In Essays

Greek Orthodox Easter and Elwood the Greekster Dragon

Let me begin with a simple explanation of what “Greekster” is, as I will be using it throughout for both convenience and because I believe the following holiday is worthy of its own shorthand unaffiliated with the more widely known version of Easter.

Greekster, as you might have guessed, is Greek Easter. My tendency is to combine words for convenience sake, but in this case it’s because Greek Easter is THE Easter, as I have been told and indoctrinated to believe, and should not be at all confused with what those other Christians celebrate in April.

Last night was the beginning of my first Greekster weekend, invited to join my patient and humoring Melanie with her family at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Rocky River, Ohio — NOT, mind you, Westlake. I’ve had that made to me abundantly clear in colorful language on more than one occasion.

Granted this is hardly my first dip into the Greek Orthodox culture. Last summer I went to both the Tremont Greek Fest, held in a traditionally Greek neighborhood of Cleveland that’s lined with Eastern Orthodox churches like street lights, and the Greek Fest at the aforementioned St. Demetrios. I received my bootcamp in Greek cuisine, namely pastries and lamb, pastries and lamb, all washed down with a cold bottle of Mythos, allegedly the first “authentic” Greek brew and second largest brewery in Greece.

Both the festivities in Cleveland and Rocky River were filled with the requisite cultural traditions prevalent throughout any festival honoring a culture with as rich and vibrant a tradition as the Greeks. There was line dancing, music, and seemingly spastic screams of, “Opa!” Everyone knows each other — except, of course, that blonde guy with the translucent skin tone — because everyone grew up together in the church. It’s the kind of bond only those who grew up in the church can understand.

Still, Greek Fest is a bit more open to the public than, say, Greekster services. And understandably so. One is a joyous celebration of culture. The other, while deeply rooted in cultural tradition, begins with mourning the death of a Lord and savior. It takes 26 hours or so to get to the joyous part where Christ is risen. So I was and remain very gracious to have been invited to participate in the most important and holiest weekend of the calendar year for the Greek Orthodox faith.

Greekster weekend began as most religious holidays do for me. I, the foreigner, was yelled at for taking too long to get moving. In my defense, I loathe wearing a shirt, tie and sport coat — all requirements for Greekster service. I can’t explain it, but it’s as if the formal wear is to me as holy water is to Dracula. Perhaps not the best analogy given the weekend, but let’s move on.

Melanie and I hurried to the car, only to discover she had left her parking swipe in the apartment. This led into a tapestry of vulgarity that I’ve seen in many a holiday. Her increasingly sour temperment probably wasn’t helped by my ceaseless desire to create a mascot for the Greekster holiday.

“Easter has the Easter Bunny, Christmas has Santa Claus, and Hanukkah has the armadillo,” I said to Melanie while tightening my tie.

“Armadillo?” she wondered aloud.

“Haven’t you seen FRIENDS?” I replied, shortly thereafter realizing I no doubt made more a fool of myself in admitting my knowledge of FRIENDS trivia than Melanie for understandably not committing such frivolous facts to memory.

The mood becoming increasingly tense, but in an ultimately fun sort of way, I began creating the Greekster mascot and accompanying music.

“What’s the animal to represent Greekster?” I asked Melanie.

“A dragon,” she replied without the slightest hint of hesitation. Only later did she think of a more realistic answer, such as, lamb. But no, it was already decided that this night would be represented by the Greekster Dragon, and songs honoring the Greekster Dragon, who we would later name Elwood, would be sung to the tune of well-known Christmas classics.

Now recollecting the early hours of Greekster Good Friday, it’s mesmerizing my invitation wasn’t revoked before leaving the city limits.

Eventually we did manage to leave the building and make our way to the Furey household for dinner. We arrived around 6:30 p.m. with church service beginning at 7 p.m. Curious how we would make it in time, I was told like an ignorant child that it’s common to show up late, because Good Friday service is long. Very long. Who am I to break tradition?

So we arrived at St. Demetrios with the hour pushing 8 p.m., 30 minutes later than we intended to arrive after already intending to arrive late. And lest I make us sound like a group of delinquents,  we were hardly alone in our late arrival. Sure enough, the sea of Greeks were continuing to march into church.

Now earlier I had asked Melanie to prepare me for any and all cultural traditions I would have to partake in. I thought I was ready to go, so imagine my surprise when walking into church Melanie and her Greek brethren began kissing icons and crossing themselves after picking up an unlit, white candle. I generally don’t kiss things I don’t understand, especially without any instruction or warning, so I meandered around the lobby like a frightened child, which was precisely what I feared happening.

After observing three images, Melanie waved me over to the opposite end of the lobby.

“What was that!?” I scream-whispered.

“Don’t worry about it,” she replied, as if I shouldn’t feel like I just insulted two thousand some odd years of Greek Orthodox tradition by obliquely passing by the founders of their church like strangers at a carnival.

Packed to the brim, we shuffled against the wall to observe the rest of the ongoing service. Though I had been on St. Demetrios’ grounds before, this was my first time inside the church itself. Contrary to its bland, municipal-style exterior, the interior was stunning.

The dome is surrounded with images of the prophets and apostles with the typical Greek artistic touch — one I’ve always been a fan of. Stain glass windows shining colors across the Roy G. Biv spectrum lined the walls, leading to a large portrait of Jesus with open arms behind the altar. Within Jesus is a portrait of him as a child. (I later learned that the large portrait was Mary, not Jesus, with the baby Jesus within her. Oops.)

Unique to the evening’s service was the epitafio. An exquisite, colorful piece of the service I later, perhaps insensitively, told Melanie resembles the carriage Aladdin takes into Agrabah Palace after wishing from Genie he be made into Prince Ali. To be fair, she agreed.

