I was 12.
And I was about to make the biggest change of my life so far — changing my religion from Eastern Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism.
It was scary. Lonely. And I was told by many that I might even go to hell. But even with this major change, I was comforted by the one thing that remained the same regardless of my religion: food.
More specifically, Easter food.
As Luke the Apostle describes it, Easter is not as much about an empty tomb as it is about food. Even the risen Jesus Christ breaks bread in Emmaus. He then eats fish in Jerusalem. Now, after centuries have passed, Jesus’ followers still celebrate Easter around a festive table full of goodies.
So, although faithfuls of Western and Eastern religions may have their differences, they both share a common love for Easter food.
‘Páscoa’ in Portuguese style
“Ever since I was a little girl, I got to spend Easter with my family and friends. We all come together to have dinner and lunch at my aunt’s house,” says Ana Cabral, a Roman Catholic of Portuguese descent.
Getting together with the family and enjoying a traditional Portuguese Easter meal is an absolute must, she says.
“On the Fridays before Easter, we mostly eat codfish, which is prepared in many different ways,” explains the 20-year-old travel and tourism student of Sheridan College.
On Easter Sunday and Monday, however, the taste buds enjoy a sweeter delight.
“This is when we eat all the desserts. These include amendoas [sugar-coated almonds], pastéis de nata [custard tarts], pão-de-ló [sweet bread], and folar de Páscoa [sweet bread with boiled eggs inside].”
Folar de Páscoa is usually served at breakfast on Easter morning, but more often as a dessert after Easter dinner. On Easter Sunday, Portuguese serve a meat plate at the dinner table as the feature dish. Leitão [roasted pig] with potatoes and other vegetables is also prepared.
Cabral confesses her Catholic elementary and secondary education has not taught her too much about Eastern Easter.
“We didn’t really get taught about that in religion class at my school. I do know that they really get into doing the fancy eggs,” says Cabral, laughingly.
‘Pashte’ the Romanian way
Romanians, who are predominantly Orthodox, are also big on their Easter delicacies.
“Easter food is very festive, and because people fast before Pashte [Easter], I think it helps them with preparing a very rich menu for the special day.”
Daniela Costescu of Etobicoke, 48, says she goes to the Easter vigil every year. But, as many others would agree, Easter’s traditional culinary delights are her favourite aspect of this holiday.
Another Easter custom in Eastern Orthodoxy is the knocking of the eggs.
“The people at the table have to knock their eggs with each other and say ‘Christ is risen.’ And ‘Truly He is risen’, is the reply,” Costescu explains.
But not everyone is capable of colouring the eggs in the right manner.
“It’s a special process. The predominant egg colour is red, but there’s also yellow, blue, and green. Children especially love the egg ritual at Easter with its beautiful colours.”
Although eggs are a common element of the typical Easter table, the main course consists of several other popular dishes.
“A specialty at Easter is drob de miel, which is a sort of pie with a lamb tripe mix cooked with several types of green herbs like dock and bunch onion. And sarmale [cabbage rolls] are another requirement. The steak is also never absent from the table,” Costescu says.
But the best part of the Romanian Easter feast is, of course, the dessert.
“For desert, you make cozonac [sponge cake] with nuts and chocolate. The most special, though, is the pasca [azyme]. There are all kinds of recipes for it, but the traditional one is made with cheese. It looks amazing, and tastes even better.”
While talking about the sweet taste of pasca, Costescu is reminded of the Easter festivities from her childhood in Romania.
“I can still smell the mouth-watering aroma of all the different foods my mother made when I was a little girl. This is what gave me that true feeling of celebrating Easter,” she says, with a big smile on her face.
North York’s Razvan Hirdea, another native Romanian, says his favourite part of Easter is the family dinner and get-together.
“The first thing I think about when Easter is mentioned is lamb, which I think is the most traditional meal. It symbolizes a sacrifice in Christ’s honour,” says 40-year-old Hirdea, who is Eastern Orthodox.
