The Easter holidays are coming up, and many people in Austria and the rest of the world are preparing to celebrate the most important Christian holiday, the resurrection of Jesus, in the traditional way. That means, in Austria, among a lot of other local customs, coloring eggs, baking cakes in the form of lambs, decorating willow branches with colored or painted hollow eggs and preparing a great lunch on Easter Sunday that breaks the period of fasting. And of course, attending mass.
What do the celebrations look like in CEE? Are there any similarities or great differences to customs in Austria or Western Europe? We asked around among colleagues in the countries where Raiffeisen is present and are happy to present a few facts that may be new to you. In a nutshell: we found a lot of common traditions, but also a few that may be, let’s say, surprising.
Here’s the result of our survey of the countries of the region and their sometimes very special customs. Of course, the (colored) egg is the common denominator, both in Catholic and Orthodox celebrations. You may paint your egg in one color, or you paint it in different layers of color, using wax as a separating agent or onion skin to dye them red. And of course, you tap it against others to see whose egg prevails unharmed in the end.
In Albania, part of Orthodox tradition is a kind of sweet bread with a red egg in the middle and a special kind of soup with which you “break” the fasting. Usually a lot of believers fill the square in front of the local church holding candles and waiting for the mass. It is quite a beautiful sight to see, but also a bit dangerous as you may end up with burnt hair or clothes. The tradition is that the light is distributed by the priest at midnight, and believers take this light into their homes. This is also done in Bulgaria. Here, Palm Sunday is known as Tsvetnitsa (Flower Day). Since there are no palms in Bulgaria, willow branches are taken to church to be blessed. Willow crowns are often worn by younger girls and can be seen on houses’ and apartments’ doorways. Many people are also named after flowers or plants and celebrate their name day on Palm Sunday. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is a tradition for family members on Palm Sunday to wash their faces with cold water in which spring flowers, picked by children the day before, have been submerged overnight. The traditional supper consisting of fish, bean dishes and red wine is prepared on Holy Thursday as a reminder of the Last Supper. Most often eggs are dyed red to symbolise the blood of Jesus Christ. Traditionally, the eggs used to be boiled in water with ash, onion skin, dandelion flowers or roots of some herbs which provided different shades of yellow, red and brown. Nowadays, artificial colours are most commonly used. Croatia has no less than 13 cultural elements on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and the one relating to Easter is the Za Križen procession on the island of Hvar. Just like in the rest of the Christian world, many pleasant customs are connected to the celebration of Easter in Serbia. One of the most important customs (even today) is the gesture of giving an egg as a symbol of birth. Or rather, as a symbol of rebirth of nature and life. By tradition, the eggs are painted on Big Friday, and the first egg – colored red by rule – is saved until next Easter as čuvarkuća (“the protector of the house”). For Easter lunch, it is common to serve roasted mutton or roasted pork.
In Russia, Maundy (or Pure) Thursday is the onset of active preparation for the upcoming holiday. The meaning of this name lies not only in spiritual lavation, but also in the physical purification: bathing in bathes, ice-holes, lakes and other water bodies was once especially popular in Russia. Doing all this before dawn was a must. Today, primary attention is paid to the festive table and painting Easter eggs in red, mainly using onion husks (while taking a dip in ice-cold water remains a tradition at Epiphany). On Maundy Thursday, housewives start baking all kinds of Easter products: various paskhas, pancakes, honey spice cakes and Easter cakes (kulichs).
In Ukraine, the Holy Week begins with Willow Sunday. In most countries it is called Palm Sunday, but a combination of pre-Christian pagan symbolism and a lack of local palm trees led Ukrainians to adopt willow switches as their symbolic branches. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are spent preparing food for Easter: dyeing eggs, baking Paska , the Easter bread, and roasting meat. All the food must be prepared by Clean Thursday. On that day, Ukrainians should clean their houses and themselves. On Good Friday (Mourning Friday) people are not supposed to eat anything and spend the day in church. No work is allowed either. Saturday is the rest day, because there is a whole night service coming and you have to be wide awake. In Belarus, willows are used as well during Easter celebrations. Like Christmas, there are two public holidays dedicated to Easter for the Orthodox and Catholic denominations. Although 83 per cent of the population belongs to the Eastern Orthodox Church and only 12 to the Roman Catholic Church, both holidays are vital for the country. On Saturday night, people go to church to attend vesper service and to let the food prepared for the celebration be sprinkled with holy water. This service is often attended even by those families who do not regularly go to church. On Sunday morning, the celebration continues at home. People have a special breakfast with consecrated cakes, colored eggs and “paskha” (a cottage cheese cake shaped as a pyramid). While eating, children like arranging an egg-tapping contest.
Now, you may say, “well, some nice customs, but where are the surprises?”. Here we go: in the Czech Republic, apart from the usual things such as colored eggs, ratchets and clappers being used instead of church bells etc., there is the custom of Easter Monday whipping. Boys and men walk door to door with whips and spank girls and women while reciting special Easter wishes. For their wishes and for the spanking, they even get rewarded – a colourful ribbon on the whip and a decorated egg to take. It’s also customary for the whippers to get a shot of slivovitz, cherry brandy or another homemade brandy. And why do the girls get spanked? A legend says that the fresh spring power kept in the willow rods of which the whip is made passes onto the girl, who is then full of health and life all year long. And who could not see the logic in that? To quote our local colleague, “Honestly, I don’t really know where the health is if you have trouble sitting for two days…”. She also advises “never to try to protect your buttocks with your hands if being spanked. It hurts like ****!” Right next door, “Oblievačka” (water pouring) is a typical Easter Monday custom in Slovakia. Men visit their female relatives and friends and whip them gently (a nice improvement compared to what’s going at their neighbor’s) with a special whip made of braided willow rods and decorated with colorful ribbons. They also may ask the women out of the house and douse them with a bucket filled with cold water. According to tradition, pouring water on women will guarantee their beauty and good health throughout the year. Recently, though, “oblievačka“ and “šibačka“ (whipping) have not been as intense as they used to be in the past. In many regions, water buckets have been replaced with perfumes, a water cup or a water pistol. However, in some villages you may still see young men dressed in traditional folk costumes, who sing songs, play the accordion and come with rattles and braided whips. And the bucket.
The editorial team of Discover CEE wishes you peaceful and joyful Easter holidays. Stay dry and healthy!