These are four articles I wrote for the Easter issue of a Romanian magazine in 2002; they were written for a Romanian audience so I’ve inserted one or two comments in italics for those who don’t know Romania so well. However, the articles were based on a lot of research, some of the results of which I haven’t seen elsewhere, so I decided to put them up here.
Romanian decorated eggs, tradition and business (2002)
Although the tradition of dyeing eggs red and knocking them together at Easter is well preserved throughout Romania, the tradition of decorating them by applying a design in beeswax, dyeing the eggs then removing the beeswax is preserved less well. Decorating eggs in this way is now best known in the Bucovina (an area in north east Romania, bordering what is now the Ukraine, which although in Moldova retains many of the influences of the Austro-Hungarian empire more familiar in the west of the country), where it has been developed to become more of an art than a craft.
Nevertheless, even in Bucovina some localities have already lost the tradition and in others it has been retained, or reintroduced, only due to the efforts of a small number of enthusiasts. In Iasi county (on the eastern border of Romania) it has remained an activity for family and friends. In Bucovina it has become for many people a way to earn some money and, responding to the tastes of foreign tourists, traditional symbols and colours have often been replaced by designs with a Western influence.
Ethnographs and many craftsmen are now concerned to ensure that alongside the ‘business’ that egg decorating has become, the traditional designs are preserved.
One Easter symbol which is often said to have been introduced from Western cultures is the rabbit. However, use of a symbol representing the ears of a rabbit was recorded 60 years ago in Bucovina, Valcea and Iasi and my recent research has found that in Iasi county eggs have been decorated with a rabbit, sometimes eating a cabbage, for at least the best part of a century.
From village school to regional network
A little over 40 years ago, a primary school teacher in Paltin, a village lying between Vatra Moldovitei and Campulung Moldovenesc, in Suceava county (in the Bucovina), realised that the craft of egg decorating in the region was in danger of dying out and started on a personal ‘crusade’ to save the tradition. The teacher, Lucretia Hariuc, began to try to improve the craft of egg decorating in her own family, working with her two young daughters and, at the same time, began collecting traditional designs from elderly egg decorators in the region. These women are no longer alive and had Lucretia not succeeded in noting these models, many of them would have been forgotten.
Some 16 years later, in 1976, she began to teach some local women and children the craft which she had preserved in her own family, by holding classes in the village school and the local ‘camin’ (village hall).
In 1978 Lucretia began more formal courses, three courses of two years duration as part of a ‘School of popular art’, teaching local women (up to 50 years old), teenagers and children not only egg decorating but also weaving and sewing. The courses included both theoretical classes, including art and history of egg decorating, and practical work. Each course had 25 pupils and thus 75 people in all were taught the skills of decorating eggs. Many of them are now practising the art in Paltin and have, through teaching other family members, spread the knowledge and skill in other localities. For the courses, Lucretia provided all the materials herself, receiving no salary but a ‘bonus’ of 100lei (the ‘lei’, or lion, is the unit of Romanian currency and this is the old lei before revaluation in recent years) – at the end of each term.
In Communist times even such a course was not without its dangers. Lucretia relates how the most basic symbol of egg decorating, dating from well before the birth of Christ, got her into problems with the ‘Securitate’ (secret police): “I was investigated by the secret police. They considered I had put swastikas on eggs. I resisted because it was a time when no-one was making decorated eggs in the region. Slowly, slowly I ‘escaped’ from them and I did what I wanted”. The swastika is, in fact, a sign derived from a symbolic representation of the sun and has appeared in many forms on eggs decorated for Easter in countries throughout the world. Various derivations of it still play and important part in the decoration of eggs in Bucovina today and it has no connection whatsoever with the Nazis, though they adopted it as their symbol.
In 1976 Lucretia began to teach at the Special School in Campulung Moldovenesc – a school attended by children with learning problems, usually as a result of difficult social conditions at home – where she still teaches weaving, sewing and egg decorating to children today. During her years there the children have obtained diplomas at ‘olimpiade’ (these are the regional and national competitions common in Romania and other eastern European countries) for craft work, even first places – something very rare for a ‘special school’. At least one boy now earns his living decorating eggs as a result of what he learnt at the school. This year Lucretia’s classes have expanded from school no. 3 in Campulung joining the children from the special school.
About a year and a half ago she became the leader of an informal network of egg decorators called ‘The network of egg decorators in Bucovina’, a network which grew from graduates of the school in Paltin to include membership of around 200 families in localities such as Lupcina in the far north west, in communa Ulma, to Gemenia in commune Stulpicani under Rarau mountain. The network was set up as a result of a small project financed by the British Embassy in Bucharest, to try to assist the egg decorators to make a better living from their activities while preserving the tradition. In fact, set up of the network was coordinated by the author, who still tries to assist the decorators on a voluntary basis (That was in 2002. Now, although many remain friends, I don’t get involved from a ‘business’ point of view).
There is a danger for tradition in the increasing commercial success: traditional designs and colours are being replaced by others influenced by Western taste. Hopefully, the decorators will be able to make a better living from their skills in the future but keep the tradition alive in the Easter tradition at home.
Picture: Primary school teacher Lucretia Hariuc with Roxana Obreja and Ionela Bultoc, two of the children from the Special School in Campulung Moldovenesc.
A tradition truly preserved in Iasi county
Sitting by the wood stove in a small peasant house on the edge of the village of Doroscani, reached by passing through the centre of the commune Popesti (in Iasi county) and continuing a few kilometres on a winding, hilly road, Elena Andrei takes us back at least to the days before the second World War. She is decorating eggs as described by Artur Gorovei in his renowned study ‘Eggs for Easter’, published by Academia Romana in 1937. But she alone, or almost so, is preserving the tradition.
