Though I am not a Christian any more, I don’t want to sit home alone on Easter Day. Besides being a Christian ritual, Greek Easter is a time to eat lamb with family and friends, and to celebrate the coming of spring by feasting out-of-doors in flowering fields or in a garden filled with flowers, bees, butterflies, and birds. Such rituals have been celebrated from time immemorial.
Greek Easter came late this year, only yesterday, May 5. I prepared for an Easter party in my garden for weeks. My garden is planted with herbs and aromatics—lavender, thyme, oregano, rosemary, curry plant, rue, sage, cistus, rose-scented geranium, sweet william, cat mint and several other kinds of mint, bee balm, and roses and fruit trees, including lemon, bitter orange, pomegranate, olive, quince, and cherry. Everything blossoms in spring, attracting bees and butterflies.
I began weeding and pruning about 6 weeks ago. This year I had to remove many overgrown lavender plants. For the last 3 weeks in addition to ongoing weeding and pruning, I have been replanting lavender which I have promised myself to prune “way back” in the fall, along with purple sage, blue daisies, and thyme. Though there is bare ground in some parts of the garden, in other parts mature plants and trees are in full flower.
I have my breakfast in the early morning on a terrace from which I can see the garden and the sea. I love to” just sit” in the garden at this time of year. My thoughts cease as I enjoy the flowers, new ones every few days, and watch birds, butterflies, bees, and my two tortoises. Then my eyes come to rest on a task that needs doing, and I work for an hour or more as the sun comes into the garden.
There is a flowing fountain in the center of my garden that attracts birds. This year as in other years, there is a nest of great tits in a hole in an old locust tree. This tree is an import from America favored by the Ottomans, planted decades ago by someone whose name I do not know. One morning in early spring a migrating hoopoe landed above my head in the other locust tree. A hoopoe is a magnificent rust-colored bird with a black and white wings, a crown that can be opened or closed like a fan, and a long down-curved bill. Its arrival–a garden first– felt like a blessing. This spring I have seen blue tits, sparrows, collared doves, chaffinches, goldfinches, and for the first time a pair of black-eared wheatears drinking and cavorting in the fountain.
With the old lavender bushes gone, I have been able to see the tortoises with whom I share the garden more clearly. They wake up about ten as the sun begins to shine on the stone paths in the garden. They warm themselves for a while, and then start searching for food. Last year they “weeded” the garden for me—though they didn’t care for the bermuda and other invasive grasses. This year I feed them greens and vegetables. When the first rose petals fell to the ground, I remembered that, like us, they have a “sweet tooth”—besides flower petals, they like tomatoes and other fruit. They don’t actually have teeth, but rather hard gums, which are quite effective for munching and sometimes gobbling down food. After eating, they wander around the garden and usually have sex at least once (they are both boys), before they crawl under the bushes to wait out the hottest part of the day. They wake up again in the late afternoon.
I find it amazing to be sharing my garden with two reptiles whose ancestors perfected their evolution 200 million years ago when Pangaea was a single continent. I marvel at the agility they have despite their heavy shells. They push themselves up low steps and slide back down. They can get from one side of the garden to the other quite quickly when they want to.
All of my garden preparation culminates at Easter when I make a party for my friends. I order the lamb early in the week and make a pilgrimage with one or two others to a mountain village to pick it up. Along the way we stop to admire migrating birds in the wetlands of Kalloni and the wildflowers in the fields and on the hillsides. In the village we also buy braided sweet Easter bread called tsoureki, cooked with a red Easter egg in its center, and tiny Greek sweets called baklava and kataiifi, made of thin pastry, nuts, and honey. We lunch at a favorite taverna in the village, before returning home.
My house, which is over a hundred years old, originally had its kitchen in the garden: the old brick oven and an open fireplace remain. I use the oven only on Easter to roast a lamb that cooks all night long and into the morning. I save tree prunings, rosemary and lavender clippings, and collect driftwood for the fire. It must burn fast and hot. I wait until midnight to light it.
In the evening, I prepare the rice as the Greeks once did in Smyrna with orange and lemon juice, black currants, golden raisins, pine nuts, mint, parsley, and onions. I use it to stuff the lamb. I make tzatziki with yogurt, cucumber, and garlic, garnishing it with mint from the garden. The next day friends will bring potato salad (as my Grandma made it) and a green salad to which I will add mint, dill, and bee balm from the garden.
At midnight the church bells peal announcing “Christos anesti,” “Christ is risen.” The village rings with the sounds of firecrackers and the sky is lit by fireworks. This is the moment I choose to light my fire. I revel in the feeling of danger within and without. The fire burns wildly for at least an hour “until the bricks turn white.” Then I push the flaming wood to the sides of the oven, watch the embers burn down until they are small glowing coals, insert the lamb, shut the oven door, and go inside. I am always too excited to fall asleep immediately.
When I wake, I check to be sure the lamb is cooked, but don’t open the oven door again until my guests arrive. I take my time setting up folding tables next to the marble table with stone seats in the secluded area that used to be a kitchen. I think of the generations of women and girls who used the oven where the lamb awaits, as I bring the taverna chairs and cushions out storage. I spread out tablecloths from Crete and set out ceramic dishes from Skyros–painted with birds, flowers, mermaids, sailing ships, and people in traditional dress–pink wine glasses, pink and blue cloth napkins. Like the garden, my table is a feast of color.
Before the guests arrive, I sit in the garden and wait. A song of thanksgiving reverberates in my mind:
This is my Mother’s world,
And to my listening ears,
All Nature sings,
And ‘round me rings,
The m-u-s-i-c of the spheres.
Easter lamb stuffing Smyrna style
2 T black currants
2 T golden raisins
2 T pine nuts
2 T olive oil
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1/2 cup chopped parsley
2 onions chopped
juice of one orange (and/or lemon)
salt and pepper to taste
(you can also add the liver, cooked and chopped)
Cook the onions in the olive oil, add the rice and orange juice, cook lightly, add the other ingredients stir.
Spoon into the cavity of a cleaned lamb carcass with the legs but without the head.
Can also be used for chicken. If not used as stuffing, add enough water to cook rice. Amounts of ingredients can be varied.
*Smyrna is the Greek name for Izmir, a city where Greeks lived for many centuries, until 1922, the year of the “great catastrophe” when many of them fled to Lesbos, Chios, and Samos, while others ended up in Athens.
Carol P. Christ leads life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute. There is still space in the spring tour May 25-June 8. Fall tour is Sept. 28-Oct. 13. Carol loves sharing what she knows about Crete and Greece, past and present. Carol spoke on a WATER Teleconference recently. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.