|FOLK CUSTOMS AROUND THE EGG
The combination of Christian and ancient religious rituals were incorporated into the practices and folk customs of Easter. In many cases they cannot be distinguished. One of our religious Easter customs is the blessing of food and decorated eggs. In an encyclopedia, published in 1773, it is written that on the eve of resurrection decorated eggs were blessed in the church by the basket. Then they were put in the form of a pyramid on a table decorated with flowers in the most beautiful room of the house. Whoever came to visit during Easter week, had to eat from the pile. (Bartha 1983) It is evident that the Christian religion incorporated the cult of the egg into its ceremonies. The red egg received a deep Christian meaning by becoming the symbol of resurrection.
Old pagan elements are buried in the cleaning ceremonies before the holidays, as the tidying of the graves, washing oneself in running water on good Friday, cleaning springs and wells. Decorating eggs on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, giving decorated eggs as gifts, reciting in verse form the good wishes, eating special food, raising of an Easter tree, dousing with water and receiving eggs for it, sending of bride's plates... are also elements of Hungarian pagan rituals.
However the remaining writing will be restricted to folk customs connected with eggs.
RITUAL OF EGG DECORATING
As mentioned before, egg decorating was and is important to the Hungarians since ancient times, especially in springtime.
In some Hungarian regions eggs, suitable for decoration, were collected weeks before Easter. Young girls went to other villages, singing songs and asking for eggs.
"My hen, my hen, my speckled hen
How many eggs do you have? Cackle it to me now
Is it twelve or is it nine?
Oh so little, how cautiously you give them."
"My goose, my goose
Do you have any eggs in your coop?
Oh yes there are, perhaps even hundred,
More than the gems on your necklace."
In the northeastern part of Hungary a godmother sent her goddaughter 40 to 60 raw eggs for decorating on Good Friday. She would do this until her godchild married, and would even help her decorate them if needed. Grandmothers also helped often. Sometimes even men helped the very young girls. In village life there was a great bond between neighbors, who also sent raw eggs for decoration to the little girls.
The decorating of Easter eggs had to be done in some regions by Good Friday. In other parts of Hungary it was done exclusively on Good Friday or Holy Saturday. They would start at an earlier time when there was a need for many eggs.
WATER PLUNGE MONDAY (Locsolás)
Decorated eggs were primarily made for Dousing Day visitors. LOCSOLÁS or DOUSING is a folk custom still very much alive and practiced widely not only in Hungary but also in Hungarian communities here in the United States. The day of this custom is mentioned already in medieval times as Water Plunge Monday. The folk customs and beliefs of the Easter holidays are all connected with the renewal of nature. In this circle of festivities water played the most important role, because of the belief in its purifying, healing and magical fertility power.
The dousing with water on Easter Monday (the Monday after Easter Sunday) is one of the oldest and most widespread folk customs among Hungarians anywhere. It is the most obvious symbol of purity, renewal/rebirth and fertility.
Starting early in the morning, on Dousing Day, groups of boys and young men visit the homes of girls and women sprinkling them with water, rose water or cologne.
In old times only clear water was used. Young men and boys doused the girls with buckets of water at the well. However in many regions the girls were dragged "against their will" to the pond, creek or stream at dawn and submerged or thrown into the water, while reciting little rhymes, which all pointed to the essence of this custom: it is not allowed that the flower wither:
"Good day, good day, my lily,
I water you to keep you from withering"
"Water for your health, water for your home,
water for your land; here's water, water!
Don't shriek and cry and run away:
It's good for you on Dyngus day".
This is why the day is also called WATER PLUNGE MONDAY. This custom provided plenty of fun and mischief for young Hungarian adults. The clothes drying on the line were testimony to how many visitors a girl had. After each dousing they changed into new clothes. It was expected that the girls would accept all of this good-naturedly and reward their tormentors with decorated eggs, bread or a glass of wine or brandy - or all three. In some places they would even dance before going to the next home.
