In case you were wondering, burning hair smells the same in Macedonia.
Luckily, the hair in question wasn’t mine. (I think.)
Easter weekend continued last Saturday with a full day of cleaning and prep for the midnight church service. My host mom and I cleaned like I’ve never cleaned before. That’s because the vacuum has no attachments, so my job was to shuffle across the carpet bent over taking on six-inch sections. Cleaning is another part of the weekend tradition. (Lots of renewal symbolism all weekend. Clean house, clean start?)
At one point, my host mom even pointed to the sparkling faucet above the kitchen sink so I would notice the shine. (Full disclosure: I’ve never cleaned the faucet before. Whoops.)
While the cleaning was a delight (for no one), the real excitement started when we got ready for the midnight service. Midnight is normally past my bed time. (#baba)
My host mom and I walked to the church, arm in arm, and made our way through the crowd to the main entrance. You could feel the heat of all the prayer candles as soon as the door opened – a welcome contrast to the windy weather outside.
My host mom bought candles to light for each member of her family. I lit one and said my own prayer for my family. Candles have never been part of my beliefs, but when in Macedonia, right?
The sandy tables where parishioners place the candles were quite full by the time we arrived, so it was an effort to place ours without burns. (Foreshadowing.)
We made our way into the main sanctuary and worked our way to the front, where three icons sat on stands. (I’m probably using the wrong terminology, but you get the idea.) My house mom crossed her hand across each photo, from left to right, before putting a few denars on each. She handed me denars for the first photo, but I said I just wanted to observe.
She repeated the process with six more icons on shelves at the front of the church. There were also two laundry baskets at the front, for the people who brought in socks, dish towels, and other items. Two woven baskets on the floor were nearly full of red, hard-boiled eggs, like the ones my host mom and I made before sunrise on Thursday. There were also seven bottles of sunflower oil on the ground next to the egg basket.
We stood for a while after she finished adding her contributions to the correct baskets and shelves, until a priest (or some sort of religious figure) came out of the back alcove with a lit candle.
Waiting in line is often disorganized in Macedonia. This was no different. As soon as the lit candle emerged, the people poured to the front to light their own thin, yellow candles and make their way outside for the traditional three laps around the church.
My host mom and I forgot to buy candles for the walk, so we hustled to the back windows and pushed our way through (remember what I said about lines?) until we had two. Rather than head back into the sanctuary, we went outside and lit our candles from someone else’s.
The effort was short-lived. The wind made a mockery of our little candles every time we turned the corner of the building. (The three laps is based on both the Holy Trinity and the three days before resurrection, I believe.) My host mom must have relit her candle at least a dozen times.
I eventually devised a way to make a little house out of my hands to protect my candle and made it two full laps without losing to the wind. (I’m not competitive at all.)
The distinct smell of burning hair broke my concentration several times, as did burning my fingers, but I made it to the end of the walk generally unscathed. After the three laps, the priest inside delivered a message of some sort, though we were too far back to hear it. Instead, we watched as the ripples of people signing the cross made their way back through the crowd, giving some indication of where in the program we were. (For people who knew what was going on at least.)
My host mom swept all my hair from my back to the front of my shoulder during this time after one particularly strong whiff of burnt hair. That was the last scare until we tried to get back into the church and the crowds pressed up to the door, candles still in hands. (Ugh.)
I kept my little candle burning the whole time, dripping wax into my hands and scorching my fingers, but burning nonetheless. Imagine my disappointment when we finally went back inside and my host mom blew it out. (Anticlimactic, right?)
We walked back in, stopped by two other icons and then just listened, chatting with the neighbors that walked by. I saw a ton of my students, whose eyes got big the way they do when they see teachers outside of school. (Universal truth: Teachers aren’t real people.)
We stayed a while and then my host mom said the service might continue until 3 a.m. I decided I’d seen enough, so we walked home to smash our eggs.
Egg smashing is one of the traditions I most enjoyed. Two people hold hard-boiled eggs and one smashes into the other. The person holding the egg that doesn’t crack, wins.
The person with the winning egg is said to have good health for the year ahead. I’ve been told the whole act is also symbolic of the resurrection, specifically the opening of the tomb.
Throughout the weekend, people greet each other with a standard call and response that roughly translates to Jesus has risen. Then, surely he has risen. People also say, за многу години, which literally means for many years. It implies that people will continue celebrating the occasion for many years to come.
The final tradition for the weekend, besides spending Sunday with family, was stashing that little, yellow candle under my pillow. You’re supposed to dream of the person you’ll marry.
I tucked in my candle and dreamed of Sherlock Holmes. So that bodes well for my future marital status.