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Greek Australian Easter: the aftermath

Dean Kalimniou reflects on the Orthodoxy's holiest day

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Greek Orthodox worshippers take part in a Good Thursday service at Lady Faneromeni monastery in Chiliomodi village near the city of Corinth, Greece. Photo: AAP via AP/Petros Giannakouris

21 April 2017

Every year on Holy Saturday, our doorbell rings. Standing outside our door, our Italian neighbour awaits, brandishing a panettone. "Buona Festa," she smiles as she hands it over. That smile gradually merges into a grimace, when I reciprocate by handing over a tsoureki of our own construction. Such unrefined items rank rather low in the Magna Graecian pecking order of comestible appreciation.

By now, said neighbour would be justified in her reticence, for this year's tsourekia are, by all reckoning, the worst to have emerged from the Kalimniou kitchens and this would probably explain her forced smiles and quick shuttling back into the safety of her own property as soon as she sets eyes on me, ever since. The fault, in my opinion, lies solely with Easter itself.

On that Great and Holy Thursday, after weeks of fasting, the sight of eggs and milk rendered me weak at the knees. It was all that I could do to cast a pontificating and supervisory eye upon the tsoureki production, without dipping my snout into the trough, as my wife kneaded the dough. She did so methodically, rhythmically, ignoring the clouds of flour in which she was covered, transforming her into a type of human λουκούμι. Back and forth went her hands upon the dough, back and forth, until I could bear it no more.

"You are supposed to knead the dough, not stroke it gently," I commented. Coming up behind her, I plunged my hands on top of hers, into the dough. "Like this," I said, and slowly began to pummel the dough. Back and forth went my hands, back and forth, until she could bear it no more.

"It needs more mastiha," she said breathlessly, pushing my hands away. "Crush some."

Quickly, I poured the mastiha granules into the mortar and taking hold of the pestle, I began to pound them inexorably. Back and forth went my pestle, grinding the mastiha into oblivion. Having pulverised the entire contents, my head swmming, I poured them into the dough. Some hours later, the most bitter tsoureki ever made emerged from the oven, overwhelmingly tainted by the mastiha of my own deviant anticipations.

Some 20 minutes after our Italian neighbour departed bearing the tainted tsoureki, the doorbell rang again. This time it was a Greek Australian friend, proffering what looked suspiciously like a panettone. Now in my mind, Greek Australians who gift each other panettoni instead of tsourekia for Easter are the abomination of desolation as spoken of by Daniel the Prophet. This pernicious custom is aided and abetted by the Greek grocers of East Keilor, for, as one of them told me when I accused him of destroying all that is sacred and righteous about our Easter traditions, panettoni retail for thrice the price. One cannot argue against the free market with margins of this magnitude.

A half an hour later, the doorbell rang again, this time to herald the arrival of an effusive exponent of internet-inspired, born-again Hellenism. Not only was the donor inordinately enthused to be providing a home-made tsoureki that was gluten-free, she also gushed excitedly that she could not wait to see who in our family would 'win the coin'. "What coin?" I asked. "The coin that I put in for good luck," was the response. This is because apparently in New Age Hellenism (it is a Greek Australian Vasiloxristopita thing), New Year is celebrated in April and Easter not at all, among those who define themselves as 'Culturally Orthodox'. This is also a 'thing'.

Owing to an inspiration best attributed to an inordinate amount of angst caused by the proliferation of tsourekia in our household, I managed to crack my long-departed grandmother's secret koulouri recipe. Upon crowing triumphantly about my achievements to a friend, said friend was singularly unimpressed, commented drily that making one's own koulouria is so last season, and the Greek Australian tradition is to 'regift'. According to the rules of the game, if your koumbara's, friend's, or cousin's koulouria are excremental, in that they look, feel and taste like an ossified dog turd, then playing "Regift the Koulouri" is mandatory. Accordingly, one takes the said excremental koulouria and gifts them to another Greek family to whom one is linked by a bond of υποχρέωση. You score one point if you are able to pass this off successfully. Two points are gained if you can identify koulouria given to you by others as a regift and you proceed to regift these as well. Ten points if you regift your mother-in-law's koulouria and these are regifted down the circle of relatives until she ends up with them. Twenty points if your mother-in-law realises what you have done. Thirty points if you are what is termed an 'Afstraleza nyfi' in game terminology and have only made koulouria (which you criminally call Easter cookies) in order to placate the fury of your mother-in-law of taking her precious son away from her. Lose thirty points if you are an 'Afstraleza nyfi' and you think that by making koulouria you will obtain your mother-in-law's acceptance. Gain 40 points if you are an 'Afstraleza nyfi' and you find your koulouria in your mother-in-law's rubbish bin (she wouldn't be caught dead regifting them). Lose 20 points if you seriously believe your aunts, mother, and inlaws don't hold a grudge if you didn't make koulouria. Gain 50 points if you froze last year's gifted koulouria and are gifting them this year. Apparently, the game is won when you say "Stuff this" and get your mum to make your koulouria for you. House-proud Greek Australians who pride themselves on their koulouri-making prowess are disqualified from entry, as are Greek Australians who attribute their koulouri recipes to George Calombaris. Of course the flaw in the game is not having a critical mass of one's own koulouria to effect the first exchange, but my friend was so wrapt in her exposition of the rules that I didn't have the heart to tell her. Instead, in honour of her ingenuity, I regifted her koulouria to someone that I love, on my way to the Epitaphios service.

