Greek Idylls – Part 3

(I meant to post another chapter of this yesterday – but spent all day at a book event in a mall, and came back exhausted and suffering from an allergic reaction to dust, possibly mold in the AC ducts, and exposure to a LOT of people)

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 close 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.

A Street in the old Plaka - the neighborhood on the billside below the Parthenon
A Street in the old Plaka – the neighborhood on the billside below the Parthenon

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 congregants scatter 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, 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.

Ano Glyphada, towards the hills, was pretty much the edge of town, when we lived here: there were still many open tracts, and the remnants of small farms and sheepfolds among the low-rise apartment blocks. One of them was around the corner from my daughter’s baby-sitter. Every morning the shepherd and his pair of little raggedy dogs took a flock of sheep up the street to the open hillsides not far away, bringing them back in the late afternoon, their hooves pattering daintily on the pavement. When Kyria Penny and her husband first moved out to Ano Glyphada, there had been many fewer apartment buildings, and many more flocks of sheep; her mother in law used to purchase sheep milk for a particular creamy sweet dessert. Next door to us on Knossou Street, another elderly citizen held on to his little one-story house, surrounded with a vegetable garden and his olive and lemon trees, a flock of vociferous chickens and a number of rabbits, who had a large fenced pen next to the street. My daughter, enchanted to discover the friendly rabbits, insisted on getting her copy of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and showing it to them. She wondered why they did not wear little blue coats and slippers, like the ones in her book.
“These are Greek rabbits, “I explained, “It’s too hot for them to wear clothes here.”

View from the temple at Sunion, at the tip of the Attic peninsula
View from the temple at Sunion, at the tip of the Attic peninsula

When we did a road trip, down into the Peloponnese, we visited many sprawling, and usually deserted ruins: A medieval castle at Nauplion with a thousand steps going all the way up the hill from the seaside town, the ruins of Mykenae, the sprawling Acro Corinth, and the Byzantine ruins of a whole city, Mistras in the hills above Sparta, all of them bare and baking in the summer sun, only Mykenae seemingly visited by anything more than sheep, and the occasional hiker. There was usually a tiny wooden kiosk at some sort of gate, someone taking a couple of hundred drachmas and waving us through, to explore the lizard-haunted, roofless rooms. It was rare to see another person, even rarer to see a facility… which explained the faint smell of urine in some of the far, deserted corners. I came around a corner in one of these places; would have sworn there was not another person within miles, and damn near gave a heart attack to a little old lady hoisting her black skirts and squatting to perform an act of nature. Even in Athens, decent facilities were few and far between: we used to have late lunch at a place in the Plaka, which had slow service, and rather indifferent food, but boasted air conditioning and a really, really nice bathroom. Luxury for a traveler and adventurer… a really nice bathroom.

(Final part in a day or so – this complete reminiscence is in the e-book, Travels with Blondie.)

9 thoughts on “Greek Idylls – Part 3”

  1. “These are Greek rabbits, “I explained, “It’s too hot for them to wear clothes here.”

    Bravo, Sgt Mom. Or should it be Brava? Anyway, top stuff.

  2. This year I’ve been getting interested in fasting, so I fasted for the Greek Orthodox lent. My grandfather was Greek Orthodox before converting to Roman Catholicism to marry my grandmother, and I have some relatives who are Orthodox, although none are practicing.

    I had to ask around to get details. Luckily we have some Greek friends who are reasonably observant and could help me fill in the blanks. The lenten fast is a strict vegan fast. Olive oil is also disallowed but appears to be governed by regional preferences, so I kept it.

    There’s also another fast coming up on August 1 I’m shooting for.

  3. Thank you, Dearie – it helps to be quick-witted when answering children’s questions. Of course, sometimes they come to believe some very strange things. Like when my daughter lost her balloon and I spun her a long story about the Secret and Mystical Island of Balloons, which is where all balloons which escape from small children are trying to return to. (They even send out secret balloon rescue parties to retrieve the remains of popped balloons, to be patched up and revived.)
    Gurray, I read on another writer’s blog (can’t recall whose – she does medieval adventure and romance) but she pointed out that Lent more or less coincides with the time of year that the last of the foodstuffs put up for winter are running out, and it is too early yet for the first of planted crops. Her theory was that Lenten fasting developed from strict necessity of rationing out what you had left – a religious obligation based on stark necessity.

