This spring, we’ve had the delightful opportunity to observe Easter celebrations not once, but twice. In Croatia, where Catholicism predominates, we celebrated Easter in late March, whereas we also got to participate in Orthodox Easter festivities in Macedonia this past weekend.
Given its spiritual ties and the fact that it once had more than 365 churches, Ohrid, Macedonia earned the title, ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans.’ Today, many of the UNESCO World Heritage site’s churches have been restored, but others are still awaiting their renaissance. It is not uncommon to see a collapsed church juxtaposed against scenes of everyday life in a thriving neighborhood. Just behind our current ‘home away from home,’ for example, sits the small St. Nicholas Church, which is in ruins. Our hosts noted that local authorities are trying to raise more funds to restore it.
On Easter Eve, this past Saturday, we joined a procession of thousands of Macedonians to the nearby Saint Panteleimon Church, which was only recently renovated using the original materials which were still on site. The church sits on the grounds of one of Europe’s oldest universities; in fact, the Cyrillic alphabet was developed at the learning institution that was previously here.
In anticipation of the massive crowds that would be passing through the neighborhood to the church, small, family-run stands had cropped up to sell candles.
We purchased two slender beeswax candles from young girls, while noting that it was a different spin of sorts on the American lemonade stand tradition.
Saint Panteleimon Church was dramatically illuminated for the occasion, showcasing its elegant mosaics and beautiful brickwork. Our arrival around 11:15 p.m. couldn’t have been better timed, for when we stopped into the church’s small interior, expecting only to see pre-mass preparations, we actually got to participate in the entire ceremony (while thousands of others listened to the projections outside).
Upon entering the church, Orthodox Christians kissed the icons of the saints, then deposited a banknote or coins into the slot underneath the ornate images. A bishop and his deacons filled the air with song and the rich aroma of incense, as participants looked on with candles in hand. At one point, we were all led outside the church. It was dark as the doors were locked and the ceremony continued outside. Shortly thereafter, the bishop returned with a wooden hammer in hand, knocking three times, and symbolizing Jesus’ resurrection. The Macedonian people sang joyously outside and again we were ushered inside.
The next day, we were graciously invited to our apartment owner’s home for Easter dinner of lamb, roasted potatoes, Macedonian salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, feta cheese and onions), and fresh-baked bread. Traditional Macedonian music with accordion overtones played, and one of our new friends gave us our first Cyrillic alphabet lesson from a family picture book. Since the mass they traditionally attend every year was set to commence at the nearby St. Sophia Church, the family decided to do a progressive dinner. Shawn would have to wait to feast upon the massive tray of homemade baklava that had been tempting him since our arrival.
Though Saint Panteleim’s interior on Easter Eve was magnificent, St. Sophia’s offered a vastly different ambience. One thousand year-old frescoes with a rich navy blue background still adorned the ancient walls. The church is thought to have been built in either the ninth or tenth century. The same bishop and clergy who’d presided over the services the night before had changed arenas and were now leading the late afternoon ceremony.
It culminated in the congregation participating in a procession that allowed them to kiss icons and crosses that the priests were holding. Children were also given red Easter eggs, which are customary in Macedonia and symbolize life and rebirth.
Returning to the family’s home, it was time for dessert. The family and Shawn feasted upon the baklava, as well as a fruit cake infused with kiwi, bananas and strawberries, all rounded off with rich, Turkish-style coffee. Not wanting to leave me out of the party, I was treated to gluten-free ice-cream, ending the special day with a sweet finish. We shall forever remember our new Macedonian friend’s warm hospitality. The joke is that we’ll host each other for our respective Christmas celebrations next year.
Photography & text © by Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.