Celebrating Orthodox Easter in Permet

One week after Catholic Easter, my host family celebrated Orthodox Easter with a midnight trip to the church and Sunday afternoon in the village! I was invited along to all of the festivities, and I had an amazing time learning about the Orthodox traditions!

Sunday, April 8, 2018, 9:29pm

Happy Easter! Well, Orthodox Easter, that is.

This holiday season has been absolutely wonderful! The spring weather and cherry blossoms have brightened up the entire town, and I’ve been having so much fun learning about Orthodox traditions and spending time with my host family!

Saturday Night

For Orthodox Easter, people light their candles from the priest’s flame, then very carefully walk home to draw three crosses in their door frame.

For the Orthodox Easter festivities, it’s a tradition (at least here in Permet), to travel with a candle to the nearest Orthodox church on Saturday night, where the priest will be waiting with his own brightly burning flame that’s meant to represent the spirit of Christ. People light their candles from the priest’s flame, then very carefully walk home to draw three crosses in their door frame for Easter blessings in the coming year.

My host aunt, Sara, and my host siblings, Serena and Stivi, stayed up until midnight waiting for an event at the church in the center of town. As we all dozed on the couch, it felt a little bit like waiting for New Year’s as a young child. It was definitely past all of our bedtimes, and we were exhausted but determined to stay awake for the celebrations.

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The waiting crowd in front of the church (the sign reads “Happy Easter”)

Around 11:45pm, we all roused ourselves from our couches, and then we were off to the center of town! When we arrived, the priest had already begun to distribute his flame, so I prepared my candle and approached the entrance of the church.

Dozens of people had gathered, and everyone was huddled together to keep away breezes that threatened to blow out their candles.

The priest was standing on a raised dais outside of the building, and a microphone carried his prayers throughout the center of the town. Dozens and dozens of people had gathered for the event, and everyone was grouped into their smaller family units, huddled together in circles to keep away ominous breezes that threatened to blow out their candles.

I had no problem receiving the flame from the priest, and my beeswax candle started dripping wax immediately after being lit. Not long after my host family received their flames as well, the priest returned to the church and the crowd began to disperse back to their houses before their candles were blown out.

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Sara, Stivi, Serena, and me with our candles

Together, Sara, Stivi, Serena, and I walked slowly and cautiously back to the house. While the other three had thought ahead to use cups as windshields for their candles, my flame was completely exposed to the elements.

I used my hand to block the breeze, but every time the candle flickered ominously, I stopped dead in my tracks to wait for it to become steady again. I never realized how long the road was to my house from the center of town until I had to bring a candle home. Each step was measured and careful, though I laughed and joked with the others the entire way, as well.

I never realized how long the road was to my house from the center of town until I had to bring a candle home.

Finally we made it to the house, and Stivi and Serena made quick work using their flames to draw crosses above their door. After grabbing a chair from inside my apartment, I had a chance to give it a try myself!

Using the flame to blacken the stone of the door frame, I carefully painted a cross once, twice, three times above the door. It was mesmerizing to watch the candle darken the clean facade.

And then with the evening’s activities completed, I was finally able to go to sleep!

Sunday

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Gorgeous Leuse in the spring

Which brings me to Sunday! This morning dawned bright and clear, and Serena, Stivi, Sara, and I hiked up to Leuse for an Easter visit to the church. The sun shone down through the branches of the trees on the hillside, which were budding with pink flowers and fresh green leaves.

The road was dry and clear, and we made quick time up to the village. A playful group of young donkeys were our only companions on the hillside. The village was peaceful and quiet, and the silence was only broken by the babbling spring and the birdsong overhead.

The village was peaceful and quiet, and the silence was only broken by the babbling spring and the birdsong overhead.

We made our way to the church, which was open for the Easter holiday. We all lit candles for each of our family members (the candles representing the living were placed inside the candle holder while the candles for the dead were placed on the floor). Then we took some time to admire the gorgeous paintings, craning our necks up to look at the amazing frescos that have stood the test of time. As we left the church, we exited backwards through the door frame (though I forgot to ask why).

In high spirits, we made our way down the mountain back into Permet. Almost as soon as we arrived, we were whisked away to the village of Badlojne, which is where my host grandmother grew up. We drove down bumpy village roads and up the long and curvy asphalt road up the mountainside.

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The family house in the village

Before long, we were in the heart of the village, which was a collection of houses on the side of a steep mountain. And my host family’s house was located at the highest point in the village, which meant that even after we’d parked, we had a bit of a climb. The sun shone down brightly onto the mountainside. While I was focused on the rocky ground under my feet, I tried to remember to take in the scenery surrounding me. And wow, it took my breath away. 

