Grandmother Anichka never forgot the Easter traditions she grew up with. “Ohhh,” she would begin as she remembered her childhood in Prague. “Velike’ noci,” she would intone casting her eyes to the sky with a big smile on her face. “Great nights,” she would say with joy. “Great celebrations; velike’ noci; so wonderful; such joy; we were so young and hopeful before the war. Spring, you see,” she would say. “It was all about the harsh winter finally coming to an end. Yes, yes, of course, the church adopted the occasion to celebrate the resurrection of the blessed, Jesus,” she would add, blessing herself with the sign of the cross while closing her eyes and bowing her head. Then she would look up with a smile and add, “but our people had celebrated the end of winter for many many centuries before the church adopted the holiday.”
“But here in England, Grandmother, Easter is a religious holiday,” I said. “We dress up and go to church. What did you do back in Prague?”
“Of course, dite, we went to church for Easter,” she assured me. “But let’s see…what about Easter eggs? The beautifully decorated eggs that the children in the U.K. so enjoy at Easter. Do you know where Easter eggs started and why they are decorated so beautifully?”
I realized I had no idea where the tradition of Easter eggs came from and I couldn’t make the connection between Easter eggs and Christ rising from the dead. Grandmother Anichka, however, was nodding knowingly like she always did when she was about to educate you.
“Easter eggs are about youthful romance,” she said with great satisfaction. “Oh, yes,” she continued. “The young maidens of all the little Czech villages would decorate eggs very carefully and give them to the young men that chose their beauty at the start of spring. It was very joyful and romantic. It was almost a form of courting; playful, though. Joyful for everyone.”
“What do you mean they chose their beauty, Grandmother?”
“The young men made Pomlazka; braided pussy willow twigs. Our ancestors believed that pussy willow had curative and restorative power. Around Ugly Wednesday, the boys would begin to braid their pussy willow twigs into little whips, and then on Easter Monday,roam around the village and lightly tap the legs of the young girls they fancied, to cure them of any winter ills and prepare their beauty to blossom in spring. The young man would then recite an Easter carol asking for an egg or two. The chosen girl would reward him with a carefully decorated egg.”
I remember thinking that that was the most beautiful story I had ever heard. Coloring Easter eggs was fun for me as a child but, I must say, seemed pointless until I heard Grandmother Anichka’s description of the Czech origins of the beautifully decorated eggs we played with in London every Easter.
Grandmother Anichka still worked every day as a custom seamstress in her second floor studio on Vigo St. in Mayfair. When World War II began, she fled with her family to London and set up for Anderson and Sheppard in Saville Row. She is a meticulous craftswoman who is always fascinated by the finer details of the craft she has practiced her entire life. “In the past," she continued, "the Czech maidens used a very meticulous process called wax-resist to apply the intricate pattern to an egg. A stylus is used to apply hot wax to the shell of an egg, which was placed in a series of dye baths. The wax sealed the dye into the egg; the colors and pattern were revealed when the wax was removed (by melting it off) at the end. The process is similar to ‘batik’ which we still use here on fabric today.”
“But, Babicka, don’t we celebrate Easter on the day Christ rose from the dead? What do eggs and Pomlazka have to do with that?” I asked.
“Easter, my dear vnucka, is celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. The church adopted a celebration that was already there; a celebration of the arrival of spring. What a wonderful idea to join an existing celebration so that everyone could celebrate together.”
“Haven’t we forgotten the celebration of spring here in England? It is just a church holiday now.”
“Yes, dite, we have forgotten with our minds; but we have not forgotten with our hearts. Look at all the children who get chocolate eggs for Easter and cookies and cakes baked in the shapes of newborn chickens and bunny rabbits. This is a symbolic celebration of spring on a farm. Hiding and hunting for eggs reminds us of collecting eggs in the hen house on a cool spring morning. Oh, no, dite. Our hearts have not forgotten the joy of spring at the end of a bitter winter. This is why the church combined the resurrection of Jesus with the end of a dead winter and the beginning of a new life giving spring. Everything is resurrected!”
25 March, 2014