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Nonconformist Aussie anticipates traditional Greek Easter

By Chris JohnstonIn Kalamata the streets are alive with miniature Zorros, Spider-Men, fairy princesses and clowns. My vote goes to a tiny Charlie Chaplin, possibly two years old and possibly a girl, who is complete in every comic detail, even down to the pencilled moustache. Bunting is strung everywhere, paper streamers fly through the air: Carnival is here, and so is Lent.

Western and Orthodox Easters are separated by more than four weeks this year, with the latter falling on 27 April. Easter is the Feast of Feasts in the Orthodox Church, and even in an increasingly irreligious age, Lent is accorded great significance. It is still a fairly strict period of austerity, which is one reason for Carnival: traditional societies have long understood that let-your-hair-down sessions of high spirits are needed before and after difficult times. They are also undisturbed by the blurring of the sacred and the secular.

Clean Monday (last Monday) begins seven weeks of meatless days: well, that's the theory. Fish, eggs, cheese and olive oil are given up in turn. Coming as I did from an Australian Nonconformist background, my first experience of this day was something of a surprise, to say the least. Nothing much happened during Lent for us in Oz way back then. As we were teetotal, that line of sacrifice was out; there was an occasional mention of giving up cigarettes and/or sugar, and to this day I have a friend who gives up chocolate for the duration.

My first experience of Clean Monday was in 1981, when we visited the monastery of St John the Baptist, near Dimitsana, a very old structure built into the side of a gorge. It requried a few deep breaths and an act of faith to venture out on to the wooden balconies. Opposite was a minute church, apparently unconnected to the world by paths or tracks, while far below a stream moved so slowly that it looked like a frozen blue ribbon.

Inside the building lay the mortal remains of St Athanasios. The sight of brown bones peeping through rich lace, and a row of teeth surrounded by gold, rubies and pearls repelled me immediately. But my Greek sister-in-law was overcome, and did not want to leave. This sighting of a holy relic on a holy day was a sacred, significant moment for her, and as I watched her light a candle and cross herself reverently, I felt a sharp pang of regret that I could not share the moment, that I was forever barred from a world which values such things.

What I could share was the food at midday: a sumptuous repast rather than a mere meal, which that day we ate in the refectory. There was not too much austerity or sacrifice evident on the festive board, which fairly groaned under the weight of prawns, halva, countless flat loaves of fresh unleavened bread, succulent squid, lettuce and spring onion salad, pickled peppers, taramasalata, and the odd gallon or two of retsina. It seemed to be a case of stocking up in order to endure the weeks of sacrifice ahead. In traditional families, and there are still many of them, very little has changed: this is still the template for the beginning of Lent.

Church services, of course, become more frequent: there is a special sung one every Friday until Easter. But the secular continues to receive its due at least over the long weekend, with Carnival floats and dancing. Then there are the bonfires, and the custom of fire-leaping favoured by the young men; in some villages an effigy of Judas is burned on those same fires.

I've observed all these customs so often that the novelty has worn off: a Nonconformist Easter in Australia would probably have the shock of the new for me now. But one local custom still charms me, so after lunch last Monday I was on the promenade along the beach, watching children, young and old, fly their kites: colourful but fragile symbols of freedom and happiness floating above this small world, which still manages, because of tradition, to feel quite secure.

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer based in Greece for 27 years. She has had eight books published, including six for adults published by Penguin Australia. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. She has also worked as a journalist since 1980 and has been published in five countries.




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Existing comments

I've never seen the burning of the effigy of Judas on Clean Monday. Here in Crete we do this at midnight on the eve of Easter, after the lighting of the candles which concludes the church service (with much fire cracking to boost).

Luc | 17 March 2008  

It's always interesting to hear about the customs and traditions of other cultures and religions, and this article presents the facts from a personal perspective which adds spice to the whole. Maybe a travel book would be a good idea.

Coral Petkovich | 22 March 2008  

Thank you Gillian. It is nice to read your work and be able to picture vividly, what Greek Easter is like. It has been a long while since I last celebrated a Greek Easter in Greece, and this brought back the few memories of my seven year old self. Thank you.

helen kostaras | 07 April 2008  

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