The spread at Lisa Jacomos’ Orthodox Easter celebration. Photo by Ryan Quinlan, used with permission.
The first time I heard the phrase Christos Anesti was when I was 13 years old and my father appeared on Red Faces – the talent segment of the popular television show Hey Hey It’s Saturday.
After a pretty embarrassing performance, Red Symons looked at my father and said ‘Christos Anesti’ before awarding him a score of three. Dad just laughed in response. Watching this from home, I had no idea what had just happened. I knew Red had spoken Greek, but that was as far as my recognition went. The next time I saw my father, I asked him what it meant. He brushed it off, saying, ‘Oh, it’s happy Easter. Or something like that.’ What I didn’t understand at the time was that Red had picked up that my father was Greek and so, presumedly, greeted him with the only saying he knew.
Anytime I tried to talk to my father about his Greek heritage, he would distance himself from it as much as possible. Whenever I asked him specific questions, he would reply, ‘It’s all Greek to me!’ and laugh like he’d said something hilarious. I worked out a long time ago that he did this due to racism.
My father was born in Adelaide, his parents being among the first wave of Greek migrants arriving in Australia after World War One. My grandparents migrated to Port Pirie, a small country town in South Australia with a large Greek population. The population provided my grandparents a support network and the Greeks stuck together. Unfortunately for my father, his family moved to Adelaide and, during the second wave of Greek migration in the 1950s, white South Australians became threatened by the sudden onslaught of ‘New Australians’. Dad became the butt of their racism. Most often, people would yell, ‘Go back to where you came from!’ Yet, he was living where he came from: he came from Adelaide. Feeling like he was torn between two worlds, my dad started to distance himself from his family’s heritage. As a young singer, he took the stage name Jimmy K, which sounded much more ‘white’ than Con Jacomos. In later years, he went by his initials: C.J.
Because of all this, I grew up knowing very little about my Greek heritage. I grew up with a Greek surname that no-one could spell and I was constantly questioned about its origin. And, bewildering to me, I also started to receive a lot of racism. In high school, I was awarded the nickname ‘P. Wog’ – short for ‘Pizza Wog’ (apparently Greek and Italians are the same). So I grew up stigmatised for a culture that I knew nothing about and which my father refused to even admit he was a part of. Yet, for all his trying, after my father passed away, the sole contents his refrigerator were a container of kalamata olives and a bag of lemons. I looked at the contents and thought, ‘Dad, you can’t hide who you are.’
I decided to embrace my heritage and teach my children about a small part of where they came from. What better place to start than with celebrating Easter? With no-one to guide me, I’m sure that my Orthodox Easter traditions are completely incorrect. Yet for me that isn’t the point. I’m not Greek Orthodox so this isn’t about following religious rituals or even cultural ones. For me, it’s a gesture that acknowledges a part of myself (and my children) of which I was always ashamed.
The first step to my Greek Easter is securing the date. Orthodox Easter runs on the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian, so it is often a week later. After the date is established, I scour continental delis and supermarkets searching for paraphernalia. This year, I bought red egg dye, and an egg stand – which I’m pretty sure is actually Macedonian – from my local shops. Then I buy foods that I either don’t have the skills, or the time to make. This year, I purchased the tsoureki (a sweet bread with a red egg in the centre) and the koulourakia (buttery Easter biscuits). I invited my non-Greek half-sister and in-laws to dinner on the Sunday. I boiled (cruelty-free) eggs and then we each drew on one with white crayon. After we had finished our designs, we died the eggs in the red food dye. The best part about the eggs is that we get to sit down at the table and smash them against each other while saying Christos Anesti (Christ is risen) and Alithos Anesti (indeed he has risen). I save the eggs and make curried egg sandwiches the next day. For me, the worst part is making the roast lamb; as a vegan, I abhor doing this. Luckily this year my sister saved me from the worst of it, but I still had to slit holes in it and fill them with garlic and oregano. For dessert I made vegan bougatsa, which is a semolina custard wrapped in filo pastry. So easy and so delicious. After we stuff ourselves, we sit down and enjoy each other’s company.
So, that is my tradition. It may not be technically correct, but I am finally embracing my heritage and making sure that my children love their Greek ancestry and do not grow up being ashamed of who they are.
Written by Lisa Jacomos. Photos provided by Lisa Jacomos and Ryan Quinlan and used with permission.