The service continued with altar boys passing lit candles along the pews to light everyone’s candles. I, unfortunately, have this odd habit to suddenly and habitually snort outward. It’s not loud or unpleasant. Just odd. So it was merely a matter of minutes before I snuffed my flame under the gust of my profoundly odd habit. Luckily, my neighbors were quick to assit me in rekindling my flame.

Next, a handful of men surrounded the epitafio, lifting it off of the altar and onto wheels to push through the aisle. This, I’m told, is an honor for any Greek man.

As they pushed through and outside of the church, the congregation followed behind like cattle. The church  choir sang in Greek behind the epitafio. We hear them best as they exited through the lobby, standing 20 feet or so away. Everyone was quiet, allowing their beautiful song to fill the air. This was the most enjoyable portion for me. It was intimate and for lack of a better word, pretty.

My only qualm with the entirety of the service was the large crowd. Sure, that’s good for the church. But what about me as a foreigner trying to better understand the cultural experience?

The immediate comparison that came to mind — and again, probably insensitive — was my experience at a Black Keys show. I’ve heard they’re great at the Beachland Ballroom, a music club in Cleveland’s North Collinwood neighborhood where you’re close to the stage no matter where you stand. But when I saw them play downtown at our NBA arena, it felt odd. Simply put, there was no intimacy or connection with the band standing thousands of feet away, watching them like ants with a drum kit. The same applied to the Good Friday service at St. Demetrios. I left wishing for front row seats to Jesus’ funeral. Make of that what you will.

Behind hundreds of worshippers, it wasn’t long before the enchanting melodies grew faint. Far from the service, the surrounding Greeks in unison did what they do best — talk. For about 30 minutes, we shuffled around the church, pausing every so often for another tune we couldn’t hear, while old friends and family caught up with one another. Because again, everyone comes out for Greekster. Everyone.

Marching in front of the church, we actually took to blocking Center Ridge Road with cops stopping traffic both ways. This gave me an odd sense of satisfaction given my obnoxious hatred of cars. Beyond that, it was 60-some-degrees under a beautiful moonlit sky. There was absolutely no reason to be in a metal box.

Finally, we returned to the church entrance where the aforementioned honored Greek men raised the epitafio. One by one, we bowed our heads in respect of the church to enter underneath the epitafio. It was either that, or take a wooden beam across the forehead. I suggest going with reverence.

Following behind Melanie, she quickly turned to me.

“Oh, I forgot about this part! Just do what I do,” she instructed.

This is what I ultimately dreaded. That is, throwing myself into a cultural practice I’m completely unfamiliar with and doing something wrong and/or stupid (most likely both) that offends someone.

First, Melanie shook hands with a priest and kissed his hand. Now I know I’m probably alone in this, but kissing a man’s hand was a big deal for me simply in that I never have before. No, it’s not at all a big deal. But it’s still a first. And whenever you have a first time thrust upon you at a moment’s notice, it shocks you to some extent. For me, it happened to be kissing a man’s hand, and I was completely unprepared. I mean, where on the hand do I kiss? Is it just a quick peck? Is there a ring I’m supposed to aim for? Do I look him in the eye and smile afterward?

The first step seemed simple enough: Shake, bow, and peck. Next, however, stood a man holding another image of, I’m guessing, Jesus. And I missed whatever Melanie did, because I was too busy smooching the first guy’s hand.

I can’t completely recall what happened next in specific detail, but another woman somehow snuck in front of me —  Thank God. She kissed an image in the middle, another in the lower left corner, and finally, the priest’s hand.

Well, I already just kissed one man’s hand. What’s another?

Peck, peck, peck. And I was done.

“I just kissed a man’s hand!” I whispered to Melanie.

“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable,” she replied, reiterating that she had completely forgotten about the exercise.

“Not uncomfortable. I just didn’t expect my first man hand kiss to happen tonight.”

With that, we continued back into the church for the remainder of service. This time we managed to grab seats. Having arrived late to service in the first place, this seemed unfair. But I wasn’t about to argue with women in heels who had already been standing for over an hour.

Before much longer — just a couple more exercises of standing up, sitting back down, standing back up, crossing yourself, et cetera — Father Jim concluded the service by thanking everyone for passing on the temptation to go see the baseball game. At this point, Melanie felt obliged to single me out as the one who was more than willing to give into the temptation.

Nonetheless, I’m glad I went. I’m always up for cultural exploration of the hands-on variety. And this, with one final man hand kiss in receiving a flower at the altar, was indeed hands on. The service was beautiful and memorable, and I’m always touched when surrounded by people of tremendous faith whether it’s Tibetans in Dharamsala, India or Greeks in Rocky River, Ohio. Though I suppose I’ll gladly pass on attending any cult services with Kool Aid.

Walking to the car, Melanie’s mother shared stories of Good Friday service at one of the Greek Orthodox churches in Tremont she attended as a child with her Yiayia. Worshippers leave the church in similar fashion as the St. Demetrios crowd, but meetup with other nearby congregations in the neighborhood.

We ended the evening by breaking some Good Friday rules with pizza and beer at a nearby joint. On the drive home, Melanie and I continued to create the story behind Elwood the Greekster Dragon, who I was disappointed to miss at the evening’s service. To the tune of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, we sang (I sang):

Elwood the Greekster Dragon had a very furry chin

All of the other dragons used to laugh and make fun of him

Then one chilly Greekster night, Father came to say

Elwood with your chin so warm, won’t you snug us all tonight

Yes, I realize I can be a rather bizarre individual. And tonight (after missing communion as I’m not allowed to take communion), it’s on to midnight service for the resurrection of Christ followed by, of course, lamb’s head.

Someone is having an eyeball with a hint of brain this evening, and I pray, dear Greekster Dragon, it isn’t me.

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