“Christ has risen!” – still half asleep I gaze at my mother with a look of puzzlement, who reaches out her hand towards me with a brown egg cradled in it and she seems to expect something back from me. “thank you”, I say, puzzled even more with this unusual breakfast in my bed. she does not look satisfied with the answer and says again with more persistence in her voice: “Christ has risen!”
By Natalia Shuvalova
“Oh”, I utter, still unaware of what is going on. The name of Christ had hardly ever been pronounced in our house. “You need to reply ‘He is truly risen ’, finally coming to my assistance.
I am not eager to state something that I have not seen, but I hurry to obey in order to finish this awkward story. But the very next moment she gives me the second brown egg. “Truly risen,” I say with one hundred percent confidence in the right reply, wondering how many more eggs she has prepared for me. “It is your turn to give the egg to me now”, she insists, obviously dissatisfied that the ritual did not go smoothly.
Back in the early ‘90’s, we kids knew almost nothing about the main Orthodox Church Holy Day of Easter. While the Catholics consider Christmas the major event of the year, the Orthodox claim that Easter is much more important, as everyone can be born but only God can resurrect.
One can hardly argue with that, but it is also hard not to notice that Christian Easter took the place of some pagan festivities. Long before it became the holiday it is today, the spring festival was celebrated by people around the world. Although associated with the sun and the vernal equinox, the celebration was originally based on the lunar calendar.
Curiously, the Jewish festival of Purim, also celebrated in the spring, has as it central character and heroine Esther who, as queen, kept the evil Haman from killing her people.
The Russian word Paskha has other roots. It is very close to the Hebrew word Pesah, the day the Jews finally left Egypt. It was celebrated on the same day until 325 AD when the Church decided to celebrate it one week after the Jewish holiday. Some claim that the word Paskha is derived from a Greek word for ‘Rescue’. Whichever version is right, there are no symbolic rabbits associated with it.
Though the actual Paskha is on a Sunday, the holiday would lose its auspiciousness without the preceding days. Even nonreligious families do their best to follow the traditions. The preceding Sunday, all relatives and friends are supposed to ask forgiveness from each other; to purify themselves before the most strict and austere week. Housewives, even those who hardly ever go to church and treat fasting as the best way to get in shape before summer time, feel awful if they do not finish the major cleaning of their houses before the Great or “Clean Thursday”. To be involved in any kind of such activities on the following three days is equal to committing a sin. The same schedule applies to the coloring of eggs.
From the religious point of view, Friday and Saturday should be free for intense prayer and taking only a minimum of food, as these are the days when Jesus Christ was crucified. The actual celebration starts on the late evening of Saturday. At midnight sharp the religious procession starts. The bishops and priests, followed by the people, walk around the church accompanied by the continuous chiming of bells and singing. Needless to say, it is one of the most beautiful of scenes; the icons carried aloft, the Bible luxuriously decorated, as well as the beautiful vestments of the clergy. The service continues until morning. After it is over, people start to greet each other with "Crist” each other, or to present to each other eggs pronouncing those sacred words: “Christ is risen!”
Those who do not go to church, do the same right after getting up on Easter morning. The egg is a very ancient symbol of eternal life. It is hard to find the roots of the tradition of coloring them. Some say that when Mary Magdalene was telling the story of the Resurrection to Tiberius, he replied that he would believe in it, only if the egg that was on his table would turn red, which it immediately did. There is also a chance that the eggs were colored during the fast. The red (which is usually more of a brown color) signified Jesus’ blood. There is also a practical reason behind it. Up until modern days the main way to color the eggs was to boil them with onion peels. Onions are cheap and were always available, unlike other means of coloring. Another way was to wrap colorful threads around the egg while it was being boiled. With time the tradition evolved. The eggs were decorated with special ornaments. To allow the artists to express their ideas, the real eggs could be substituted by wooden ones. The ultimate expression of the skill of egg decoration is the exquisite Faberge eggs.
The English name of Easter is derived from the Saxon Eostre (which is synonymous with the name of the Phoenician Goddess of the Moon, Astarte), who was a Germanic goddess of spring and the deity who measured time. The rabbit was one of her symbols - obviously the ancestor of the Easter Bunny.
The colorful eggs also contribute to the folk traditions. If in the early ‘90’s we were hardly aware of Easter, in a couple of years we knew enough to wait for this holiday. Every kid was excited to play the game which can roughly be called “Egg rolling”. While the grown up population were cleaning houses and preparing special Easter cakes, the kids were busy identifying the best smoothly and evenly balanced wooden desks at school, a good rock to put one side of this desk on, so that it is at some angle to the ground, and coins. Leaving the house in the morning to join the game, the kids had their pockets heavy with eggs and change. The goal of the game is to let the egg roll down the desk, aiming to hit the other eggs on the ground. A special price was fixed to each “hit”. The lucky ones could get enough money to get an ice-cream at the end of the day. The price could be the egg itself, but in this way, everybody ran out of eggs too quickly. With time, one became a real specialist in choosing the right eggs and in predicting the way the egg would roll down the desk. Like every Easter tradition, it can be carried on throughout the week leading up to Easter.
Easter cakes, called Kulich are another treat that makes this day special. According to the tradition they are supposed to be made on the Great Thursday, and then taken to Church. The variety and the quantity are not as great as used to be in pre-Soviet times. Back then huge cakes were made so that the family could eat this holy food each day of the Easter week (one can imagine the size of the cake, considering that families could have 10 and more members!). Any celebration that takes place now can hardly be compared with the celebrations in previous centuries. Back then people were more pious in following Church rules way more creative in entertaining themselves with different games (“egg rolling” is just a remnant of the many more lost in history), jokes and songs.
Paskha definitely has an irresistible spell. Even those who do not belong to the Christian Church admit that there is something in the air… It is worthy to note that the Russian word for Sunday means resurrection – if for some it is not the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it must be the resurrection of Nature after a much-too-long Russian winter, filling hearts with hope and faith in the continuity of life.