Monday, 25 April 2011


Easter time is when my identity gets most confused. Russian and Western Easter do not always coincide and can be as far apart as five weeks. We always celebrated Russian Easter in Moscow, even though my family was Lutheran. When I moved to Sweden I of course started celebrating Swedish/Western Easter, but I brought my Russian customs with me. Russian customs include Russian food: the Easter saffron cake, kulich, and Easter spicy cheese, paskha. At the same time, as a child I was supposed to believe in Easter Bunny, in the good German tradition. I had to prepare a plate with some moss or pretty leaves and put it under my bed on Easter eve. In the morning the Bunny would have hidden the plate, and when I found it, it had a little kulich, a pretty egg and perhaps a little toy. No chocolate eggs. Easter was officially forbidden, so there was no commerce around it. Yet you could buy kulich in a bakery, only they called it "Spring cake". People with self respect baked their own. There were no special paints for eggs, we would use onion skins and other natural dyes. We shared family secrets.

We played the egg game at breakfast, knocking egg against egg to break it. But one year when we were visiting some German relatives in Northern Caucasus, they took us to the churchyard to roll eggs on graves, which was utterly perplexing. Many years later, I saw remains of hardboiled eggs in Russian churchyards in Moscow. Visiting graves on Easter Day was not part of my family customs. Later, the authorities in Moscow organised shuttle buses from undeground stations to nearest churchyards on Easter Day, to avoid chaos. Still they didn't admit it was Easter.

In Sweden, when the kids were small - and actually when they were grown-up - we filled cardboard eggs with sweets and hid for them to hunt for. A big cultural clash happened during my first Easter in Sweden, when I had carefully prepared the food, painted eggs, set the table on the eve, and in the morning Staffan started boiling eggs for breakfast. On the other hand, he expected me to make a leg of lamb for Easter dinner, and I thought it was barbarian. Eventually, we reconciled it all, taking the best of everything.

In my youth, we would go to Easter vigil, which was forbidden. To discourage young people from attending Easter services, attractive American films and shows were broadcast on television well beyond the normal broadcast time. Around the few remaining churches in Moscow, police and volunteers from Young Communists made human chains, but were instructed to let the believers in. Which implied old women in headscarves, but if you went past with determined steps they'd let you in. The church was overcrowded (in Russian Orthodox churches there are no pews, you stand), it was unbearably hot from hundreds of candles. Once you've squeezed in, you couldn't get out, and the service went on for hours. Sometimes we stayed outside and watched the priests come out to call: "Christ is risen". I knew very little of the implications, but it was a celebration we shared and valued. The Russian custom was to carry a burning candle all the way home. Luckily, I lived just next to a church, so I managed. Sometimes we would go to a different church, and the game was to bring it home in a taxi (it didn't work). Once I attended a service as a guest of honour, allowed to stand with the choir. I received a blessed egg from the priest. People said that blessed eggs didn't rot, you could save them for years.

In Stockholm I used to go to the Russian church for Easter vigil, even when I didn't otherwise go regularly, and in San Diego I managed to find a tiny Russian church. When the Russian and Western Easter did not coincide, I would celebrate first with the family, at home, and then with Russian friends, in church. I would make Easter food twice. Occasionally I would go to a Swedish Easter service. In Sweden, Good Friday (strange name for a day when God is murdered) is a holiday. In the US and here, in the UK, it isn't. You get out of phase. Add all your Jewish friends and friends of other confessions and atheist friends... Yet much like Christmas, Easter for me is mostly about the family. We could never get the whole family together for Christmas Eve, but they all came for Easter brunch.

This year, Julia made Russian Easter food and invited her little brother. I don't think she realises how happy she made me. Somehow this multicultural, confused tradition is carried on.


Anonymous said...

And when orthodox Easter can be peacefully celebrated, like in Stockholm or San Diego, on the pavement outside the church, the men stand smoking and talking in low voices.
Masha and I once participated in a Jewish Pesach in Stockholm, a wonderful experience, with Russian Jewish refugees.
And outside the men stood smoking.

Julia said...

Actually Anton invited himself. He wanted to come over and have some paskha, even though he doesn't like it. Traditions are important.

Some day I hope to have a big kitchen where I can have lots of family and friends over for Easter.

Anonymous said...

"Good Friday (strange name for a day when God is murdered)"

'Good' in this context is a corruption of 'Rood', which is the Old or Middle English (I forget which) word for a crucifix. So it does make sense in the end.

I love Paskha, and hope you will add simnel cake to your eclectic mix of Easter customs. Lydia