and break eggs. I’ll detail the egg breaking on Easter Sunday so that I can demonstrate with pictures exactly what transpires. For that day (and a number of subsequent days), Greeks will greet each other with, “Xristos Anesti” (Christ has risen) and the proper response is “Alithos Anesti” (he has truly risen). The lamb stew signifies the breaking of the fast.
Well, there you have it – the Greek traditions and the meanings behind them as it was told to me. As promised, here is the tsoureki recipe. The dough rises several times so the baking of this break is a half-day event.
Ingredients and Process:
3 pkgs. Rapid-rise yeast
2 cups flour
1 Tbs. sugar
1.5 cups very warm milk (110 degrees)
.5 cups very warm water
Mix the above together, cover and put in a draft-free place to let it sit for 25 minutes. The microwave is a good place for this. While that’s sitting, get the following together.
6 eggs + 2 egg whites
1 cup hot, melted butter
Beat the above for about 10 minutes on medium. Once that is done and the 25 minutes are up, add in the yeast mixture to the egg mixture and fold together with a wooden spoon. Now, add in the zest and juice of one orange. Okay, now it’s time to add the flour. We’re going to add about 8-9 cups total and the first four cups can be added one cup at a time with the mixer. Once those are in, add them one at a time, but switch to a wooden spoon to mix it together. Once that gets too difficult, just dig in with your hands. You want the consistency to be spongy and firm. If it’s at all sticky, add a bit more flour (and trust me, it will be VERY sticky until you get to the 8th cup of flour or so).
Now, cover the flour with plastic wrap and let it rise in a draft-free area for 2-3 hours or until it has doubled in size. Are you still with me? Good. Now, lightly flour a surface that you can work on. Put the dough on your working surface and punch it down. I mean really squeeze the crap out of it. Now, cut the dough into three or four pieces (depending on how many loaves you want to make) and then cut each loaf into 3 pieces. Roll each of those three pieces into a long log (squeeze all of the air out of the dough) and then braid the three pieces together. Repeat with the other loaves. Brush the tops of the loaves with an egg wash (2 egg yolks and 2 Tbs. of water) to make them shiny.
Finally, grease a pan and allow the braided loaves to rise for another hour. Now bake in a 350 degree oven for about 35 minutes. And that’s it! Congratulations, you are now an honorary member of the Greek Orthodox Easter baking club.
Next up, step by step instructions on how to slaughter and roast a lamb. Just kidding, folks.