Oh, Easter is a special day in our family. It certainly has been a VERY special day, ever since I almost died on Good Friday when I was 5 years old!
HUNGARY AND ROMANIA
My mother is the religious one in my family. She belongs to the Reformate church, which is the only branch of Protestantism that exists in Hungary and Romania. My father is a Catholic, but not a very good one. When asked by my mother to teach me the Lord’s Prayer in Hungarian, my father taught me a rated R version that resulted in my mother not speaking to him for weeks. For those who speak Hungarian, his version of the prayer began with, “Mi gatyák, aki a kosárban…”
My mother has always taken religious holidays very seriously, and Easter has always been second only to Christmas in her book. On Easter, my mother has always taken it upon herself to feed her friends and neighbors, as well as the poor and unfortunate. As a result, she has always cooked for days before Easter.
The year I turned 5, she decided to initiate me into this tradition, only everything went wrong.
My mother had prepared a gigantic pot of chicken soup and placed it on a wooden board under the window to let it cool off. She proceeded to further busy herself at the stove with the preparation of the other dishes. I went to the sink, which was right next to the window, to lick out some bowls that had been used to make the desserts. I took one wrong step, landed with my foot partly on the wooden board the chicken soup was resting on, lost my balance, and fell into the pot, with my behind first.
The pot was so huge, that I slipped in all the way to my waist and got caught. Apparently, I only let out one little scream and then fainted. My mother pulled me out of the soup as soon as she could, but my poor bottom still cooked into the soup for altogether too long.
What made matters worse was that I was wearing nylon panty hose that quite dramatically melted into my flesh.
The story turns funny in a second, so please keep reading.
The ambulance was called, I was taken to the hospital and saved, but my mother insisted on bringing me back home, trusting only herself to take care of me. Now, you have to know that in the late 1970s in Romania, the way they treated severe burns was to clean the wound thoroughly and press sterile gauze, dipped in iodine into the wound. As the skin grew back, the gauze pieces would slowly peel off.
So, you see, I returned home, wrapped from the waist to my knees in gauze dipped in iodine and could only rest on my stomach.
And it was Easter!
But it would turn into not only a memorable Easter, but also a joyous one.
My father, the not-so-good Catholic, has always been a very good father. And he was not going to let me be sad on Easter.
In Hungary and Romania, one interesting Easter tradition, for kids especially, is the practice of locsolás. On Easter Monday, excitement about spring and ancient fertility rituals mix into the religious celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Little girls and women paint eggs, mainly by attaching little flowers and leaves onto the eggs, tightly wrapping them inside old pantyhose, and cooking them in water with red onion peels or red beets. They also prepare obscene amounts of cookies and pastries.
On Easter Monday, little boys and men are supposed to go visit every woman they know. Men start early in the morning with the “less important” women in their lives, and mostly time it so they are with family and close friends for mealtimes. The evening visits are reserved for the most special women, and these visits tend to be a little longer than the others.
As a little girl, I kept a special diary of my Easter visitors, and compared how my list developed from year to year. The boys and men who came by our house would put their name down in my book and would maybe draw a little something, or write one or two lines.
According to tradition, the men recite a poem to the women and ask if they may water them. In the villages, the watering sometimes means throwing a bucket full of water over the head of the woman in question. But most of the time, a few drops of perfume are used instead. The gentleman callers are then rewarded with colored eggs. One of the best know poems that men tend to recite goes something like this:
„Én kis kertészlegény vagyok –
Azt hallottam, hogy egy rózsa
El akar hervadni.
Translated, this means, “I’m a little gardener who is watering flowers. I heard that a rose was wilting. May I water it?”
Other poems are more humorous, or poetic, or personal. It is up to the man to decide on his particular poem. Some men write their own poems and come up with a new one every year.
How many different perfumes mix atop of your head on Easter Monday, and how long your list of callers gets is a particular point of pride, especially for little girls.
So, back to my burned behind (-:
As you may know, my father was the National Olympic Weightlifting Coach in Romania. On the Easter when I was burned, he had all his athletes come and call on me on Easter Monday. He recruited neighbors, friends, everybody he knew. There was a line of boys and men outside our house that year, which cheered up even the little girl in considerable pain, lying on her stomach, with her bandaged backside in the air.