Remembering how she learned to decorate eggs from her mother, now 102 years old, in Popesti, she told me: “I don’t know who to tell you about, perhaps there are a few who still make them, including my sister, but over there (ie, Popesti) I no longer know anybody. Even close to us there are some older women who ask me to make ten eggs for them because they no longer have the patience. More recently some women continue by decorating more simply, by putting some leaves of parsley or hatmatuchi (a wild herb with an aniseed taste) on the egg and keeping them in place with a stocking while the egg is dyed. Teenagers no longer make them, they don’t have the patience any more”.
Unlike in Bucovina, Elena decorates fresh, full, hard-boiled eggs, not empty shells. They are dyed only red, as in the oldest tradition, and made to be blessed at the church, knocked together and eaten. “I don’t make them to put in the sideboard for decoration”, Elena says.
Warming the eggs with her hands, commenting “the wax will not stick to the eggs when they are cold”, and heating the beeswax in a small pot on top of the hot wood stove, she expertly traces the lines in shapes readily recognisable to anyone who has studied the Romanian egg decorating tradition. “I have many more models”, she says, “but I have made ten for you”.
In fact she has made far more and many of the designs I recognised immediately, either from Gorovei’s drawings or from the basic symbols behind the sophisticated designs and colour schemes seen on the eggs in Bucovina today. However, some were new to me. “Many I learned from my mother when I was a child”, she says, “but many others I saw on eggs made by the older women when I was in Popesti and if I liked them I made eggs with these designs too”.
Several designs were typical of the oldest tradition: spade, oak leaves, goose feet, wild strawberry, Easter flower, little Spring flower, apple blossom. Others are possibly more recent (that is, not more than 100 years old): Easter cake, swing, child’s windmill, a hand, though these could be older too. Others are just designs: lines, spirals, “as they would be on a church window”, Elena explained.
But the biggest surprise of all was a bunny. Many times ethnographs have told me that the rabbit is not a traditional Easter symbol for Romanians and has been imported recently from the West, although Gorovei recognises a symbol called ‘ears’ as being based on the ears of a rabbit and found, then, in Bucovina, Valcea and Iasi. “I learned it from my mother, now 102 years old, and I think she was waiting for the egg with a rabbit, sometimes drawn eating a cabbage, when she was a child”. So it seems the ethnographs are not always right, and the English ‘Easter Bunny’ (‘iepurasi de Pasti’) is indeed a traditional Romania symbol too, at least in Iasi.
A rebirth through the children of Slatioara
Slatioara, a parish of only just over 100 houses resting at the foot of Rarau mountain, was a wonderful sight on a sunny Spring evening, the steep, deep green slopes decorated with Spring flowers and gambolling lambs. But those steep slopes have another message for the residents – living is difficult because few have sufficient land to support a cow or to grow crops.
Years ago the art of egg decorating was widely practiced here but when the last elderly lady with the necessary knowledge, skill and patience was laid to rest, the tradition died with her.
Father Ilie Ursachi has cared for the souls of this small community for the past eight years, living with his wife Elena and two small children in this isolated spot. In fact, on the map Slatioara is only 10km from Campulung Moldovenesc but the map does not tell the whole truth; by car you must make the journey of several tens of kilometres, via Frasin and Stulpicani.
Father Ursachi was sad to see such a deep-rooted tradition like egg decorating die out in his parish so he tasked his wife to try to reintroduce it, selecting children at the general school as the target. First of all, Elena had to learn the craft herself – her university qualifications as an accountant had not prepared her for such a thing. By last summer she was ready to prepare the children and taught local children the basic skills. Last summer they were advanced enough to attend a two week camp for learning local crafts, in Suceava, and seven local children attended the camp.
Three of these children – Cristian and Marioara Flocea, and Marcela Stirbiu – have developed their skills to a level where they are now able to sell their decorated eggs and on St. George’s day were hopefully presenting their eggs at the Easter craft market in the museum at Gura Humorului (a small town in the area of the renowned painted monasteries). Though not yet to the highest quality, their efforts already compare very favourably with eggs produced by many adult decorators and there is little doubt they could have a future as skilled craftsmen if they wish to take it.
Picture: Elena Ursachi with her three star pupils: Cristian Flocea (class 6), Marioara Flocea (class 8) and Marcela Stirbu (class 7).
From red eggs to Faberge eggs
How did the tradition of red eggs begin? No-one can be sure because it was practised well in advance of the birth of Christ. From early writings and pictures we know for sure that man was preoccupied with the mystery of the egg. This magic thing, without a soul, seemingly a stone, could give birth to a living being.
In the legends of many peoples, the egg represents the beginning of the world. The Persians believed that from the premordial chaos an egg was born and, under the wings of night, the earth, sun and moon were hatched. The Egyptians worshipped the god Knef, who is represented in sculptures and statue as having an egg in his mouth.
The cosmic egg also exists in the Romanian tradition, being represented in decorated eggs from the Bucovina and other regions. Red eggs were depicted on the war flags of some tribes in Asia, being a symbol of power and the red colour a symbol of strength. Later, the red colour entered into Christian symbolism as the blood of Christ.
Indifferent of the origin, we cannot find any people which does not have in its tradition the symbol of an egg. Of these today we have eggs variously decorated, eggs of wood, with beads, from sugar, from stone or crystal and, of course, the fabulous Faberge eggs encrusted with precious stones. In France there are cloisonne eggs, made from metal and today ’emigrated’ in China and, in the West, millions of children eat chocolate eggs during the Easter holiday.
(I hope to be able to visit some of the places and people mentioned in these articles during a short trip to Romania in August and find out what has developed since the above articles were written. I’ll no doubt be blogging about it when I return to the UK).