The picture of a whole lamb slowly turning on the spit over charcoal and the smell that accompanies it spells Easter Sunday for Greek people across the world.
Yet, this is not a simple culinary tradition. On the contrary, there is rich religious symbolism for the particular meat.
John, the author of one of the four Gospels, called Jesus the Lamb of God in John 1:29 and John 1:36. In the story, Abraham had to sacrifice an animal, such as a lamb or a ram, as an important part of the Jewish religion. People offered God restitution for the sins they committed.
However, Christians no longer need to engage in sacrifice because Christ died on the cross for their sins, thus becoming the sacrificial lamb.
Since Pascha, or Easter, is the day when we commemorate Jesus’ sacrifice, we eat lamb in remembrance of this selfless act.
On Easter Sunday and 40 days on, Orthodox Christians greet each other saying, “Christ is Risen” and answer, “Truly He is risen.”
Symbolism of lamb on the spit at Easter
The symbolism of the lamb goes back to the Old Testament and the Jewish Passover. It’s associated with the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt.
Before setting out on their great exodus, God, through Moses, requested Jews to gather in small groups; each family would have to sacrifice a lamb.
Families were to mark their doorposts with the animal’s blood so that they would not be exterminated by an angel of God, who on that night would bring pestilence to the firstborn of each family if the home was not marked with lamb’s blood.
That night, each Jewish family offered a lamb for the salvation of all people as a sacrifice to God. They consumed the lamb without breaking its bones together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They then marked their doors with the lamb’s blood.
Later on, Christians adopted the symbol of the sacrificial lamb, as John the Baptist likened Jesus Christ to the “Lamb of God” who would free the world of their sins with his sacrifice.
Today, Greeks spend Easter Sunday morning slow-roasting the lamb and then the whole family gathers on the table to eat. The whole preparation and turning the spit is a communal experience that bonds people in the holy day.
Critics criticize the lamb on the spit Easter tradition
In recent years, protesters have begun to criticize the tradition, claiming that it is barbaric.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of lambs are butchered throughout the country. In many cases, and especially in villages, the slaughter takes place in the open, often in front of children. Humane procedures are not always followed.
Speaking out against animal abuse, the great Greek composer wrote: “Easter is coming again. The days of the massacre of innocent animals are approaching for the sake of a barbaric [feast] that ought to have vanished long ago.”
In recent years, animal welfare groups have staged protests in Athens and other Greek cities against the annual Easter tradition.