Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE WORD'S WORTH: Tradition Bursts Forth With Orthodox Easter




For many of us, Easter has come and gone. The eggs colored and consumed, the chocolate bunnies have already lost their heads.


But for the Russian Orthodox, the holy day is still to come, and non-native speakers should be prepared for that one day of the year when the rules of greeting change. This Sunday, feel free to put aside the typical tongue twister zdravstvuite for the more pronounceable greeting: Khristos voskres! Christ has risen.


To which the typical reply is, not surprisingly, He has risen indeed: Voistinu voskres.


Be assured that this spiritual exchange, called khristosovat'sya, is not reserved for the particularly pious, nor is it heard only within houses of worship. You might hear it, for example, on your way out to the bread store, or when you answer the phone. Indeed, being even vaguely Christian does not appear to be a requirement to khristosovat'sya.


For those who do follow tradition, the Easter ritual goes far beyond a simple exchange of greetings. Preparations already began last Sunday, Verbnoye Voskresen'ye, when the religiously minded returned home from church with branches of pussy willows. Known as Palm Sunday to Catholics and Protestants, the Russians' Pussy Willow Sunday is similar in spirit if not in foliage.


"Why pussy willows?" I once asked a priest. Because palms don't grow in Russia, he said. Palm trees don't grow in Canada either, but do you see them walking around with pussy willows on Palm Sunday? The priest's remarkably practical reply reminded me of one of my favorite Russian expressions: Bez ryby, I rak ryba. Literally translated - without fish, crayfish is fish - it sums up that "in a pinch, we'll have to make do." No palms in Russia? No worries. In a pinch, the pussy willow pitches in as a palm.


In addition to these more spiritual preparations, there is a lot of work ahead to get ready for Easter Sunday. The devout are dusting off their paskha molds and planning to have their kulichi, or Easter cakes, blessed. They are counting down until the great fast - or veliky post - ends, so they can again enjoy the earthly delights of meat and dairy products.


The run on eggs, particularly white eggs, has already begun. Scores of eggs must be purchased, boiled and dyed so that on Easter day everyone can bit'sya yaitsami, or egg bash. This seasonal game is less violent than it sounds; two players lightly tap each other's egg, and the one who ends up unshattered is the winner.


The egg bash is, admittedly, a more competitive side of Easter, but one in which, like the greeting ritual, all faiths can take part. Even in Soviet times these seasonal rites were practiced by card-carrying communists, with a few editorial corrections: Khristos voskres (Christ has risen), Slava KPSS (Glory to the Communist Party).