The streets bustled with life in Astoria, Queens, the heartland of Greek-Americans in New York City, on Saturday, as people prepared to celebrate Orthodox Easter. Along the main streets of the neighborhood, particularly on Ditmars Boulevard, families were seen carrying brown shopping bags filled with staple Greek Easter treats: tsoureki (sweet Easter bread), red-dyed Easter eggs, olives, kourabiedes, (butter cookies), and wine. A few men carried whole lambs wrapped in white plastic bags behind their backs.
Yesterday was Holy Saturday, the day of the big preparation. Traditionally, Orthodox Christians fast for the entire week leading up to Easter Sunday, avoiding certain food such as dairy, meat and even fish—only octopus, shrimp and squid are allowed since they are not animals with blood. The fast is broken after midnight, starting with mayeritsa, a soup prepared with the organs and intestines of a lamb, and then topped off with a big traditional meal on Sunday, which typically includes a whole roasted lamb, cheeses, breads, red eggs and an array of desserts.
But before the feast, nearly every Greek Orthodox files into churches for the service of the resurrection which takes place at midnight.
“If you’re a good Greek, you go to church at 9 p.m.,” joked Katerina Georgios, a shopper at Artopolis, a popular bakery on Ditmars Boulevard. “Most people, like me, go at 11.”
“In true Greek fashion!” added her friend Jacky Diaz.
Near the end of the service, crowds hold candles – lambades – in commemoration of Christ’s death and subsequent rebirth.
“At quarter to 12, we all spill out to the streets and we sing ‘Christos Anesti,’ which means “Christ is risen,’” said Matina Karadiakos, a shopper at Titan Foods, a Greek grocery store in Astoria. “Then, we say ‘Alithos o Kyrios,’ which means indeed he has.”
The chanting is often followed by fireworks and music, especially in Greece.
“In Greece, people even have bombs!” Karadiakos said. “Not allowed here in America, of course.”
Markets, bakeries and liquor stores overflow with eager customers out for last-minute grocery shopping.
“It’s business all week,” said Alex Gounaris at Omega Wines & Spirits, a family-owned business run by him, his brother, Billy, and their father. “We even have to sleep here, but it’s definitely good for business.”
Greek Easter is also a time when families get to spend time together cooking, roasting lamb and cracking eggs. Everyone takes an egg and smashes it on top of another person’s egg. The last one standing with an uncracked egg in their hand, wins.
“One time, my brother won, but he told us later that he froze his egg,” said Georgios. “I wanted a rematch! I told him I was gonna take a rock and paint it red next time.”
Astoria will return to normal on Monday. In the meantime, eggs will keep cracking and the wine will continue to flow,
“It’s the biggest holiday for us,” said Georgios. For his family, he added, “it’s mostly about eating though!”