(This piece was part of a much longer essay about life in Greece when I was stationed at Hellenikon AB in the early 1980s. I posted it originally on The Daily Brief, and also rewrote much later to include in a collection of pieces about travel, people and history for Kindle.)
Christmas in Greece barely rates, in intensity it falls somewhere between Arbor Day or Valentines’ Day in the United States: A holiday for sure, but nothing much to make an enormous fuss over, and not for more than a day or two. But Greek Orthodox Easter, in Greece – now that is a major, major holiday. The devout enter into increasingly rigorous fasts during Lent, businesses and government offices for a couple of weeks, everyone goes to their home village, an elaborate feast is prepared for Easter Sunday, the bakeries prepare a special circular pastry adorned with red-dyed eggs, everyone gets new clothes, spring is coming after a soggy, miserable winter never pictured in the tourist brochures. Oh, it’s a major holiday blowout, all right. From Thursday of Holy Week on, AFRTS-Radio conforms to local custom, of only airing increasingly somber music. By Good Friday and Saturday, we are down to gloomy classical pieces, while outside the base, the streets are nearly deserted, traffic down to a trickle and all the shops and storefronts with their iron shutters and grilles drawn down.
The major Orthodox Easter service is very late on Saturday night in a darkened and gloomy church and culminates at midnight, when everyone shouts “Christo Anesti!” and lights their candles in a great wave of light sweeping from the front to the back, and outside the bells begin ringing joyously, fireworks explode, car horns and ship’s sirens sound, gunshots fired into the air. It makes a grand and happy racket for ten or fifteen minutes: Christ is risen, the tomb is empty, He lives, and death is defeated! The congregations scatters to their homes, and I am told it is good luck to bear away your candle and keep it lit all the way home, tracing a cross of soot from it in the lintel over your head as you step back into your home.
The great Easter feast is served on Sunday afternoon, and the tradition is for a whole lamb as the main course, roast over a grill built outside in the garden. It was rainy, on one of the Easters we spent there, but throughout the neighborhood, they were out, huddled under tarps and umbrellas, grimly turning the lamb over the smoking fire. My daughter and I had lamb for Easter dinner many times after that, served with village salad, and cheese pie, and a dish of dried beans cooked with tomatoes and dill.
Clean and wash 1lb large dried lima beans, cover with water and simmer until slightly softened, about 45 minutes. Sauté three large finely chopped onions in ¼ cup olive oil. Drain the beans, reserving the cooking water, and add to the onions with 1 lb. finely diced tomatoes. Add salt and pepper, and 1-2 cups of the cooking water, adding more as needed. When beans are wholly cooked, stir in 2-3 tbsp. fresh chopped parsley and 1 tbsp. fresh chopped dill.