“Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response.” - Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
It is Holy Thursday for the Orthodox faithful today, and while this is day packed with solemn religious rites, there is also a happy note that anticipates the joy of Easter on Sunday. Traditionally, on this day eggs are dyed red and all the Easter baking is done. Ever since I can remember, this was done in our household and also the house of my grandparents. I loved observing my mother preparing the eggs for dying and I used to be a little disappointed as they were always dyed red and not multicoloured as occurred in a few other households. My mother always used to answer that Easter was a religious and traditional holiday and not a carnival. She then explained why eggs should be dyed red:
After Christ was resurrected from the dead, He met a woman carrying a basket of eggs, which were covered with a napkin. She greeted Him but did not recognise Him. He did, and told her who He was. She looked at Him in disbelief and protested that this could not be as He was dead and buried. He smiled at her and told her that it was true. She then exclaimed that if it were true, let all the eggs in her basket turn red. Christ blessed the basket and told the woman to uncover it. She gasped when she saw that all her eggs had turned a brilliant dark red colour. She then bowed down before him and said, “Truly you are risen from the dead, my Lord!”.
I have now come to the view that Easter eggs are not really “right” unless they are dyed red and only red… That is how traditions are passed from generation to generation, I guess. In terms of multicoloured and highly decorated eggs, they are beautiful and certainly contribute to the festivity of the occasion at Easter, but they more like objets d' art than true Easter eggs. Red eggs have been used in rituals and celebration from ancient times in China and Egypt, red being a colour associated with blood and life. Christians adopted this tradition very early on in the Christian era, the egg being a symbol of the resurrection and red the colour of life and happiness.
In the olden days before the advent of artificial dyestuffs, all eggs were coloured with naturally derived dyes: Beetroot, poppies, cochineal, madder root, etc. Nowadays, synthetic dyes can provide a rainbow of colours for egg decoration, but also of course the most brilliant, deep carmine for a truly stunning red egg display on the Easter table. In some parts of Greece, the first egg that is dyed has particular significance and is called the “Virgin Mary's Egg”. It is kept next to the holy icons for a year, until the next Easter. This egg was often used in various rituals during the year, including the dissolution of spells and dispersion of evil, as well as guarding against the “evil eye”. When the new Virgin Mary's Egg was placed next to the icons, the previous year's egg was buried in the fields to ensure good crops.
The other things that are prepared today are the “koulourakia” (Easter cookies) and the “tsoureki” (a sweet, rich and fragrant egg and butter-enriched bread with a wonderful soft texture). In the past, the success of a cook was judged on their ability to bake these Easter goodies, and even nowadays it is difficult to bake these traditional Easter delicacies well. The egg loaf is decorated with a red egg in its middle and this tradition dates back to the Byzantine era, hundreds of years ago.
Here is a recipe for Greek Easter cookies:
Greek Easter Cookies - Koulourakia
2 cups sugar
4 eggs (+1 for glazing)
250 grams butter
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
zest of an orange
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 kg self-raising flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
- Beat the butter and sugar until they become pale and fluffy.
- Add the eggs, one by one while continuing to beat the mixture.
- Add the zest and vanilla essence.
- Continuing to beat the mixture, add the milk and orange juice little by little until they are incorporated.
- In another bowl, mix half the flour with the soda and salt. Add the liquids mixture while stirring to incorporate it.
- Add the remaining flour until the dough becomes soft, but doesn't stick to the fingers.
- Let the dough rest for 15 minutes in a cool place.
- Shape the cookies into the traditional shapes (plaits and rondels).
- Brush the top of the cookies with beaten egg to glaze.
- Bake for 10-20 minutes in pre-warmed oven at 180˚C.
Happy Greek Easter!