Church bells chime for the last time on Friday afternoon at 3pm, leaving Ljubljana in an unfamiliar silence. Folks are in mass, listening as the priest describes Jesus’ death on the cross. Friday through Sunday represents the time during which the Bible describes Jesus’ crucifixion and burial in a tomb; his absence is mirrored in the silencing of the bells’ toll. This is perhaps the only time of the year when the echo of the brass giants does not resonate across the cityscape every hour.
Easter is a significant holiday in Slovenia where 57.8% of people identify as Roman Catholic (CIA World Factbook). The 40 day period of Lent begins at the closure of the Carnival festival season. Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ death, is traditionally a day of fasting.
Holy Saturday is more lively. On this day people walk with friends and family to their local church or oldest village building. Many of them carry an old wicker basket covered in white lace which they place within the building entrance. Each basket holds traditional Easter foods: pork, painted boiled eggs, horseradish, potica cake, a loaf of bread. The priest arrives and voices die down; everyone starts to step closer, crowding the street as they near the priest. They have all gathered to celebrate žegen, or the blessing of the Easter dishes. Seeing the entire village gathered together on this Saturday, I start to imagine what it might have looked as this practice was done even back in the 16th century. It appears to me that everyone in the neighborhood is a friend or a relative or neighbor. They are apparently a pretty good choir too, as many people break into perfect harmony when it comes time to sing. The priest then takes a brush to sprinkle holy water over the baskets of food. Soon the mass comes to an end and each person steps forward to retrieve their basket. They depart much as they came, laughing and smiling as the basket and breakfast sway in time to a jovial step.
Easter Sunday finally arrives. At the stroke of ten the church bells ring as though they’ve been held still for a hundred years. The clamor of one tone against another announces to all who will listen: “Jesus has risen again!” Families gather for what is arguably the biggest meal of the year: Easter breakfast. I myself head to visit a friend from my language course whose family friends have graciously invited me over to join in their Easter meal. I walk into a house humming with conversation; there are probably ten people in this house, and there are still more to come as aunts and cousins and siblings slowly file in. The table is soon adorned with an assortment of culinary delights. A plate of dried meats sits next to a bowl of roast potatoes. Cheeses sliced just the right size to fit between a slice of ham and a piece of bread come in all colors and flavors. In this forested country no Easter meal is complete without a bowl of marinated forest mushrooms. I take the ones sitting in paprika – for such a heavy meal I’m going to need something to make the food feel a little lighter! At least two dozen painted boiled eggs sit in the center of the table, including some which are painted in the traditional method using boiled onion skins for color. Before the meal we all toast to the holiday with a glass of champagne, and as the meal progresses our cups continue to flow with homemade wine and grape juice. I even decide to brave the traditional Slovenian combination of ham and horseradish atop a slice of potica (a sweetish spiced raisin and walnut bread). This sounds like a strange mix of flavors (and trust me, it is) but by the last bites even I am convinced that maybe – just maybe – these flavors can belong together!
There’s a saying that you haven’t eaten enough for Easter until you feel ill, and after the impossible amount of food that I’ve eaten on Easter morning I’m pretty sure that I’ve met that criteria. Luckily the woods are never far away, and an hour-long hike is just the right way to end an Easter meal. Of course, that hike is really just a way to make room for round two. 🙂
**Thanks Izzy for the photos! Apparently I’m not as good at taking pictures of food as I am of mountains.