Last week we were having dinner with our host mom and talking about the upcoming Easter holiday (like Christmas, the Orthodox/Julian calendar runs a bit behind the Gregorian calendar). We started talking about traditions, what we’d be doing in Macedonia to celebrate and what we’d done at home in the US. Macedonia and America both share a love of Easter eggs, and our conversation about dying them was going along fine until I mentioned the Easter bunny and my host mom looked at me like I’d grown an extra head, and then burst out laughing.
To be fair, it’s hard to explain what a rabbit has to do with eggs anyway, and to a farm family intimately familiar with breeding animals (our house is currently playing host to four kittens, a very pregnant dog, and 70 chicks, not to mention the sows that are about to have piglets on the farm) this particular tradition sounds like it was dreamed up by a lunatic. All I could think about was an episode of Rocco’s Modern Life from when I was a kid, where the characters find a factory full of stolen eggs that had been kidnapped by the Easter bunny from their parents to fulfill the holiday need. I explained to my host mom that most of our Easter traditions were aimed at kids, like Easter egg hunts and Easter baskets. My mom reminded me a few days ago on Skype that our childhood hunts were really a huge waste of food; by the time we’d found them all, they’d been sitting in the yard in the sun for too long to still be edible, not to mention the ones that we inevitably lost track of that turned up rotten later in the year.
That kind of waste would never fly here in Macedonia, and the traditions are more closely tied to the religious roots of the holiday; it’s considered like the start of a new year, and a lot of the activities involve praying for or participating in activities that keep you and your family healthy. The first batch of eggs we dyed were red, and the first dyed egg is kept in the refrigerator all year (you take a bath with it for better health). The rest of the eggs are used over the next several days to give to family and friends, and to eat – after they have lost the Battle of the Yolks. Essentially, two people each hold an egg and crack the ends together; the person whose egg is still in tact wins, and continues to knock eggs together with other people to determine who has the champion egg. It’s pretty fun, and the up side of losing is that you get to eat your egg afterwards.
Friday, after dying eggs with my host mom, I went with her to church. My religious knowledge of any faith is mostly academic, and I’ve only been inside an orthodox church for anything other than a tour one other time. I literally had no idea what to do with myself, and just tried to blend into the background and observe and try not to offend anyone. Like in the US, a lot of people here only go to church on the holidays, mostly for Easter and Christmas. Instead of services, you kind of work your way through the church to pray or receive blessings in different areas. We each had an egg, and my host mom brought flowers from the garden; once we arrived, she bought a handful of prayer candles and we joined the line to go in. A priest was standing by the door, using a brush to bless everyone who entered by drawing a cross on their foreheads with water (I sat out the various blessings, since I’m not orthodox). We then made our way to a large wooden alter in the middle of the floor; we placed our eggs, flowers, and a coin on the picture of Jesus and the disciples on the altar; if you feel like it, you can then crawl underneath it to the other side to bring you good health in the coming year. My host mom told me that mostly children do it, but that anyone could. I chose not to, but it was kind of fun to see all of the kids scrambling under the elaborately carved altar.
Next we joined the line at the front of the church that walks past large paintings of different saints. My host mom touched and kissed each one while I walked to the other side of the church to wait and look around. I’m used to religious sanctuaries being quiet places, but this church was full of conversation and community and children laughing. When I found my host mom again, she grabbed a few flowers from a pile near the altar to take home, again for our health. We left the church to go outside, and lit our prayer candles for each person in the family. Back at home we ate sarma for dinner, and now that it’s spring they’re stuffed grape leaves instead of cabbage and they are AMAZING. I would eat every single one she made if left to my own devices.
Our next ceremony was Saturday night. Traditionally, people walk around the church three times at midnight, but in Sveti Nikole we do it a little differently. Everyone has a candle, which you light directly from the priest or from someone else whose candle was lit by the priest, passing the flame from one person to the next. By everyone, I mean that it seemed like every person in our town showed up – they flowed out of the church grounds into the streets and the school yard next door. Once your candle is lit, you join the precession and walk a circle through the town. If your candle blows out, you have to stop and relight it from someone else (it’s supposed to be someone of the opposite sex). The number of times it blows out is supposed to reflect the number of sins you’ve committed that year (although some people cheat and use cups to block their candle from the wind). If you’re single, you take the candle home with you and sleep with it under your pillow, and you’re supposed to dream of the person you’re going to marry.
After the walk, everyone pulls out their eggs and the Battle of the Yolk begins. I’m calling it this because it seems to me that the smaller eggs won more often, I think because their ratio of yolk to white was higher and made them harder to break (or smaller eggs have thicker, shells? I’m not sure, but I do have a strategy for next year). The funniest part of the night was when Kyle and I cracked eggs and his broke open, spilling uncooked egg all over his hand (this was probably my fault for accidentally dying an unboiled egg earlier in the day). The area around the church was covered in brightly dyed eggshells by the time it was all over.
This year, May 1st was the collision of two holidays – Easter and Labor Day. Even since we arrived in Sveti Nikole, our family has been telling us about what happens on Labor Day – we all go up near a village on a nearby mountain to picnic and hang out all day long. This is a tradition the whole town shares, and the woods and fields were packed full of people from all over the valley. We ate and drank the day away, and our host brother brought a full roast pig that we’d dropped off to be cooked the night before (I was doing fine eating next to the head until our host dad split it open to eat the brain, blegh!). Kyle and I hung up our hammocks, which don’t really exist in Macedonia, and everyone had fun taking turns laying and swinging in them. We also went to check out a monastery up in the hills and an abandoned retreat center that the city is trying to sell and reopen (it’s currently pretty run down since the local shepherds let their cows and sheep use it as a barn, but it could be yours for only 50,000 euros!). It got cold toward the end of the day and threatened to rain, but we had a lot of fun and zonked out as soon as we got home.
Today is the last day of my long holiday weekend, and I still can’t quite believe it’s already May! Our summer vacation plans are getting even closer (we’ve decided on Munich for Oktoberfest and Croatia in September!) and I’m sure we’ll be doing a weekend trip or two soon (maybe to Greece and/or Belgrade). We also finally bought bikes this week, and I was able to pick up bike helmets from the Peace Corps office so we’re all set for some long rides.