Of course, stories tend to forget about my poor mother, who in light of my funny, heroic, extroverted father, gets ignored. So here are a few lines about my dear mother as well. You can imagine the feelings of guilt she was coping with that particular Easter. Nevertheless, she finished her cooking. She prepared hundreds of colored eggs. And, she set up a system to disinfect all the visitors’ hands and maintain hygiene around her severely burned daughter.
And to top it off, she served everybody a bowl of soup!
This cheered me up the most. Knowing that people were eating my butt soup just cracked me up inside!
Not the article about Easter you were expecting? Well, welcome to my world!
Once we moved away from the Carpathian Basin, my Easter experiences became less spectacular. But I do still have one or two stories about Easter that you might enjoy.
Skipping forward to the first Easter experience my kids had in the US, I will tell you about the year we visited my dear friend Deborah in Dallas.
My parents have been living in the US for over 40 years now, but Easter at their house is still more reminiscent of the Carpathian Basin than of anything real Americans do. So, one year, when our twins were 5 and our little one had not yet turned 1, we went to celebrate Easter with a childhood friend of mine in Dallas, so the kids would finally experience a real American Easter.
The part of Easter I was looking forward to the most was Sunday Mass at Sunrise, because that is something that I had shared with my friend Deborah when we were growing up. My parents felt a little estranged from churches in America when we first moved to Texas from Romania. There were too many branches of Protestantism to pick from and ceremonies were way too jovial and loud for their cultural taste. My parents have since found a Methodist church where they feel very welcome and comfortable, but during our time in Texas, my church experiences were limited to going with Deborah to her Presbyterian church. I particularly enjoyed Sunday Mass at Easter. The church always organized a lock-in on Saturday night. We watched movies, talked, ate junk food, and spent the night in the church. Then, on Sunday, we were expected to get up at the crack of dawn and go to mass. The services on Easter Sunday at Deborah’s church, with the sun coming up and the minister finding just the right words and sentiments, always appealed to me. These were some of the most religious moments of my early teens.
I really wanted my kids to experience Deborah’s church on Sunday, but with three little ones – four, actually, with Deborah’s son – we just didn’t make it that early. But the church was organizing an Easter Egg Hunt and many games and activities, so we headed out as soon as we could.
What struck me as different from the way I remembered things was that the eggs that were hidden were basically reusable plastic egg-shaped containers filled with various types of candy and chocolate. I found that quite progressive and environmentally friendly.
We used the choochoo train that was set up for the occasion. We blew soap bubbles and played the games.
Then, we wandered over to the dunking booth. In case you are not familiar with dunkin booths, they are big containers of water with a seat on top. The objective is to hit a lever on the side that makes the seat drop into the water. Different volunteers, some more prominent than the others, sit on the seat, and people try to dunk them, making them sink into the container of water. Often, dunking booths are used to raise money for a cause. In this case, it was simply a fun way of bringing the community together.
Many people sat on the seat and got dunked, but whenever the minister sat atop the dunking booth, somehow no one managed to make him sink. My kids took turns trying. Deborah and her husband and my husband tried their luck. I just watched. I’m not a particularly good thrower, so I just stayed out of it.
They announced that it would be the last round and the minister volunteered to sit one final time atop the dunking booth. I said that I would give it a go this time. I took the baseball handed to me. No one thought I could do it, but with my first shot, I dunked that minister good!
It was very funny. The minister, completely soaked from head to toe, came to meet us and to have a chat about the different ways Easter is celebrated around the world. It was all very light and pleasant and very comforting and uniting.
Afterwards, I had to think about how strange life is sometimes. Until that moment when I dunked the minister, Easter somehow always carried the gravity and drama of what had happened to me at Easter when I was little. But leave it up to the good ol’ US of A to add a little cheer to it all.
FRANCE and GERMANY
By the way, did you know that Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Easter Monday are national holidays in Germany, a secular country. And yet, in the US, although “In God We Trust,” only Easter Sunday is observed, with very few exceptions like the White House Easter Egg Roll or days off due to Spring Break.
