Last year, I told you the story of how my sister, Dottie, my cousin, Ted, and I learned the Easter hymn sung during Eastern Orthodox Easter. I told you about my father and how he taught us the words in Greek, and how he helped us pronounce, and remember, the very last word by telling us to say “Harry, Sam, and Us. The whole story can be found here. That was the first time my sister and I attended the Easter Sunday Agape service. The next year, we went to the midnight Easter service and then to the celebratory feast afterwards.
In the Orthodox tradition, there is a moving service that is held at midnight rejoicing in the empty tomb of Christ. Most churches are packed to overflowing as chants and prayers are intoned. Just before midnight, all the lights in the sanctuary are turned off. It is a solemn, sacred moment to believers, and one of palpable anticipation. It is utterly silent and dark. As the new day is born, Easter morning, the bells ring and the priest rejoices with the words “Christos Anesti”, holding one lit candle, which lights another, then another, until the entire church is bathed in the soft glow of candlelight and song. A liturgy is then celebrated, lasting until well after 1:30 am.
There is, of course, much more to this religious celebration that I am expressing here, but, I hope it gives you a feel for the anticipation my sister and I had when we were allowed to attend this Easter resurrection service for the first time. It was a rite of passage, allowing us into an adult time of worship and I will never, ever forget it.
In those years, the early 1960’s, our church was a fledging parish, set off on its own from an established church in Chicago. It was founded by first generation Greek Americans, the children of immigrants, who were slowly, gradually, purposefully moving out to the suburbs, buying mostly new houses in subdivisions with new schools named Nixon and Eisenhower. These new schools rented gymnasiums and classrooms to newly formed churches to use until they could raise the money to build their own. Our small band of parishioners and a priest with a vision did the same, first using public schools, then buying a small, older church, finally building a new one that has stood now for nearly five decades.
It was in the “used” church that my fondest memories dwell. It was walking distance from our house and situated across the street from my grade school. Roosevelt Elementary School and Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church, in Broadview, Illinois, blocks from the Eisenhower Expressway, seven blocks from our house. It was in Roosevelt School that I first learned of the assassination of John Kennedy, and then, a few days later, on the steps of Holy Apostles, that Lee Harvey Oswald was shot. It was in Roosevelt School where I watched an American launched into space and in Holy Apostles basement that I learned the Greek alphabet. It was in that school that I was a seal in the circus and it was in that church that I was a fallen angel of the Lord in the Christmas pageant. It was in the church where my sister managed to roll her quarter “offering” down the aisle at a most solemn moment. I can still hear the sound as it seemed to roll on and on and on, trying hard not to giggle. It was during Greek School lessons in the church basement where we all sat giggling beyond control as we saw a man enter the ladies’ restroom (the man, we later learned, couldn’t read English). I remember one of the boys raising his hand, shouting in Greek, “barroe na pao sto meros”, loosely meaning I have to go the bathroom and twenty or so children bursting into fits of laughter.
It was in this humble church that I attended my first midnight service and in the church basement afterwards that my sister and I were first allowed to partake in the celebratory feast. There was lamb and potatoes, Greek yogurt (what? you thought it was just invented now?) , bread and salad and sweets – and red Easter eggs, which would take me on a path of Olympic glory. Okay. Not exactly Olympic glory, but rather a mini-moment of fame.
Greek Easter eggs are traditionally dyed red, representing the blood of Christ. They are really quite beautiful in a basket or nestled into a big round loaf of Greek Easter bread. They are also employed in a game of seeing who can crack the most eggs without having their own crack.
I sat, primly, in my Easter dress and bonnet, enjoying the food and the sense of community as folks ate, chatted in two different languages, the priest prayed and spoke, women served food. My mother helped with the serving. My dad was often interrupted to shake this person’s hand, or got up to say hello to someone.
Then, the boys started cracking eggs. I was a shy child and was about 12 years old at the time. That awkward age for most girls, made more so by masses of boys with red egg-shell weapons in their hands. One of the boys came over to try to crack my egg. I’m sure he thought that quiet Penny would be an easy target. Not so, for he hit mine with his pointed end and his cracked! He used the other end, and it cracked as well. I felt pretty swell, sitting there, having spent not a whit of energy on the exchange. Another boy came up with the same results. Daddy saw his opportunity and stood up. Having two daughters, one painfully shy, does not give a father too many moments of this kind of pride. He went over to one of the men. I’m sure he said something to the effect of “none of the boys can crack my daughter’s Easter egg”. Of course, a few more boys came over and tried, their Easter eggs turning into masses of red shell. At some point, my dad looked concerned. Two many boys around his older daughter, I’m sure.
I won that year. Nary a dent in my Easter egg. I proudly brought it home. Yia Yia put it in an old, chipped cup and it was on display, then it went into a cabinet above the stove, where it sat, for many years. Ma would take it out for me to look at, then carefully place it back into its tomb. She would let me gently shake it so I could hear the yolk rattle, with strong warning to be careful, for, if dropped, well, imagine the smell.
I don’t know what happened to that Easter egg. It was likely thrown away when we moved from the house. I do know what happened to my memories of that first Easter service. It sits awesomely in my memory and I take it out each year.