Easter: a time of hopping bunnies and chocolate eggs? Not for the religious communities of Metro Vancouver, who are living it up towards the Holy Week at the end of March with a whole month of special religious services, culminating in the Easter celebration on the 1st of April.
The Christian Easter period begins with the Great Lent, a 40-day period preceding Easter, which is the longest fasting period of both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Eastern Catholic Church.
The Greek-Orthodox community started this period in February with “Clean Monday,” a day where, especially in the past, the house was cleaned of all meat products.
“In Greece we usually go outside for picnics and we fly kites on this day – it is a big celebration,” says Lizette Pappas, a member of the Hellenic Community of Vancouver and St. George Greek-Orthodox Cathedral.
Most Greek people are Greek-Orthodox, but there are a small percentage of Roman Catholics.
“My family came from the island of Naksos in the fifties, and we immigrated because there was not much opportunity for us there. My parents came to Canada with a vision – they were so motivated to give their children a better future,” says Pappas.
St. George Cathedral was the first Greek-Orthodox church built in Vancouver and together with the Hellenic Community Centre, it formed the central meeting point of the Greek community.
“For Easter, our ladies society, Philoptochos, is going to bake 700 Easter breads, tsoureki, and sell them to the community,” says Pappas.
Religious and cultural activities are closely related, something that Theresa Herchak, librarian for the Ukrainian Community Society of Ivan Franko, can relate to.
“On Palm Sunday we bless pussy willows as a symbol of good health, and remind ourselves that Christ was welcomed to Jerusalem a week before his crucifixion,” says Herchak, who is a member of the Holy Dormition of the Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church in Richmond. “Instead of palm leaves, pussy willow branches are blessed in Ukrainian churches. We tap each other on the shoulder with the pussy willows and wish each other health, strength and beauty.”
This all happens during the Great Lent, when both the Catholic and Orthodox communities are supposed to abstain from eating animal products and from drinking alcohol.
“In this period we keep ourselves focused on the resurrection of Jesus and the resulting salvation of mankind, which is at the heart of the Christian faith. As a child, this period was really challenging. If anyone gave us candy we would keep it until the end of Lent, when we could enjoy the things we had denied ourselves,” says Herchak.
In the Holy Week before Easter, a week full of religious services will start. On Friday, the day on which Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Christ, both the Catholic and Orthodox communities create a tomb in which they symbolically place a picture or statue of Jesus.
“This is a very solemn, painful day, on which we abstain from eating boiled foods and oil. After the church service, the tomb is taken out of church and we walk like a funeral procession around the block, chanting different hymns and holding candles,” says Pappas.
The Ukrainian Holy Dormition of the Mother of God Church holds this procession at the crack of dawn.
“In the early morning light we walk three rounds in procession around the church, with wooden clappers and a set of bells. The priest knocks three times on the church doors and says ‘Christ has risen,’ and then everybody repeats his words. When the doors open, mysteriously the tomb has disappeared, and three wonderful days full of joy start,” tells Herchak.
On Easter Day, during the Divine Liturgy, the Ukrainian Easter baskets filled with traditional Easter breakfast items like eggs, beet, horseradish, different kinds of meat and special breads, are blessed in Church.
“When I went to Ukraine, just after the country became independent in ’91, people would all put their Easter baskets outside on the lawn. For a long time the Ukrainian Catholics had been persecuted, and finally they had the freedom again to celebrate. People would come to church in traditional customs and I even saw two young boys high-fiving each other while saying ‘Christ has risen, indeed he has,’ a religious greeting that you wouldn’t even have whispered on the street before independency,” says Herchak.
The Greek-Orthodox community celebrates breaking the fast with an extensive Easter breakfast during which the red dyed eggs are cracked open.
“Whatever egg remains the strongest will have the most luck the following year. The red paint on the egg stands for the blood that Jesus shed for us. Because of the cracking, most of the families need three or four dozen eggs,” says Pappas.
The second Easter day, most Greeks eat lamb as a traditional dish, which was traditionally roasted on a spit, but nowadays a lot of people barbeque it.
“All the foods that we denied ourselves during the forty day fast – meat, cheese and butter – are all elements of the Easter dish,” says Herchak.
Rev. Fr. Timoleon Prattas, parish priest of the Sts. Nicholas and Dimitrios Greek-Orthodox Community, will read the gospel in different languages on Easter day, among others in English and Greek.
“During the actual Easter day, which we call Pascha, we have vespers of love and many families will attend the church service. We read it partly in English so the children can understand it. This is the most important day on the orthodox calendar, and there is absolutely no fasting,” says the Reverend.