In celebration of Greek Easter this weekend, I decided to post the following short chapter from my 2011 nonfiction book, “Aegean Dream.” This chapter describes the Easter we were part of when we lived on the tiny island of Skopelos–the real “Mamma Mia!” island–in 2007. Χριστος Ανεστι!
Truly He is Risen!
Easter was rapidly approaching. Church steps were scrubbed and cleaned, and fresh coats of limewash applied. Bells pealed. Masses were crowded. The larger churches had been holding daily services during the week leading up to Good Friday. There was such a sense of excitement and anticipation in the air that at times both of us wished we were believers, so as to more directly experience the joy in the air.
Not wanting to miss the Easter celebrations as we had Carnival, we asked Sofía and Rita what the schedule was.
On the Thursday evening, they explained, each parish’s ceremonial bier would be garlanded with flowers by the girls and women of that parish, in preparation for Good Friday, when the Christ-effigy was taken down from the cross and placed within the coffin before being paraded through the streets.
Good Friday was a day of mourning. The very devout ate only sour foods, in memory of Christ’s being given vinegar to drink. The evening procession was the big event of the day.
“The next evening,” said Sofía, “at the Saturday night Mass, all the lights except one candle on the altar are put out. Then, one by one, everybody lights their candle from this one. It is incredible to see this. They carry the lit candle home, and make a cross with the smoke over their front door, to bring them blessings for the rest of the year.”
Linda asked if it was all right for foreigners to participate. “Yes, Yes!” said Sofía. “Come at seven-thirty. We will have aperitifs together, and then we go.”
Katerína, the Frenchwoman who worked at Gorgónes and who had hooted with laughter at my attempts to translate my website into Greek, had warned us about a language pitfall specific to the season. In Greece you grow used to replying to greetings with the word epísis, meaning ‘you too’, or ‘and you also’. But on Easter Sunday, and for days afterward, it was traditional to greet everyone with the words, Chrístos anésti, Christ has risen.
“So in my first year,” she said, “when somebody said to me, ‘Chrístos anésti!’, I would reply, ‘epísis,’ the normal answer to a greeting in Greece. People were shocked, even angry, because I was saying ‘You also are risen!’“
“So what’s the correct form?” said Linda, when we’d stopped laughing.
“You must say, ‘Álithos anésti’, which means, ‘truly He is risen’. Telling someone they too have risen from the dead is not considered polite!”
We arrived at Sofía’s house a little before seven-thirty on Good Friday, had a Campari and soda, and strolled together to the church. The night was cool and clear.
Several dozen people were already gathered in small groups on the large terrace outside the building. Inside was a press of people, beyond which we glimpsed a mass of flowers covering the top of the bier. The moody owner of the pharmacy on the paralía (shoreline) was on the steps; Alexándra Tsoúmas was coming out as we entered the church.
Once inside, we discerned a distinct current among the crowd, a circulation toward the bier and then back toward the entrance. As we approached, I saw first Sofía, and then Rita, dip forward. They were kissing the brow of the Christ-effigy in the coffin.
Linda, who was ahead of me, didn’t miss a beat; I followed her example. I leaned into the cave of flowers, and for a second entered another world, a place of bright, sweet-scented blooms and the warm candlelight dancing on the olive-skinned face of the Savior.
We lit our candles and joined the growing crowd outside. The candles came with little plastic guards to keep the flame from blowing out in the breeze. Rita and Sofía met friends, some of whom they’d not seen in years. We chatted and watched the crowd.
A little before ten, the bier was brought out from our church as the head of the procession arrived. The procession had started at the parish farthest from the paralía. As the first bier and the priest of that church arrived, he was greeted by the priest from our church, litanies were exchanged, and the procession moved on. Ten minutes later, the next bloom-bedecked bier arrived, and the process was repeated.
The flowers, the incense, the liturgical chants by the light of hundreds of candles, the faces recognized as the entire village flowed steadily past like a great, slow river, the knowledge that we were witnessing a ritual unchanged over centuries: these were the invisible cables that bound this community together. Witnessing it, I felt a great peace, a comforting sense of security and permanence. It was beautiful.
When the final group had paused and moved on, the bearers of the bier from our church followed and we all folded in behind. An hour had passed since the first bier’s arrival. The night had become crisp, and we were glad of our leather jackets.