In Hungary and Romania, including the Carpathian Basin, where I was born, Easter is also celebrated and recognized nationally as a public holiday from Friday to Monday, both Friday and Monday being official days off from work.
In France, Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified, is not a public holiday, because the day does not call for celebration. However, Easter Monday, which marks the Resurrection of Christ, and the end of Lent, is a day of rest, a day when all public offices are closed and the people are given the day off from work.
I have only spent one Easter in France. I spent 7 summers researching at the theater festival in Avignon, countless summers in Paris, studying, taking groups of students on university exchange programs, or just vacationing, and many summers traveling around the country, visiting my host family in the Nantes region, or enjoying the beaches of the Vendée or the beautiful landscapes of the Dordogne area or the South of France. But almost all of the time I have spent in France has been in the summer. But I did live in Besançon for a year and taught at the Université de Franche-Comté, and that is the only time that I experienced a French Easter.
There are only two things that seemed particularly interesting to me. One was the fact that all church bells seized to ring on Thursday before Good Friday. Out of respect for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, all church bells fall silent until Easter Sunday, the day of the resurrection. The ringing of church bells in France is quite present, something you cannot easily ignore. There is almost an eeriness to when they fall silent. When they are rung again on Sunday, there is a sense of awakening, of rediscovering the sounds of Christianity. You have to experience it to really know what I mean.
My other observation about Easter in France is actually an erroneous one. The year I was there, Easter fell on one of the last days of March, and children were already getting ready to play April Fool’s jokes. French kids cut out colorful little fish, symbols of Christianity, and place them on the backs of the adults they are fooling. I was not familiar with the tradition and was fooled. When I discovered the fish that had been attached to my back, I didn’t quite understand. I found especially confusing why such a prank would be played on Easter Sunday, of all days. To this day, I find it strange how the Poisson d’Avril somehow mixes religious fervor and April Fool’s antics.
It is perhaps in Germany that I have had the most experience with Easter, because this is where I had my children and where I had to decide on the Easter tradition my family would observe.
Good Friday is a holiday here, and we use it to color eggs. We spend the whole day painting eggs and reading our favorite Easter books. My youngest daughter’s book, Magical Easter Eggs, is of course among them. (-:
On Saturday, in Germany, you are allowed to burn any access wood or shrubbery in your back yard. Some friends of ours have used this opportunity to organize an annual bonfire, which serves as an excuse to have a huge party. Over the fire, the kids roast Stockbrot, which is dough wrapped on sticks. Once cooked through, the little breads slide off the sticks and can be eaten. They are often dipped into butter. There’s also a barbeque and a potluck buffet, so enough to eat and drink for everyone. This party has become a part of our Easter tradition.
Easter Sunday is reserved for family. We set a table with ham and fish and cheese and bread rolls, the works. Of course, the highlight is on the colored Easter eggs. To begin the breakfast, we each select an egg. Then, in pairs of two, we take the pointy part of our egg and try to break our “opponent’s” egg with it. The winning egg then goes on to the next round. The person who selected the egg that breaks last is the winner. This is called Eiertitschen, and the King or Queen of this family Easter egg battle boasts about his or her victory all year!
The way we eat our Easter eggs is also special. The eggs are pealed, cut in two, and then the yolks are removed. You put a little bit of the following ingredients inside the two egg-white halves: oil, mustard, mayonnaise, vinegar, as well as salt and pepper. And then, you carefully squeeze the egg yolks back in. All this is done with your hands, no particular etiquette to follow here. The final bites are also placed in your mouth by hand.
After breakfast, the kids go out in the yard and look for hidden chocolates. Traditionally, neighbors also place chocolates and little bags of goodies into each other’s yards, so the “hunt” is always worthwhile. Older kids sometimes find a book or another small present hidden as well.
On Monday, we always go for a long walk. Otherwise, we spend the day at home, together, doing nothing in particular.
And those were my Easters of Days Past and Present. I guess the only two traditions I miss are Easter Sunday Mass at Sunrise from the US and the Easter Monday tradition of men reciting poems and watering women in exchange for colored eggs from the Carpathian Basin.
And with that, I wish you all Happy Easter, wherever you are and however you are celebrating (or not).
Written by Henriette J. Runte