(Part of this essay is in a collection of reminiscences about living overseas – but Greece to me was very special, even in spite of a certain problem with terrorism in the 1980s. The opportunities to visit the Parthenon regularly, as well as other classical sites … well, I used to feel sorry for people coming through on a whirlwind tour. They had only a week or two to spend in Greece, but I had almost three years.)
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 music, 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 always 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.
There was a bakery on the corner, producing fresh boules and baguettes every day or so. In the summer, I would see women coming away from the bakery with a covered casserole, or roasting pan, carrying it with potholders. When the baker was finished with the baking for the day, especially in the summer when it would heat up the apartment dweller’s kitchens to bake something, he would let housewives bring in their casserole to bake in his already-heated oven. The bakery also sold wonderful feta cheese and phyllo tarts: cheese pie, or tiropita, which my daughter loved above all other savories:
Crumble ½ pound feta cheese to the consistency of coarse cornmeal. Make a béchamel sauce of ¼ c. butter, 3 Tbs. flour, and 1-cup milk, and allow to cool slightly. Mix the sauce with the crumbled cheese and add 3 eggs and ½ tsp dill. Allow half a package of Athenos phyllo dough to thaw thoroughly. (they package it with two individual rolls of phyllo dough) Unroll, and cover with a slightly damp towel. Melt ½ cup butter, and use a little to grease the bottom of a small, square baking dish. Layer sheets of phyllo in the dish, staggering the layers, draping the half of each sheet over the side if the dish. Brush melted butter after every two layers, in the dish. When all the sheets are used, pour the cheese/béchamel sauce into the center, and begin laying the layers over the cheese mixture, buttering every two layers. Sprinkle a little water on the top of the final layer of phyllo, and bake in a 350 deg. oven for 45 minutes.
For our own Easter celebration, the base chapel, the English Episcopal congregation and some kind of Scandinavian waterfront ministry for sailors always collaborated in organizing an Easter sunrise service … on the rocky slope of the Areopagus Hill, with a sublime view of the sun coming up on the Acropolis, across the valley between