In Bereg (northeastern Hungary) young men tried to catch the girls in bed early in the morning and drench them there. According to them, they deserved this: why didn't the girls get up in time? The boys collected the eggs in the afternoon and received them always in pairs.
The two most important symbols of this ritual have to be emphasized: water and egg, representing life, purification and fertility. This is a love ritual in its purest form. The splashing of girls with water was supposed to make them good future wives, bearing many children. Giving the young man an egg also signified fertility and rebirth.
The boys splashed their mothers and sisters first. Next came the godmother, who gave her godson at least 8-10 eggs. In southwestern Hungary (Göcsej, Zala county) she would send him decorated eggs with some money tied in a kerchief. After these two important people the neighbors, other relatives and the rest of the village girls were splashed. Grandparents prepared especially beautiful eggs for their grandchild. In Northeastern Hungary (Bereg, Tiszahát) a girl's boyfriend could receive 10 pairs - 20 or more - of decorated eggs. In some places the girl decorated a goose egg, which she put in the middle of the plate and which only her fiancé could receive. This egg was then eaten together by the engaged couple on Saturday after Easter.
However, the splashing with water was and is not a one-sided event. On the Tuesday after Easter, the girls and women took pails full of water and drenched the men-folk in return (if they didn't run away in time).
WHAT HAPPENS TO THE COLLECTED EGGS?
The children sometimes collected more than 100 eggs. The more beautiful ones they treasured for a long time. The rest were eaten or they played Easter games with them: they knocked the end of the eggs together and whose egg broke was obligated to give his to the winner. But there were always cheaters. Some boys smuggled wooden eggs into their hands or used the eggs of guinea fowls, because their shell was harder. One can only imagine what happened if caught!
According to Dr. Xantus (1958) the custom of egg knocking is mentioned already in a medieval document from 1390 as dies concussiones ovorum. The custom was called ticcselés in Bereg, türkölés in Erdély (Transylvania) and kokányozás in Somogy.
In Bereg the children gathered in the afternoon to brag about their egg collection. They would exchange them, getting sometimes 10 pairs for a beautiful pair of hímes. With the less valuable ones they played games. The young men would keep the eggs received from their fiancé for years. If one egg faded fast, it meant there would be a wedding soon.
RITUAL OF EGG CHANGING
The egg changing ritual was enacted differently in Érsekvadkert, Nográd county (northern Hungary). Young men visited the girls' homes on the evening of Easter Sunday. They would go from house to house, stop in front of the girls' windows, sing, greet them from the outside, shout the names of the girls and ask for eggs as a gift. The girls gave them decorated raw eggs. When the boys collected enough eggs, they would stop at one house, grill them with bacon and have a feast.
The Hungarians have a saying: there are as many customs as there are houses (ahány ház, annyi szokás). The same is true about folk customs practiced in the different regions/villages.
In Méra, Kalotaszeg (Transylvania) groups of young men gathered Holy Saturday night and went to the girls' houses with a band of musicians to sprinkle them with rose water or cologne. The bidding for a good band started weeks before, because it was a matter of pride for the one who had the best band. The ritual had to be finished by the time the church bells rang for services on Easter Sunday morning. As far as they can remember, they did not douse the girls in Méra, instead they were gently sprinkled. Each girl had to have 100 or more decorated eggs, because they were expected to give out four eggs at a time, and it was a great shame not to have enough eggs. Naturally only those received four eggs, to whom four kisses were also gladly given.
Mostly every village had its own egg decorating artist: íróasszony, meaning writing woman, an older woman who had lots of experience in egg painting. From her the hímestojás could be obtained by those, who were not very skilled. It would have been a great shame for the girls not to be able present eggs to the young men.
The custom of using cologne and asking permission for the dousing and requesting (begging) eggs for it through the recital of a poem is fairly new. Everything became very civilized and far less exciting. But the meaning is remained the same.