Hirdea’s face lit up when talking about the various Romanian Easter specialties.
“Women prepare a big plate with appetizers. Smoked ham is also used a lot, along with boeuf salad, sausages, and salami. Another special salad that goes well with the boiled eggs is made with sfecla [beets] and hrean [horseradish].”
He goes on to explain that Easter has always been special to him.
“My mom’s house was spotless and the food was all ready. The Easter of my childhood was a time when even strangers became friends,” Hirdea says.
His wife Simona says that all the hard work she puts into making a great Easter feast is always worth it. Seeing the smile on her five-year-old son’s face after he eats all the dessert he can handle is even more rewarding.
“It’s really tiring to prepare a proper meal for Easter. But I wouldn’t be a true Romanian mom if I didn’t go through all the trouble,” she says. “I still plan to make all the traditional food this Easter. I usually go to Romanian, Ukrainian, and Greek stores to buy all the ingredients I need.”
‘Paskha’ in Russian style
As in the Portuguese and Romanian traditions, an essential aspect of celebrating Easter in Russia is the family Easter dinner following the long Saturday night worship services. The meal is a lavish feast where the entire congregation celebrates together.
“In Russian, Easter is Paskha. There’s also a dish by the same name, which is a cake. All kinds of foods are prepared — meat, fish, and especially eggs, which are my favourite.”
Sergey Soroka, 23, a recent University of Toronto graduate, says he does not consider himself to be very religious. But he does enjoy the family gathering and the traditional food that’s always present at the Easter dinner table in Russia.
Soroka, who now lives and works in Moscow, Russia, says Easter is “a bright holiday.”
“Everybody’s happy, and people show more care for each other. Easter means a good gathering, good food, and just good times,” says Soroka, who is Eastern Orthodox and of Russian and Ukrainian descent.
“One of my favourite things is the egg exchange. And it’s very interesting to see how the coloured eggs look,” Soroka says.
Easter egg decoration is also an important part of Russian Easter tradition. Red, the predominant colour for egg dyeing in Russia, symbolizes the blood of Christ. Russians also crack the eggs open using nails in order to remind themselves of Jesus’ death and suffering.
What’s Easter without eggs
The egg has long been an emblem of Easter.
In Christianity, it is the symbol of the rock tomb out of which Christ emerged after His resurrection. It is traditional to paint Easter eggs in bright colours, to give them as gifts to friends in baskets, and to use them in Easter egg hunts and in egg rolling contests.
“I think eggs are used a lot at Easter because they represent what’s new and pure. It’s a true reminder of the beauty of living,” says Costescu as she flips through an Easter photo album from last April.
But have eggs always had such a distinct symbolism?
Author Ethel Urlin says eggs were given around Easter time among the ancient Persians because of the vernal equinox which began the year.
“The custom of giving eggs at Easter is very ancient and worldwide. Eggs are a natural symbol of new life,” Urlin says.
In England, eggs are usually made of chocolate, and they sometimes are filled with sweets or some costly trinket. In some places, rabbits and eggs are given as presents at Easter.
“Catching the Hare” was a custom at the festival of the Easter goddess, Eostre, as the hare was her emblem. This may seem a strange custom, but it doesn’t compare to another Romanian egg-related Easter tradition.
“My mom always made me do this before going to church,” Costescu says. “First, she’d take some regular bowl. She’d fill it with water and put red eggs and silver coins in there. Then I’d have to wash my face in it.”
Although this ritual is not as common in Romania now, those who still perform it before attending the Easter mass believe they will have good luck in health and wealth for the rest of the year.
Beautifully coloured eggs. Family gatherings. And scrumptious food. Just a few of the amazing things that accompany Easter.
As theologian Gregory of Nazianzus says, “Easter is the queen of all days, and the festivals of festivals.”
And like the queen it is, Easter will continue to be celebrated in a royal manner as we eat together until everything that separates us is overcome.