My words won’t do it justice. Photos will have to suffice instead.

As I stood there on the side of the mountain looking out at the pristine Vojsa River nestled in the heart of forested mountains and lush, green fields, I once again could not believe my incredible luck. I never would have thought I’d be able to live in the middle of such amazing natural beauty, and even though I take it for granted sometimes, I am always grateful for the opportunities that have led me to where I am today.

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The incredible view from the village

We continued to hike up gravel pathways until we reached the wooden front gate of the house. After entering through the gate, we emerged into a shady courtyard with a cobblestone path leading to the house and an empty garden overlooking the hillside. My host grandparents and host mom welcomed us all into the house, and immediately we were sat down for post-hike snacks of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, and bread.

We emerged into a shady courtyard with a cobblestone path leading to the house and an empty garden overlooking the hillside.

The house itself was divided up into three main rooms, a living room (that also doubled as our napping room), an empty middle room with a bathroom, and a bedroom. The house was connected to electricity and had plenty of running water, and it was removed from neighbors, noise, and the clutter of the city below. I’d love to come back and stay for an entire weekend, spending my morning gardening, my afternoon reading, and my evening looking up at the bright stars above.

Stivi and Serena fetched a radio from the inside of the house, and before long they were fiddling with the dials until they came across a station with American pop music. Which is how I found myself bobbing along to Maroon 5 in a remote Albanian village on Easter Sunday. Worlds colliding.

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The special pot used to cook the meat to perfection

Once we’d finished up our snack, Sara, Stivi, and I got to work peeling potatoes for our lunch while my host grandparents and host mom did the real meal prep, including cooking the fresh lamb in a special type of pot with a large iron lid. My host grandfather started up a fire and used its ashes to cover the lid, and then he placed ashes underneath the pot as well, which cooked the meat slowly to perfection (my stomach is rumbling just remembering the taste now).

Once we’d finished two full bowls of potatoes, we were ready for a rest. My host mom covered me up with a blanket, and I actually did doze off to the low murmur of voices in the garden and music drifting in from the village below.

I woke from my nap feeling groggy but content. Immediately, I emerged from the house and stretched out in the sun like a cat warming my fur. Before long, the others began moving and decided to play some cards, so we got through a few rounds before lunch.

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My Easter lunch in the village – fresh lamb, roasted potatoes, and feta cheese

By the time the meal was served, my appetite had returned in full force, so I was beyond thrilled to see the table set outside with large plates of fresh lamb, village cheese, and roasted potatoes, bowls of salad and fresh bred, and glasses of soft drinks. Everything looked and smelled absolutely delicious. Just like the snack we’d had in the morning, the clear village air and beautiful natural environment were the secret ingredients to an even more spectacular meal.

After the lunch, Sara and I hiked up to a lookout point with amazing and unobstructed views of the scenery. Back at the house, we ate a lovely desert of shendetlie and Serena distributed the Easter eggs (all dyed bright red) for another Easter tradition.

Instead of an egg hunt, the Orthodox Easter egg game involves hitting two eggs together. Whichever egg is strongest and doesn’t crack wins, and the winner receives good luck.

Serena tested her egg against all of ours, and she came out the winner every time!

“What’s her egg made out of? Concrete?” asked Stivi incredulously after Serena’s fifth win.

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My red Easter egg

The rest of the afternoon was spent teaching me how to play mulan, an Albanian card game that involves strategy and luck. I’m a pretty terrible player and had to rely on Sara for help most of the time. But I kind of started to figure out the basics by the time we’d finished the last of the games.

I loved getting to experience a taste of village life, and I’m still finding new places to explore.

Around 4:30pm, the others wrapped up their work, and we headed back down the side of the mountain. Serena, Stivi, Sara, and I took the lead on foot. All together, we were a happy and lively group as we drove up to the front door and went our separate ways.

I’m truly so happy and grateful for this wonderful experience today. I loved getting to experience a taste of village life, and it’s reassuring that even one year into my Peace Corps service, I’m still finding new places to explore. I really loved the slower pace of the day and feeling like I had the entire morning and afternoon ahead of me as I laid my head back against the wall of the house and just stared out at the landscape below.


BONUS: Check out my many other photos from the Orthodox Easter holiday!

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My beeswax candle burning brightly with the “spirit of Christ”
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Trees on the mountainside in Badlonje
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The extraordinary view from the village house
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My host family hard at work
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High in the mountains in Badlonje
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One last view of the river from the bridge to Badlonje
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