We flowed down the narrow streets toward the paralía, borne by the current of villagers carrying candles. Nearby was Lázaros Tsoúmas, CEO of the Próton grocery, walking solemn-faced with his children. The procession was hushed. It was, I remembered, a day of mourning.
As we arrived at the last small church before the paralía, the procession ahead began to dissolve as if by unspoken command, breaking into small groups that trickled away without fuss. “We can leave our candles here,” said Sofía, pointing to the interior of the little church. Other people were doing the same: the small space pulsed by the light of hundreds upon hundreds of half-consumed candles, its saints staring out of their icons among a sea of rich wood and glinting gold.
“Shall we go to Ánemos and get a drink?” said Rita. We were more than willing; it was eleven-thirty, and there was a general movement toward the paralía and its bars just one street down. Both of the big ferries that served the island—the G&A Lines Jet Ferry and the Hellenic Seaways Skiáthos Express—were moored alongside one another in the harbor, something I’d never seen in the off-season: the sons and daughters of the Spórades had returned to spend this most important of all holidays with their families. Above the giant, dark opening of the loading bays, the red digital banners that usually displayed the ferries’ sailing time and destination glowed with Easter greetings.
The bars were doing a roaring trade. Ánemos was packed, so we settled ourselves at a small outdoor table. I saw the owner of Omorfiá, one of two high-end craft stores on the island, a place where we both hoped to place our products, sitting with a group of friends. A few minutes later Kákos, our lawyer, walked by. Rita greeted him by his first name; he acknowledged her without stopping.
We sipped our drinks and took in the atmosphere. People kept stopping by to greet Rita and Sofía. There was merriment as friends and relatives who hadn’t seen one another since the previous year became reacquainted. The day may have been one of mourning but, as after any funeral, celebrations were now appropriate.
By one-thirty we’d begun to feel the cold. Rita, with her twenty-year advantage over her Mom and ourselves, was just starting to liven up and was ready to party. There were men out there, and the night was young. We gave her a farewell hug and accompanied Sofía to her door on our way home.
Greek Orthodoxy, Linda and I agreed, was a religion we could live with: big on ritual and eye candy, party- and alcohol-friendly: a faith wherein both Saturday night and Sunday morning could coexist.
We’d arranged to join Rita and Sofía again the next evening for the Saturday night mass; but Linda, who is somewhat allergic to pollens, had broken out in an alarming rash and was feeling awful. We called to apologize and spent a quiet evening at home.
Next day, Easter Sunday, found Linda on the mend. This was fortunate, since Spýros and Mára had booked us several weeks earlier for the big Easter feast at the kalívi (country cottage). We’d had several other invitations—from Tákis, Vasílis, and Apostólos, the neighbor above our workshop—all of whom were grilling lamb and hosting large gatherings. We assured them we’d at least stop by late in the day if we had the steam left.
But how to dress? It was sunny, and there was a good chance we’d be outdoors. But in the past we’d more than once found ourselves underdressed for an event, so clueless were we about the social protocols of this land. Given the importance of the day, we decided that casual-smart—slacks and dress shoes for me, a crisp dress for Linda—would be appropriate. Best to err on the side of elegance.
Strátos and Anna picked us little before noon. We arrived to find several people already seated outdoors in the small meadow by the chicken coop. A long wooden table had been set out, flanked by two long benches and an assortment of chairs. A little distance away, Spýros was turning a spitted lamb over a fire, while Dimítris, Anna’s employer, likewise attended to a goat; on the same spit, a dark, sausage-like mass three feet long was sizzling away. Spýros had started the cooking a couple of hours earlier, and the meat was about halfway done.
We were hugged by all those we knew, and greeted with expressions of Chrístos anésti, which we countered with the requisite and traditional password álithos anésti. We were grateful we’d been coached in this beforehand.
Everyone, except for a small old gentleman and two black-garbed, elderly women we’d never met, was wearing jeans. We were seriously overdressed. And it was warm here on the southerly side of the island. Shorts would not have been inappropriate.
We were introduced to the older guests, who turned out to be Dimítris’s parents and aunt, and to his two sons. The sons could not have been more different. One was round and flabby, with long, frizzy hair tied back in a ponytail, and owlish eyes behind alarmingly thick glasses; the other was a small bull of a man, with hard, close-set eyes and a distinct aura of menace about him. Father and sons owned a car hire business as well as the ACS courier agency where Anna worked. Another couple, friends of Strátos’s, had come from Alónissos for the day.