Beside this important and widespread folk custom there are many more connected to the egg. It was customary, that the family ate one blessed egg together, to ensure that if they get lost, they could find their way home to those with whom they ate the Easter egg. This symbolizes that the large family is undividable and belongs together. Egg gifts from godparent to godchild were made in front of the church on Easter Sunday, suggesting its derivation from the lovefeast of the early Christians. Almost throughout the country grandparents, parents and godparents gave decorated eggs to the children.
Water Plunge Monday was unknown in Sárköz (West Hungary - Danube region). They practiced the old custom of exchanging decorated eggs. Those who took part at a baptism were considered members of the families; and they called each other Koma, which could be translated as brother, buddy, kin. There is no exact translation. The children of these so-called kinsmen exchanged eggs with one another on the afternoon of Easter Sunday, as a token for a loving kinship.
A similar custom, still practiced all over the country, is the sending of bride's plates. The Sunday after Easter (also called White Sunday) was the day that little girls and boys sent one another bride's plates, which contain cake, wine and decorated eggs. A group, - usually eight children, - accompanies the plate. If the recipient excepts the gift, he or she would take out some of the decorated eggs, put his/her own on the plate and send it back. With this ceremony they became sisters or brothers and their friendship would last until their death. From this day on they call each other Koma. Older girls and occasionally men might also send each other bride's plates.
Hungarian men often presented eggs as gifts to the girls, which they would treasure for many years to come.
MORE CUTOMES CONNECTED TO THE EGG
At Easter young men put dawn trees or green branches (hajnalfa, zöld ág) in front of the girls' houses, in their yard or fastened to their doors to ward off evil. Sometimes they were decorated with eggs and ribbons. In the Palóc region the metal applique eggs (vasalt hímes), done by men, were hung on them.
In Gulács and Tivadar (Bereg county) a ball was held on Easter Monday. The girls brought, tied in a kerchief, cake, eggs and occasionally brandy and offered it to the young men.
The decorated egg, with its mysterious signs, had magical powers according to folk belief. The hand, star or cross were drawn onto it, and were symbols of repelling ills, warding off evil and protection. It was believed that the egg was effective against lightning and fire and that it had healing powers. It would cure jaundice and hexes. Those who put a decorated egg in their water for washing would stay healthy and beautiful all year long. Sick animals were cured with the shell of decorated eggs. They even walled in eggs in a new building to ward off the influences of bad magic.
The meaning of this ritual, practiced in Bereg in old times, is not clear: three days after Easter, grandmothers would collect the broken shells of the decorated eggs and take them to the cemetery.
In spring they buried eggs on boundaries to make the flax grow higher and the wheat more dense. When the farmer took his animals to the meadow for the first time, he put as many eggs on the ground as he had beasts so they would come home as round and fat as the eggs. It was also customary that the shepherd held an egg in his hand when the animals were driven out for the same reason.
The following two rituals also illustrate the strong belief in the fertility power of the egg:
In Erdély (Transylvania), when difficulties of conception arise, the woman gives her husband a black hen's egg to eat by the light of the full moon. This is a rather unusual custom, implying that the man may be responsible. Among the Hungarians of the Bánát around Temesvár, a childless woman must eat an egg. It is administered in a glass of water by some one who is fertile.
Erzsébet Rohlik Monori writes a beautiful summary to the above in her book A varázserejű hímes tojás (The magical decorated egg) (p 67):
"The Easter egg (in earlier times New Year’s egg), - be it blessed or not - is a symbolic object with extraordinary magical powers. It is eaten, presented as a gift or kept to protect people and their possessions from evil, sickness, harmful powers, to make lovers love each other even more, and to make friendships stronger. Ultimately, that peace and happiness should rule that year. The decorated egg was also a good wish expressed in drawing. This good wish was written onto the egg representing life!"
Source: Emese Kerkay, "Hímestojás, The Art and History of Hungarian Decorated Eggs", Passaic, NJ, 1995