With Easter Sunday only a few weeks in the past and Orthodox Easter yet to be celebrated on May 2, it brings to mind the Easter traditions that I recall from my youth living in the Lost Neighborhood, namely Derby Street, which was a close-knit community whose residents were mostly from Mediterranean countries: Italy, Sicily and Greece.
For us Catholics, St. James R.C. Church formed the center of our spiritual lives. As Tina Mallare reminded us in her article entitled “Remembering Easter Traditions” in The Lost Neighborhood Collection, Good Friday was the day of sorrows when our long-time pastor, then Father Pasquale Colagioia, led the procession of parishioners around the interior of the church, with purple-draped statues, in the Stations of the Cross and in the late 1920s, the “Via Dolorosa” right here in Jamestown. In Tina’s own words, “To our young and impressionable minds, the personal involvement in Good Friday procession was, by far, the most moving and most memorable experience.” She also recalled how the life-size replica of Jesus was taken down from the cross, placed in a glass casket, and carried through the neighborhoods that surrounded Brooklyn Square on the shoulders of six men representing the various Italian Catholic Men’s Societies: La Societa di San Sebastiano, the Holy Name Society, San Prospero Societa, the Cristoforo Colombo Lodge, the Sons of Italy, the Bersaglieri Society and the Lodge of Fiume and Dalmazia to name a few.
Holy Saturday was a day of fasting and prayer and preparing the home for the glorious Easter day that was to come and the elaborate traditional family meal. After Mass, even the poorest families spared nothing in the celebration of La Pasqua with Easter baskets filled with chocolate eggs and bunnies nestled in straw, symbolic of earthly rebirth and fertility, celebrating the new life that spring and Easter bring us in Christ’s resurrection. The traditional Easter “table” in many Catholic households held roasted lamb, freshly baked Easter bread or “pane di Pasqua” symbolic of Christ as the “bread of life” often baked into the shape of a flat Easter basket with colored hard boiled eggs baked into the bread with braided dough handles. As Easter gifts for children, a small braided bread with a hardboiled egg set on top to resemble a baby wrapped in a blanket was called “pupa [doll] con l’uovo.” “La Torta di Agnello” a lamb cake baked in a form pan (the Lamb of God) frosted white and decorated with coconut was a favorite and traditional dessert along with Italian biscotti—a perfect ending to a perfect day.
My long-time Lost Neighborhood neighbor, Herb Hennas, whose parents were Greek immigrants, lived right across the street from us on Derby in a duplex home occupied on one side by the Gullo sisters and then the Galati family who bought the house in the late 1940s. The Hennas family kept Easter according to the Julian calendar, unlike many western countries that followed the Gregorian calendar, thus making their Easter celebration later than ours. It was usually the most important holy day among the Greek Orthodox congregation, even more so than Christmas. Holy week consisted of evening services for each day starting with Monday and building to the important days—Good Friday and Saturday evening known as the “anastisi.” In Herb’s own words: “On Saturday, that very holy evening, we commemorate the resurrection of Christ with a candle-lit procession outside the church chanting “Christ is Risen—indeed He is risen.” Many who have fasted during the week sit down to a dinner usually consisting of lamb prepared in some way to break fast on Easter morning.”
What I recall from the Hennas’s celebration of Easter were the hardboiled eggs dyed a deep, deep red with glistening shells that Herb’s mother Eva would share with us. The eggs were usually dyed by members of the congregation and generally distributed by the priest at the Easter Sunday service. The service itself was interesting, as Herb recalls, because key sections of the Bible were read in several languages to show how the word of the New Testament spread throughout the world.
Customarily, after the Easter service, the children would indulge in a game called “tsougrisma” which means “clinking together” or “clashing”; the cracking of the eggs symbolizes Christ’s resurrection from the dead and birth into eternal life. To play, each person holds a red egg and taps the end of the egg against another’s. When one egg end is cracked, the person with the unbroken egg uses the same end of the egg to try to crack the other end of the opponent’s egg. The player who cracks both ends of the other person’s egg is declared the winner. While this cracking of eggs goes on, one person says “Christos Anesti” (Christ has risen) while the other says “Alithos Anesti” (Indeed, He has risen). Afterward, the eggs are peeled, cut and served with salt and vinegar or with leftover cold lamb on Easter Monday. Sometimes, when eggs are colored at home with either onion skins or dye, usually on Holy Thursday, they are baked into a “tsoureki” or three-braided Easter bread signifying the Trinity. Often they are the first food eaten after strict Lenten fasting, the red dye symbolizing the blood and sacrifice of Christ with the egg itself symbolizing rebirth. Have a Happy Spring and be renewed!