Easter in Palestine ~ The way I remember it ~
Updated: Jun 19
Growing up Easter was the most sacred time of the year. The week leading up to Easter requires lots of preparations and many rituals. Many church services and candle vigils take place during holy week. And many preparations take place at home too. From planning the Easter menu, to making kaek cookies to coloring eggs and picking Easter outfits.
Ka'ek wa ma'moul
My grandmothers often prepared the cookies. The cookies are usually made a few days before Easter, then stored in aluminum tins to be served to guests and family on Easter Sunday. Plates full of kaek and mamoul are often exchanged among neighbors and friends each taking pride in the texture, and presentation of their cookies (the ladies secretly judged cookies lol).
Everyone takes pride in their family recipe. For Christian families the kaek and mamoul cookies are formed into different shapes each shape is symbolic of Christ’s suffering. It’s said that the round ones stuffed with dates they resemble the crown of thorns they placed on Jesus’s head. To be reminded of his sacrifice & crucifixion. The dome like one ones stuffed with walnuts and cinnamon symbolizes the stones that were thrown at Jesus. And the oblong cookies stuffed with an aromatic pistachio paste represent the tomb where Jesus's body was buried after his crucifixion. The cookies are made with fine semolina flour, and the best sweet butter you can find. They are then stuffed with dates, walnuts or pistachios, flavored with mastic (a sundried resin that exudes from the bark of a Meditranian tree), and mahlab, (a spice made from the seeds of a species of cherry), orange blossom and rosewater. Each cookie is pinched by hand or by using wooden molds with various shapes. The task of making these cookies is very meticulous and time consuming.It was a job often enjoyed when family and friends or neighbors gathered. Every helper takes so much pride in their decorating skills.
For me today, these delicate fragrant cookies are a passport to my kids to connect with family, culture and tradition. Some things are best left as they are, they tell so many stories for generations to come. As a little girl I sat by my grandmother as she watched and judged carefully my pinching skills.
Be it Easter or Eid, holidays in the Levantine region of the Middle East are incomplete without these delicious buttery cookies. The cookies serve as a perfect treat after a month of fasting during Ramadan or the 40 days of Lent.
Good Friday (Al Jumaa al Hazineh)
Is usually the last day of fasting or lent. Jumaa Hazineh in Arabic translates to the “Sad Friday”. Growing up we went to church on Good Friday and people often wore black. The mass often was quiet and sad, it’s the day Christ was crucified and nailed to the cross.
When I was about 7 years old I stood in the long line to greet our pastor after the Friday mass and when I got to the pastor I shook his hand and in the spirit of sadness I said “I am so sorry for your loss” the people behind me roared with laughter. Still being reminded of my statement till this day.
Sabt al Noor: Saturday of Light
When I was a teenager living and studying in Jerusalem we would often go to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for the ceremony of Holy Fire on the Saturday before Easter. It’s a huge gathering of Christians from all over the world to witness the emergence of candles lit by what's believed a miracle in the tomb of Jesus. The light was transformed to churches across the country and often welcomed by the scout troops playing pipes and hitting the drums. To me that sound and rhythm of the drums and marching bands is the sound that marks the beginning of Easter.
Local Palestinian Christians of all denominations have attended the ceremony for generations in what has always been a major community event in the past. Unfortunately with the separation wall, road blocks and the occupation checkpoints many Palestinians don’t have permits and often denied from attending these traditional Christians celebrations.
When I was little it was so intriguing to me when I walked down in the Old City’s narrow cobblestone roads, and I would hear all sorts of languages and dialects. Some I didn't even recognize. Christian pilgrims still fly in for Easter, from Germany, Cyprus, Greece .. etc. as tourists on a once-in-a-lifetime visit.
As kids we loved to color Easter eggs. It was always a family activity. My grandmother always loved natural coloring that came straight out of her kitchen. She boiled down onions skin, and beets. But as kids we loved the colorful tablets that dissolved in water and vinegar creating cool colors. And decorating them with all sorts of stickers and sleeves the ones that cling on the egg when you dunk them in boiling water. These were the talk of Easter back then.
Although coloring was fun but we looked forward to all the laughs and smiles it brought us afterwards when we played a game called “Tae’sh” or crack the eggs On Easter morning , a game my kids love to play today.
The dyed eggs will also serve as Easter’s morning breakfast. we all would gather and compete on cracking each other’s eggs we call it “Tae’sh” .
The same dyed eggs are also offered to kids when families and friends come to visit during the Easter celebration which often lasted for a few days. We often challenged one another for an egg Tae’sh throw down. The person with the last unbroken egg is declared the winner. My dad often cheated with fake or wooden eggs.
Easter Sunday in Arabic called Eid al Fiseh
One of my favorite days of the year. It’s often spring time in Palestine, the weather is usually beautiful, the sun is center in the sky and the poppy flowers and dandelions spread covering the hills. It’s a time of wearing your best clothes to church. It also meant that my aunti Aida will fill our bags with chocolate bunnies, and Easter eggs. And my grandfather often gave us money to buy whatever we want and my Tita (grandmother) was busy whipping up a feast. My cousins and family will all gather at my grandmothers house around the long extended rectangular table for a delicious lunch after church. On my TITA’s menu was often stuffed lamb, rolled grape leaves and cinnamon scented rice. After lunch we played outside for hours, cracked many eggs and got on a chocolate bunny high.
Thank you for coming with me down memory lane. Easter in Jerusalem is a real treat the one holiday I miss most.