Easter and Spring in Mangeshi Village
By: Francis K. Khosho
Easter and Christmas are the two most significant days observed by our Eastern Church and are holidays notorious for bringing the family together in celebration. The resurrection of Christ from the dead occurred in the spring season, a time of year that marks the rebirth of living things, making the message of Easter ‘a life without end’. It celebrates the news of what happened to our Lord Jesus Christ almost two thousand years ago when He rose from the dead.
From even the most primitive time in history our ancestors in Nineveh and Babylon celebrated the beginning of the spring season with the ‘Akihito’ festival. This word means life. The celebration connected spring with the return of life to earth and marked the time in which plants would come to light after their winter sleep. After the resurrection of Christ, this event was given new meaning when the Son of God became the center of the Easter festival. To this day, the Assyrian Chaldean people celebrate this time of year, and their New Year (Kha b’ Nissan) from March twenty-first to April first. It is particularly symbolic that the time of Christ’s resurrection coincided with the revival of new life in nature; as though it was a promise to mankind, of new life through the risen Lord. This promise found its counterpart in the spring season with the rebirth in nature, the green growing plants and blossoming flowers. A time of year that stands for new life and a renewed hope in the hearts of men and women everywhere.
The message of that Easter morning when the angels of the Lord spoke from the empty tomb of Christ is still a message of hope and joy: He is not here, for He is risen.
Mangeshi: The light of my eyes, is nestled on a slope of the Zori hillside and the Mangeshi Mountain, a part of the Zagros Mountain in the province of Dohuk, Kurdistan Iraq. A narrow valley lies between them with the Mangeshi River (Nera d’Mangeshi) in the middle, a stream fed by many springs. The hill side used to be covered with oak, other scrub trees and extensive fields of wheat and barley, garden plots, orchards and vineyards.
Mangeshi Village: Light of My Eyes, nestled between Zori & Tori.
September marked the end of the harvest season and beginning of autumn and then winter, or, the darker half of the year. Many important events in Mangeshi happened or rather began from autumn to winter. The cattle would spend more time home since pastures were covered by snow and that meant
more work for moms and younger sisters gathering water for livestock and dads and younger brothers providing and finding winter food for livestock. It was also time to choose which animals (Rabeti) would need to be slaughtered in order to make it through the winter. This custom was observed by all Mangeshnayi who raised livestock, since meat was sustenance; the grass was gone and foraging was no longer possible. The meat was cooked to (Qalya) and bones salted and dried to (Qudedi).
Winter was ideal for Mangeshnyi gatherings. These gatherings were a popular setting for early tales (Hakoyatha). The tales were a spoken tradition from generation to generation. The winter season became a natural time to rest and
slow down the pace of daily life, as the days were shorter and the nights long and dark.
Nature’s gentle transition from winter to spring was subtle and slow. Buds began to awaken and sprout with ease and care. The temperature fluctuated, between wind and rain for some time before becoming consistently warm with bright sunshine.
Typically, birds would migrate and each year little birds, swallows (sloneyatha) would find their way back to the village of Mangeshi and begin rebuilding their mud nests that would cling to the ceilings of houses and the St. George’s church. Since swallows are known for travelling great distances, their appearance was always a sign of good fortune and the beginning of the spring season
Another event that has stuck in my mind since childhood was the yearly bonfires called (Hati Hati). Mangeshnayi lit up huge bonfires on the hilltops such as (Bani d’Zori) and (Jaro). These were independent bonfires and are not to be confused with the bon fire we would light on the roof of the church for the feast of exaltation of the holy cross (Etha d’Slewa). As this particular celebration drew near, young children would begin collecting material for the bonfire; any kind of firewood or flammable items that could burn with ease. Boys asked for bonfire material from each house in the village and would also gather it from the Mangeshi Mountain and the hillsides that were covered with oak and other scrub trees. On the night itself, the bonfire was lit. Village children, one after the other, would dance and sing around the fire and would get as near to the fire as they could get without being burned. The others would run through the smoke or try to jump over it. When the bonfire started burning the wood down, the children would pick up the stranded pieces, and create a torch from the wood (dodoni). They would raise them into the air shouting (Hatti Hatti Dedona P Quna Shati). I suspect that this custom may have come from various ancient religions. For example, Zoroastrianism dominated the area before Christianity. The St. George church in Mangeshi was built over the ruins of a Zoroastrian temple (Beth Mkoshi,
Bet all Majose). I believe there is a high possibility that the name ‘Mangeshi’ originated during that time. It is likely we inherited this festival from our ancestors who once practiced that ancient religion.