  4. My daughter lived in Spain for year and shepherd pictures of the Easter celebration in Grenada where she lived. I was looking for them but can’t find them today. They had quite an elaborate ceremony that resembled the Contrada parade before the Palio in Sienna. There are some photos here but I can’t find hers. The families maintain elaborate float-like icons that they bring out for the parade.

  5. I have a painting of a Spanish Easter procession done by a lady who had a booth next to me at one of the NCO/O’Club Christmas bazaars – it’s of a single float with a saint … and a long line of confraternity members in long robes, cloaks and pointed headgear with a mask over their faces. Which I have secreted away in the den, because most Americans would look at it and assume that it’s a weird KKK ritual.
    We saw a local procession in Zaragoza once – and it was creepy beyond belief. Drums, torches, the marching confraternity members in long robes…

  6. Two problems with the theory of Lent developing from the vagaries of winter stores:

    1) The pre-Paschal fast, in the earliest times, was only about a week long, but was over time extended. Did people who’d farmed for thousands of years suddenly find a need to ration things over a month earlier than before? 2) The date of Pascha can shift by several weeks from one year to the next. Are we to believe, then, that climate cycles managed to track the same patterns as the Paschalion for centuries, such that the climate and harvest timings, etc. could be sufficiently predictable that the Paschalion could be based upon it with any reliability?

    In terms of causality, I think it more plausible to accept that Great Lent is a religious obligation, but one based on what Holy Tradition says it’s based on: the ancient institution of the catechumenate and the spiritual self-discipline advocated throughout the New Testament, and indeed typologically in the Old as well.

  7. Since there are fasts and fasting days year round, you’re probably right that there must be other explanations. The origins could go back further to ancient nomadic foragers who had to go through long stretches without food, or maybe to neolithic settlements that had to deal with recurring famine. Some paleo diet practitioners believe fasts developed as a way to adapt and acclimate our bodies to either grain based diets or to the over-frequency of eating in an agricultural based culture. Others think it was a way to purge cholesterol.

    I don’t deny the religious significance of fasting. I do it for health reasons. However, I can’t say if it was more spiritual thanksgiving or relief that I could eat again, but I felt pretty thankful on Easter.

    One of these Lents if I can ever work out the logistics I’m going to give the Paulaner Friars liquid bread fast a go. I anticipate my faith being greatly replenished.

  8. One of the reasons why there are disagreements about what is allowed and what is not and when is that the calendar of fasts and feasts is a teaching tool and thus modified at need, pushed and pulled by the twin demands of unity and customization. There is no one right way to fast, though a typikon is generally published so that the eparchy might unify around a common set of habits that serve to strengthen the community.

  9. Mom,
    Never got to Greece in two full tours in Germany, but it was on the list. I feel like I’ve had a representative glimpse at what I missed. Sad to see all the strife they are experiencing now and the loss of their great civilization over the ages. My understanding from conversations I’ve had with friends who have lived there is that they are a strong and friendly people who have, can and will persevere.

    Your shepherd story brought back some fond memories of the shepherd of Illesheim where I was stationed for two years in a tank battalion. The facility had been a WWII air base. I believe it was a fighter repair facility and we made use of the two large hangers for our maintenance operations. While we were busily preparing for or deterring WWIII, he was there every possible day herding his flock as they peacefully grazed on the largely grass runways. He was an old man, but had a young apprentice there as well. Somehow that connection with the pastoral past of the place was comforting as I focused on the very uncertain future of our unit. I wish I had a photo of the shepherd and his flock on the airfield with our tanks rolling out the back gate for a deployment for training or an operational alert as the back ground. He or his protege are no doubt still there, weather permitting, but we, thank God, are not. I believe it is now a German helicopter post, but there was more than enough grass to go around.


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