Against the spring palate, blood red is a stark contrast to baby blue, powder pink, lime green, lilac purple, canary yellow; yet I equate crimson with Easter more than the season’s softer hues.
As a child I hunted pastel eggs, but the ovals gracing our dinner table were a rich, vibrant vermillion. Occasionally, Greek Easter fell on the same day as its non-Orthodox counterpart. Either way, the Easter Bunny who visited my home possessed a thick mustache and a string of worry beads, and, during select years, scored candy at discount prices.
I remember waking early on those special Sunday mornings to scour my basket for chocolate prior to dressing for services at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland, California. We didn’t attend church with much regularity, with the exception of Easter. It was the one day religion took center stage as we cruised through the hills, passing the towering Mormon Temple with its peaked, space-ship-esque towers, and entering the lot below, our comparatively humble dome.
As I shuffled across the cobblestone plateia, careful not to scuff the polish on my little black Wingtips, anticipation grew en-route to the chapel. Stepping into the dim narthex with its holy icons, the somber faces of the saints painted in rich detail, while the deep violet, blue, and orange tints of their robes exuded a richness rivaled only by the pigments gracing the pages of my comic books. There in that shadowy chamber, I was given a candle. About an inch down from the wick was a translucent plastic cone, a wax receptacle the same deep red as those prized Easter eggs.
Reaching the pews, we lit our candles from the flames of other parishioners. Soon the chapel was awash with a crimson glow, the red color symbolizing the blood of Christ and, in turn, new life. As the priest intoned the liturgy, I kept my eyes on the ruddy flicker before me, illuminating that scarlet cone, yet I couldn’t help fixate on the eventual feast.
Some years, my family attended the church picnic, usually held at suburban fairgrounds, and I vaguely recall potato-sack races across vast green lawns, or egg-relay games. But most vivid are memories of lambs roasting on spits, constantly rotating while being basted with olive oil, garlic, lemon, and herbs.
When we didn’t attend the picnics, we celebrated Easter at the homes of friends or family. My yiayia (grandmother) was known for oven-roasting leg-of-lamb, always well-done to skin-crackling perfection, as is the customary Greek method. While savoring each bite, I would sit in anticipation of the “shell game,” in which selected from the centerpiece bowl of eggs. I always picked a nice, heavy one. With orb chosen, I turned to the person next to me, raised my egg, point-side-down, and bashed it against my neighbor’s with a cheerful utterance of “Christos Anesti!” (Christ has risen!) In reply, my opponent declared, “Alithos Anesti!” (Truly, he has risen!) If my shell cracked, I was out of the game, left only to peel and eat my hardboiled delight. If my shell remained intact, I advanced to the next round.
A simple game to end an exciting day and sumptuous meal, and yet even now as an adult, I anticipate it and all the Easter season brings, with joy—the stuff of a Greek-American childhood.
Greek Easter takes place on Sunday, April 16, this year.
Apollo Papafrangou is the author of the novel Wings of Wax, available now from Booktrope Editions, about a shy Greek-American artist seeking to reunite with his estranged ladies’ man father in Greece. Apollo lives in Oakland, CA. Visit his website at www.apollopapafrangou.com.