This weekend, I went home to visit my family in my home state, up by Chicago. Though I’m very close with my family, this isn’t something I do often. Because I don’t have a car, it’s a hassle to drive home every weekend, so I typically only go home for breaks and big events. And trust me; this weekend was quite the big event.
My family is Eastern Orthodox, a denomination of Christianity, and many small but important differences between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches. It’s exciting to be part of a religion that not many people in the United States are familiar with, and it’s even more exciting to be able to share the theology and traditions that I grew up with. One of my favorite traditions, however, shocks and impresses almost every non Orthodox person I come across. It’s how my family and I celebrate Easter.
Because Orthodoxy follows the older Julian calendar, Easter for us fell on April 8th this year. After finishing my Friday classes, I packed my bags for the weekend and made the trip up to Chicago’s small but mighty Ukrainian Village, where I would end up spending a good chunk of the weekend. It’s an area I’m now pretty familiar with, after attending numerous festivals there, attending Saturday Ukrainian school there, Ukrainian choir practices there, and, like I did most of this weekend, spending time in our gorgeous Ukrainian cathedral there.
After catching dinner at a Ukrainian restaurant (meatless, of course, as we have been doing all of lent), the first church service begins. Typically, my family and I will go on Thursday as well, and many families around the globe do the entirety of the week leading up to Easter Sunday, but because I was away at school, I was only able to make it to Friday’s service. The entire service is mellow and lit almost entirely by candles, recreating and once again living through the mourning period after Christ’s death. We walk around the church three times as the bell clangs steadily above us, carrying icons and singing as we do so. My family and I all sing in the choir, and we help lead the service through slow, sad music.
By Saturday, my family and I are running around, getting errands done for the big night. This weekend, I spent a lot of time at my aunt’s house, sitting at her piano and reviewing music for the service that day. A majority of the day is dedicated to cooking and preparing an Easter basket, filling it with sausage and red eggs and Ukrainian sweet bread called Paska, named after the Orthodox word for the holiday. Tomorrow, we’ll be eating all of this in celebration, but during Saturday we just make the food, still observing our lent.
Finally, the highlight of the weekend starts late Saturday night and goes well into Sunday morning. This is the part that my friends always ask about, having never heard of such an interesting tradition before. Once arriving at the church around 11 o’clock, people go up and pay respects at the altar, just as they did the night before. Many people choose to cross the church on their knees as another sign of respect. Until midnight, the atmosphere in the church is somber just as before. At midnight, everyone goes outside and circles the church three times again. Only this time, when entering back in, it’s now Easter Sunday and the mood has changed. After a ceremony on the steps, everyone returns to find a brightly lit church. The songs and upbeat and beautiful, and the candles everyone carried around the church are no longer needed.
The Easter service continues until around 2:30 in the morning, and then the regular Sunday liturgy (interspersed with more Easter – specific songs, of course) is held. This has always been one of my favorite days of the year, and each year amazes me more. It’s incredible to see so many people gather for something they believe in, and it means so much to me to be able to sing with my family in the church I was raised it.
After the liturgy is over, everyone goes outside to get their Easter baskets blessed by the priest. Once all the food has been sprinkled in Holy Water, it’s time to go home. At this point, it’s 4:30, and my family and I open up our basket and eat breakfast before going to bed, eating all the food that we gave up for 40 days. Later that day, we’ll gather again to have a more Americanized Easter celebration, but in the morning we eat breakfast together. My family always hits our eggs against each other’s to see who’s shell is the weakest, just for fun, and my mom always manages to win.
When people ask me how my Easter went, I won’t be talking about my family’s egg hunt or about how I was able to go out and hang out with my friends the days leading up to Easter Sunday. There were no chocolate rabbits in my basket, and I definitely didn’t get much of a chance to sleep in on Sunday. However, I wouldn’t change anything about it. Every year, I am reminded about what my faith and my religion means to me, and I get to experience it all with some of the people that mean the most to me. I get to sing for five hours straight, which I love, and I get to go home and spend the weekend with my family following a tradition I’ve been doing since childhood. Why would I want anything else?