Evidently, in modern Greek Australia, it is de rigueur for some parents to become abusive when it is suggested to them by older parishioners that the ornately decorated candle with the Easter bunny/butterfly/AFL team logo they purchased for their children from one of the various Greek cake shops that purvey articles of this sort, is inappropriate for the Good Friday Epitaphios, for the reason that this service is one of mourning and thus, their candle is out of context and better suited to the Resurrection service. Quoth one mother, on the steps of our church: "How dare you judge me. It is a scam on the part of the church to sell more candles." I observed her in silence, for my four-year-old did not want to bring a candle to the service at all. Instead, as she informed me, she wanted to bring her collection of marbles, with which to stone the evil men "που σκοτώσαν το Χριστούλη." I made a mental note to have a father-daughter chat to her about fundamentalism in a few months' time.

Her proclivities towards violent revenge notwithstanding, said daughter was extremely well behaved on Holy Saturday, despite being untimely woken from her sleep in order to take communion. The line outside our church was long but orderly, and we had plenty of time to absorb the comments of the eager communicants:

-Στηβ, έλα Στηβ; Το κρεατάδικο έχει μόνον λόιν τσόπια. Νάου, δε ξέρω πού να πάω. Νο γουόρυ. Θα περάσω από το φρουτάδικο.
"Im not going to your (I think the word was fornicating) mother's, all right?"

"Yia yia (emphasis on first syllable), why are we drinking this wine anyway?"

Answer: "Μπηκόζ Χριστούλη" wants you to.

Googly-eyed woman observing a scruffy unshaven fellow wearing tracksuit pants walking down the street: "Obviously he's not Orthodox". Ten seconds later, scruffy man joined the line, proceeded to roll his own, and generously offer rollies to those behind him.

"Seriously, why can't they have disposable spoons? Are they that stingy?"

In our corner of Greek Australia, it becomes Easter at exactly the stroke of midnight, regardless of whether the priest has completed the service and chanted the Resurrection hymn. This year, the priest proclaimed the Resurrection five minutes past twelve, which meant that a large number of the faithful had already kissed each other, smashed eggs (I was informed by a particularly militant vegan family that smashed avocados are a more ecologically viable alternative to this barbarous custom) and wished each other the uniquely Australian version of the traditional Orthodox Easter greeting:

"Christ is Risen."

"Yeah, thanks, same to you."

When I finally arrived at my parent's house for the Easter feast, my mother looked me up and down and asked incredulously: "Didn't you bring any koulouria?"

In my haste, I had not realised that I had forgotten to regift and thus had depleted my own store of edible koulouria. "Here," I smiled, providing my maternal progenitor an offering from my notorious mastiha-laden batch. "I've brought you a tsoureki instead."

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So many Australian Greeks have become like poor people living in dark dank northern Europe. The fun of Easter with its fine Music, Opera and Drama in Church and the various celebrations before and after are the highlight of the Greek year; more so than the USA Christmas Australia practices. The way to start the fun and joy of Easter is to find a church with a fine Choir and a Priest who understands the occasion. Like anything in life the more you put in it the more you get. Go to the trouble of getting a written version of the words the choir is chanting if you are not culturally aware. Above all avoid the silly practice of an English Service in a Greek Orthodox Church. Every part is a disaster that it assumes Greeks become silly little evangelists instead of wanting the Drama and fine music of the Greek Easter Service. If you do not have a strong stomach and easily bring up your breakfast, ask if they do services in English and run away as quickly as possible before you lose your breakfast. You can tell when a Priest does not know what he is doing if he thinks the people came to hear an English service in a Greek Orthodox Church, and spends money on the garden rather than in hiring a good choir. If you have to be at a particular church, you could go for a cigarette break or to the toilets when the English starts. Some of the Churches have their halls open for coffee at all times as well. If you want an English Easter some Church of England churches in the rich areas have great music, as well as the rich Catholic Churches, but avoid the poor suburbs really sad places. The Salvation Army are a fun crowd with their care free and joyous songs if you are nostalgic for the street services they used to provide in the slum suburbs before they discovered they were not going to get any converts and the Greeks would only come for the brass music and to see the pretty rose cheeked girls in their little bonnets and sweet real smiles. The saddest churches are the Evangelist branches from the USA in Australia, and, the worse are the Greek branches. Pathetic and sad people with the worse choirs and voices in all Christendom. If you like good music and theatre some churches can provide cheap entertainment on Sundays especially in Winter
Why can't they have disposable spoons? Avocados instead of red eggs? Christ is risen–Same to you? Where are we heading? What attitudes are these? The church needs to engage the people more, especially during holy week. It needs to explain what holy communion is–in English–and make clear that it's not mere bread and wine, but body and blood, thus we can't use disposable spoons that, having come into contact with Christ, are then thrown in the rubbish. If nothing changes going forward, if the importance of retaining our identity and culture is not stressed in services, then the younger generations will eventually lose their Greekness as well as any ties they may have had with Orthodoxy. And that would be a great shame.

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