For Mangeshnayi, the festival of the bonfire and the tossing of the logs of wood (do doni) in the air, symbolized an opportunity to purify the soul for the coming of spring and to celebrate the end of winter.
There was a time of transition at the end of winter where you could begin to smell the freshness of spring from the Mangeshi Mountain; particularly on warmer days when the earth would give off that undeniable scent of new life and fresh beginnings.
In nature, the plants and animals would begin this transition with ease, ready to reintroduce themselves to the earth. Starting in February, many animals would begin their breeding cycles. The growing buds and greens were starting to take the opportunity to emerge and blossom.
Easter (Etha Raba) is the most important religious celebration for our church; celebrating the resurrection of Christ (Qumta d, Maran). The Easter season, and particularly Easter day, has made a vivid impression on me and my memories of home. The days of fasting that preceded it, the preparation for the feast itself, Palm Sunday (Oshani), the baking of special bread and pastries (Kadi), egg coloring (Swa’ d Be’e), using special natural dyes like walnut shells, a herbal dye of certain plants called (Bedara) found by (Kwari d’ Qatri, Karmani d’ Bathre Zori), onion skins, and (Qurmis) which is a very well-known herb stain traditionally used to color wool and other natural fibers. We would boil our eggs with these various plants and flowers. They were the perfect complement for both flavor as well as a dyeing agent. As young children, we would always tend to our most favorite hen (Kthetha) that had shown promise in the past of laying the sturdiest eggs in preparation for our Easter egg contest. We would also gather wild eggs from the wild birds in the area to exchange with one another and celebrate the return of spring. These wild birds had the most beautiful eggs with countless colors. Perhaps that is how our ancestors had the idea of coloring the white chicken’s eggs for Easter.
During Lent, (Soma Raba) every Friday evening, a special church service was performed which reenacted the different stages of Christ’s progress to the Calvary. These services ended on Good Friday, when the statue of Christ was taken down from the altar and placed in a coffin and taken around the church. The statue is left in the coffin during Easter Saturday and the church is in mourning until the Easter mass was held at midnight that same evening. Mangeshnayi abstained from animal based food for the fifty days preceding in order to commemorate the time during which Jesus withdrew to the wilderness to fast and meditate.
One of the highlights of the season was Palm Sunday (A’oshani). In Mangeshi, this was celebrated on the Sunday before Easter as described in all four gospels (Mathew 2:28-44, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 119:28-44 and John 12:12-19). It marked the celebration entrance of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem. The scene was described as Jesus riding a young donkey entering into the gates of Jerusalem, but in the eyes of all it was as though a king was riding a horse entering his city. His entry was monumental as the prince of peace, humility, and purity. In the village of Mangeshi, the church’s attendance on Palm Sunday would increase almost 95% compared to a normal Sunday. The day before, the men would be busy gathering olive branches and the youth would be decorating the church with those olive branches. The decorations were nothing short of amazing that day. It would truly
lift the spirits of all and would signify the importance and beauty of the celebration.
The Palm Sunday services would start with a procession. The choir, servers, deacons and priest would all hold a procession around the church while singing the various hymns. After completing the procession, the priest would bless the olive branches which were then distributed to the parishioners to bring home. During this time, the hymn “Take Thy Cross” would be sung. Once everybody had taken their olive branches, the service would continue with normal Sunday mass and the Holy Communion.
After the mass, a very large crowd of young children would march throughout the village as benedictions were sung, going from house to house carrying olive branches. They would sing: “A’shani to the son of David!/Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord?/A’shani in the highest heaven
This event put Palm Sunday back in the allies of our little village of Mangeshi, where it all began. Just as Jesus experienced His journey from the margins of His society (Galilee) to the center (Jerusalem); similarly, we marched and experienced the journey of the Galilean peasants coming to Jerusalem.
