It was the poet Angelos Sikelianos who referred to Easter as «Πάσχατων Ελλήνων» (Pascha of the Greeks), and rightfully so considering that even in this secular age, Easter is arguably still the most important fixture on the Greek calendar, even in the centres of the diaspora throughout the world.
Consul-General of Greece in Melbourne, Mr Emmanuel Kakavelakis is fond of distinguishing Greek Easter with its deep, symbolic and nuanced customs from that of “Disney Easter,” the festival of chocolate eating, an event bereft of meaning, focusing instead on commercialisation and consumption. Yet even as many Orthodox parishes throughout Australia organise Easter egg hunts for their younger parishioners, who are at least two generations removed from the villages in which the Orthodox customs exist in their natural habitat, and in a Greek community that appears to have adopted its host country’s emphasis on consumption, albeit one where lamb replaces chocolate, one would be forgiven for thinking that the Pascha of the Greeks is doomed to be a soon discarded relic of the past, as quaintly irrelevant as the Greek language itself.
Panagiota Andreadakis, author of the recently released bilingual children’s book “The 123 of Greek Easter,” begs to differ. Approaching the customs and deeper meaning of Greek Easter from the perspective of a counting game, Andreadakis seeks to educate the latter generations (and their parents) as to the significance of Orthodox usage, beyond merely the aping of practice.
There is wisdom in this approach. I remember growing up, two fellow students of the same tribe boasting to our teacher about their fasting for Easter. “Do you know who instituted the fast and why?” the teacher enquired. The boys had no idea. “We do it because we are Greek,” they intoned, and then went off to thump Vasili, who was eating chocolate, because his father was a communist and believed that all forms of religion were opium for the masses, although this did not inhibit him from taking “Greek” Good Friday off from school.
It is here that the importance of Andreadakis’ project lies. Unlike many others, who lament the decline in participation in our community’s endeavours and are quick to apportion blame at the organisations or institutions they hold responsible, speculating how things would be different if only they did one thing of the other, Andreadakis waits or relies on no one.
She neither criticizes nor blames anyone. Instead, as a mother, a member of the Orthodox Church and the Greek community, she notes that she has a vested interest in ensuring that her child and all children by extension, have access to adequate resources that will teach not only the how, but also the why and the wherefore of the unfathomable depths of the Orthodox Easter tradition.
Where she surmises that such resources are inaccessible or not readily available, she had developed some of her own and they are remarkably good.
Yesterday, I came across my younger daughter reading something aloud in ecclesiastical Greek. On closer inspection, I realised she was holding “The 123 of Greek Easter” in her hands and reading the Good Friday Laments.
Number 1 in Andreadakis’ book signifies the Epitaphios and she not only provides an explanation of what that Funeral Bier of Christ is, but also a description of the customs that surround it, and of course, in Greek, a small section of the laments which accompany it, giving the reader a holistic understanding of the customs and theology surrounding it.
Similarly, she has the number 2 refer to the two main Saturdays of Souls, a fitting contrast to the joy of the resurrection.
Andreadakis not only describes the significance of these days but also kollyva and even provides a selection of customary sayings, thus obviating the need for one to resort to their parent to ask: “What do I say when I am told Ζωή σε σας;”
In like fashion, at the rear of the book, there is a page dedicated to phrases that can be used throughout Holy Week and Easter, an invaluable resource for those who seek to participate more fully in the festivities, or at least have them rendered intelligible.
As is the case with Andreadakis’ previous book, “The ABC of the Twelve Days of Christmas,” there is an understated earnestness and integrity which characterises the text, which is simple, easy to understand, read, interpret and teach.
Striking the right balance, it is neither condescending nor preachy. Instead, it flows gently, almost tenderly and is clear and concise, resisting getting bogged down in trivia, minutiae and tangents.
The parallel Greek text provides an introduction to the look as well as the vocabulary of the Greek language as it pertains to Easter. There is great wisdom in this approach. The beautiful illustrations by Anna Gerb not only enliven the text but in keeping with the Orthodox tradition transform the natural reality described by Andreadakis into a higher conception of form.
To fully partake of “Greek” Easter, indeed to instil within the young a sense of belonging and relevance, one must not only understand but also participate and be included. It is here that Andreadakis reaches the apogee of her art.
Accompanying the “1 2 3 of Greek Easter,” is the Greek Orthodox Easter Activity Book, replete with Orthodox Icons to reproduce or colour in, craft and educational activities, such as Apokries Mask Making, how to create Kyra Sarakosti, how to construct the Pontian Clean Monday tradition of the Koukara, recipes for traditional Easter fare such as Lazarakia and instructions for each child to discover their own family’s culinary and other traditions, explanations of the concept of Godparents, word searches and puzzles, interactive, match and learn, maze and fill in the blanks activities as well as a rich compendium of poems and songs that are sung during this time.
A list of permissible Lenten foods acts as an introduction to a tradition that is the antithesis of the consumer age in which they are otherwise steeped.
There are also do it yourself stickers and a host of other craft activities that will not only keep a child occupied and enthralled but open up that coveted world beyond the mundane and the prosaic that characterises the aridity of much of contemporary existence. Far from being mere collations from various sources, Andreadakis’ compilation is fastidious and a good deal of thought underpins it.
It speaks volumes that Andreadakis has chosen to publish her book under the imprint of “Stelakis,” which also happens to be the name of her young son This is in keeping with the family and community ethos that characterises her publications: the way that she would teach her precious little boy is exactly the same way that she addresses all of her other youthful readers, with reverence and immense love.
And that, in the end, is what Easter is all about, unfathomable, immeasurable, endless Love. As such, “The 1 2 3 of Greek Easter” and the “Greek Orthodox Easter Activity Book” are resources that should not be absent from any self-respecting Greek organisation and are indispensable for all Greek homes, especially during Holy Week.