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Pascha Customs!

It’s right about that time when Greeks and other Orthodox Christians the world over make preparations for Pascha.  There are several tried-and-true customs wrapped up with the “feast of feasts,” the most important holiday of the liturgical year.  Of course, you know what they are, but do you know where they come from and how they came to be part of the Pascha protocol?  Here’s a short run-down of the most popular:

dying eggs red: the tradition of dying eggs red dates back to pagan times.  The egg has been a sacred symbol of life for many ancient cultures including Egyptian, Celtic, Persian, Chinese and Hebrew.  It was a symbol for the god and an icon for the universe itself:  the inner yolk stood for the sun, the white stood for the mother Goddess, and the whole thing represented rebirth and resurrection.  It is an easy symbol to adopt for the spring.  Red has symbolized life through its association with blood.  The Orthodox tradition of dying eggs red is associated with the miracle attributed to St. Mary Magdalene.  Because she was considered high-class and aristocratic, when St. Mary was invited to the court of Tiberius Caesar in Rome, she greeted him with the usual Christian greeting, “Christ is Risen!”  To this the emperor joked, “That Christ rose from the dead is as likely as that egg in your hand turning red.”  Before he had time to finish, the egg turned red in her hand. This is why in Russian icons St. Mary Magdalene is depicted with a red egg in her hand.

There is also the custom of breaking the fast with eggs.  The idea is that the last non-fasting food you would eat on Cheesefare Sunday before the 40 days of fasting from any meat, dairy, and oil, would be an egg.  This hard-boiled egg represents the “Old Adam” the sinful man and signals the start of the journey to redemption and repentance symbolized by Lent.  After the Resurrection service, the first food to be eaten is a red hard-boiled egg which represents the “New Adam” or Christ.  So the eating of an egg starts the period of fasting and signals the control of the mouth and the appetite, which is what led Adam into sinning and the Fall, and the eating of a new egg represents the rebirth and salvation of fallen humankind by Christ who has given humanity a new lease on life through Him.  So the period of Lent starts and ends with the closing and the opening of the mouth around a round hard-boiled egg.  It comes full circle but with an added benefit, the redness of life and the possibility of eternal life.

In some parts of Greece it is the custom to keep the first red egg of Pascha and place it on the iconostasion of the house to keep away evil spirits.  In the villages, they even dye a red cross on the back of young lambs to commemorate the holiday.

The Magirista:  Yes, you know it. The soup you love to hate.  With all the lamb innards, offal, guts, whichever way you say, it is disgusting. Do you still look through your lemony-oozy plate sliding through the pieces of lettuce, branches of dill and scallion rubble with your spoon to uncover the mystery parts of the lamb?  Is that black morsel from the spleen, the liver, or the kidneys? You will never really know, because they all taste the same.   It’s like playing mystery dissection in a bowl.

Why of all the dishes to break the fast we as Greeks have chosen this one is a question I have yet to find the answer to.  I can conjecture two theories: one is for economy and practicality.  The lambs/goats that are slaughtered have to be emptied of their guts the night before so they can be ready for the spit on Sunday.  So it only makes sense to use the innards in a frugal meal so they do not go to waste.  Secondly, the broth of the magiritsa made with avgolemono and some traces of meat with rice is quite soothing and helps the body transition back to its normal meat-devouring state.  The soup makes a good break-the-fast ramp up for those whose innards have been depleted of protein for so many weeks.  If we didn’t eat such a soup like Magiritsa and headed straight for the leg of lamb, chances are we’d be needing a lot of Imodium D or the other pink stuff.

Tsoureki Bread:  For the origins and a great recipe for the traditional sweet Easter bread, log onto fellow blogger Sam Sotiropoulos’ page http://greekgourmand.blogspot.com/2008/04/tsoureki-bread-that-swallows-its-tail.html

Wherever you are, whatever you eat, have a Happy Pascha! Christos Anesti!