The blessed olive branches that were passed out had religious significance and were often placed over sacred images, over the door, placed on graves, or in the fields and gardens to bless and defend the faithful from hail (Bartha) and pests.
Another highlight of the Easter season was the actual Easter service itself. It began at about midnight when the church bells would call people to worship. The people would stream into the church in crowds until it was literally full.
The mass would begin, the priest would be vested with his best garb and all the deacons (Shamashi) would wear: albs, stoles, and cinctures
The acolytes (telmethi) would dress in white, whether lace or linen, with red bands around their waist, and another decorated round piece of material on their shoulders. When the mass started, the priest would come down from the altar and stand before the iconostasis (sitra), a long and wide sort of curtain that was adorned with a cross in the middle, and which separated the sanctuary from the rest of the church. It was to be drawn open during the liturgy and would reveal
the heavenly sight. The church was lit entirely by candles; there was no actual electricity anywhere. After the Easter message was delivered, the play of (Gayyasa) was presented and was very well received by all the parishioners.
Social gatherings would start immediately after the mass. You would usually notice a big gathering forming outside of the church on such occasions, people greeting one another and pulling each other by the sleeves to see if they could get their friends to come to breakfast.
Visitation on Easter day would bring to the house anyone from the mayor (Ra’s) to others in the village. The priest and deacons would visit parishioner’s homes and bless them. They would usually visit almost all the homes in the village. Friends and relatives would come by as well to wish you a happy Easter. A shot of (Araq) or wine was served as well as different Easter pastries and then off they went to the next home. In Baghdad, and other cities, they would bring their kids back home with them in order to stay in touch with distant relatives. The practice of visiting relatives and neighbors to offer an Easter greeting was integral to the Easter and Christmas holidays and, when possible, the holiday was celebrated for a full week.
The celebration of Easter was always a time to have an enjoyable experience with your near and dear. For example, we would play different games making use of the Easter eggs. One such game was the cracking of Easter eggs (Daq w’ Daq), which can be played by people of all ages. Both children and adults would each have an egg and engage in the Easter egg contest. The strategy was to choose the sturdiest egg of the bunch in order for your egg to be the last one standing. In order to find the strongest egg, we would first test them by knocking the eye of the egg against our teeth. This would allow us to feel the density and strength of the egg. During the game, one player would hold the egg in their hand and shape their hand like a cup, exposing only a small portion of the egg. The other player would do the same. The eggs are then tapped against one another in an effort to crack one of the eggs. If one part of the egg is cracked, the opposite part must then be revealed. The two people again tap the eggs against each other. The one whose egg is broken on both ends loses and the one whose egg faces the least amount of damage wins. The game would continue until all the dyed eggs were cracked, and some would even use the plain eggs. There were some who would take the cooping chicken egg (Bra Qena). A lot of the fun came from the beginning of the game when both players would try to decide who would try to smash the other’s egg first. Much of the strategy
came from being the one who would have the opportunity to smash the other’s egg first. There were some who would take the winning egg home and use it for cooping chicken (Bra Qena). It was such a great way to bring everyone together and still incorporate the symbolism and joy of the holiday. Many of us have brought the tradition to the states and passed it on to our children. I have watched the joy in my own children’s eyes as they could not wait to collect eggs and play with their cousins and relatives.
Easter has always been a time for fun and celebration, a time to rejoice, and recognize the resurrection of Christ from the dead. We take time to observe our faith and rejoice through various traditions. It also serves as a way in this fast-paced and busy world to bring our families together and enjoy one another’s company.
As I sit here in San Diego California, reflecting about past Easter celebrations, I realize that although I no longer live in my little village of Mangeshi, the light of my eyes, I still have that connection so deeply engrained within me. I feel blessed that at the very least I can pass my stories and memories to our next generation and hope that they will continue to tell the stories and practice the traditions and customs we have brought with us from the old country. I would like to quote the novelist Isabel Allende who said, “I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession. Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, and I have to deal with it sooner or later.” This is my truth.
I appreciate Mangesh.com for giving me the opportunity to share my stories and memories with all of you. I wish all the Mangeshnayi around the world, and particularly our people still in Mangeshi, a happy Easter. God bless you all.