Linda had baked chocolate chip cinnamon rolls for the occasion, and these, along with our bottle of premium red wine, were whisked off to the kitchen. I was handed a glass of the usual thin homebrew, and took a turn cranking Mr. Goat’s spit. Between the greasy smoke and the occasional spritz of goat fat, the smart clothing was a wasted nicety. But it was pleasant to sit in the spring sunshine, smelling wood smoke and crisping meat. Spýros and Mára had once more made us feel like family. We were very blessed.
The sausage-thing was first off the spit. By now everyone was hungry, and lightheaded from the wine and sun. “Koukourétsi,” announced Mára, with her usual enthusiasm, sliding three thick slices of the stuff onto our plates. A casual question confirmed my suspicions: we were being served the organs and innards of at least one of the spitted beasts, and were left in no doubt that this was considered a great delicacy by everyone present.
With the notable exception of foie gras, I’m not a fan of organ meats: haggis, brains, tripe, kidneys, tongue, blood pudding—all deserve a polite but firm no, thank you in my book. And now—oh God!—how was I going to get out of eating this stuff?
But with our dear hosts sitting so close, and Mára clearly eager to see our faces light up as we sampled this treat; and Linda encouraging me to ‘just try a bit;’ and the admittedly mouthwatering smell coming from my plate as, fork poised, I tried and failed to find a graceful exit from my predicament; and the undeniable fact that it looked pretty much like a dark and lumpy version of cotechíno, a variety of cooked salami served in northern Italy which was, face it, one of my favorite foods on Earth…
I cut off a piece and popped it in my mouth.
Bit down on it, ready for a quick swallow if the taste proved unmanageable.
To my great relief, it was rather like a salami of some sort, albeit a very complex, nuanced, and distinctly liver-flavored member of the family. But it wasn’t bad, and I was able to muster appropriate sighs and moans of delight without feeling too false about it. Mára and Spýros beamed.
Salads came, along with beans, slabs of féta, olives, and more sour, wine-flavored liquid. Before long, the lamb arrived. Spýros and Strátos set it down at the end of the table in front of Mára, and slid out the skewer. Mára made a couple of big incisions, plunged both hands into the steaming carcass, and began to tear off big hunks, piling them onto our plates as we handed them down the table to her. She was chuckling. We’d never seen meat served this way at a dinner party, but at least it must be tender.
They set the half-emptied lamb on the table not far from Linda, the ghastly remains of its face, complete with pointy teeth and cooked, milky eyeballs, facing us. We tried not to look that way.
The meat was excellent, at once more fatty and gamey than any lamb we’d eaten in the past, with the spiciness you’d expect from a flock whose diet included wild sage and oregano. Happily, Mr. Goat never even made it to table, so stuffed was everyone by the time it was even mentioned. This was a good thing, since neither Linda nor I are fond of goat.
The sun grew hot. Dimítris sat to our right, one of his sons beside him, one facing. He spoke some English, but insisted on making us work hard at our Greek. I liked the man: he was charismatic, with a gentleness that belied his dark, weather-beaten exterior. He liked to laugh, and it was clear he thought Linda a good sport as they bantered in Greek. I was proud of her: my wife had proved herself courageous, adaptable, and wonderfully crazy. Not for the first time, I could hardly believe we lived among these extraordinary people.
The chocolate chip cinnamon rolls came and went, along with coffee, and the party began to break up. The remaining few of us adjourned to sit at a table in the shade of the house. Linda and I excused ourselves and took a stroll up the lane and back, admiring the nearby kalívis and olive groves. Many of the houses still had working wells complete with iron bucket and crank, and I was unable to resist lifting the lid on one of these and peering in to see my head silhouetted against a perfect disk of deep blue in the blackness some twenty feet below.
We returned to find a neighbor had arrived, a loud, fat man who’d clearly drunk more than was good for him. In an aside, Mára let us know she wasn’t pleased at the man’s arrival, and it was easy to see why: he’d monopolized the conversation and showed every sign of going on for hours. Spýros saw me watching and did a surreptitious eye-roll to indicate his own feelings, but our hosts were too polite to interrupt their new guest.
By now it was evening, and when, a short while later, I asked Strátos if he could give us a ride home sometime soon, he and Anna seemed happy for an excuse to leave.
Mr. Goat, all wrapped up in yards of tinfoil but still on his spit, stood propped against the front door frame, ready to ride back to the Balabánises’ in the back of the pickup, where I imagined he would end up in the freezer.