Easter Traditions on Both Sides of the Atlantic / Geographies of Tradition
Updated: May 25, 2021
Easter for Romanians and Americans, reflected in beliefs and customs
What is sacred differs radically from what is profane. Therefore, a human being’s encounter with sacred power and sacred time requires long and laborious preparation. In their proverbial simplicity, Romanian peasants instinctually understood this essential truth, but also knew it from tradition. Therefore, awaiting the resurrection of Jesus, they sought to prepare for this meeting, by all the means at their disposal. In other words, they sought renewal of both the body and soul. They would fast for 40 days, refraining from eating “for sweetness”. They confessed before the priest and took communion. During this time they also would buy, order, or sew new clothes, which they wore on the first day of Easter. They cleaned and tidied up their houses and yards.
From Maundy Thursday to Joimărița
The Thursday of Holy Week was also called Maundy Thursday or Black Thursday. By this day, unmarried girls and women had to finish spinning their wool and hemp. The peasants believed in the existence of a mythological character, Joimărița, who roamed the villages through and through, punishing the women who had not finished their spinning, but also those who had not sewn themselves new blouses for Easter. Joimărița had an entire repertoire of punishments, some milder and some harsher: she scolded them, mocked them, burned their wool or the hemp they’d left unspun, burned their fingers or rapped over their knuckles. It was customary that from Maundy Thursday to Ispas (Ascension Day) the peasants did not work (did not spin, did not sew, did not boil their shirts) in order to protect their fresh sowing from stones and drought, and so that the agricultural year which had begun not long before would go on to bring fruit. Instead, housewives made borscht on Maundy Thursday. It is believed among the people that this borscht will keep for the entire year.
Another belief rooted in the collective mentality states that whoever sleeps on Maundy Thursday will be lazy until the next year. Also on Maundy Thursday, the eggs that are to be eaten during the three days of Easter and during Renewal Week are painted red, but we will discuss them in detail later on. Maundy Thursday is a significant day in the funerary cult: it is also a day dedicated to the dead. According to an ancient belief, the dead return to Earth, to their homes, and stay here - usually on the eaves of the house - until the Feast of the Elders (on the Saturday before Pentecost) or until Palm Sunday, when women give out alms (sweetbread, jugs of water) so that the souls of the sleeping may return to their realm.
In days of yore, Romanians used to light fires in their yards on Maundy Thursday, so that the souls which had traveled there from the afterlife could warm themselves and enjoy the light. In certain areas, women myrrh the chairs set around the fires and poured water over them, for the parched souls. They gave out rolls of sweetbread, jugs of water or wine for all their departed relatives, carried water from the well in pails, and sprinkled the freshly sprung grass, also in memory of the dead, or for the year to be bountiful in crops. The women from every family had the custom of going to the cemetery, sprinkling the graves of their loved ones with water, lighting a candle at their heads, and placing wheat flour rolls on the graves. The old women made a cake of flour with notched edges, “the bread of the forgotten”, in memory of those souls that no one, except for God, remembers anymore. Neighbors were also given alms, because on Maundy Thursday “the dead are fed”: sweetbread rolls “with light”, kerchiefs, clothing, jugs of water and wine. Often, before being given out, the funeral rolls and sweetbread rolls were blessed by the priest at the local church. An ancient Romanian belief states that from Maundy Thursday to Pentecost, the sky, heaven and hell open up, which is why the souls of those who have passed roam the Earth and can return home.
An unusual custom, still active in some areas of Romania, is that of shouting over the village. On the eve of Maundy Thursday or Easter Saturday, the boys and men of the village climb over a ravine or two neighboring hills, divided into groups, and begin to shout out loud which of the girls are industrious and lazy, who is married and who is an old maid, which villager spends more in the tavern than at home, what witch steals milk from the sheep or cows that graze in the neighboring pastures. The “cry over the village” was and is a kind of people's court, with beneficial effects on community behavior: at least in the six weeks of Lent, the villagers in the ethnographic areas where this custom was kept seek to defeat their lusty impulses and behave virtuously.
What is the good thing to do on Good Friday?
Good Friday is also known in the tradition of the Romanian people as Passion Friday (referring to the Passion of Jesus Christ) or Dry Friday, because the peasants, as many Christians do today, fast all day, without any food or water. The purpose for which they fast differs from person to person: some fast to be free of diseases (especially headaches), others to enjoy a long life, others to attract divine protection. According to another ancestral belief, whoever fasts on Good Friday will come know the moment of his or her death three days before it occurs. Likewise, it is said that in order to be strong and healthy all year round, when you awake on Friday morning, and when you get out of bed, it is good to step on a piece of iron. Of course, as on all days of spiritual significance, on Good Friday (when, according to tradition, Christ was crucified on Golgotha) no work is done: housewives do not make borscht (because The Unclean One would come to bathe in it), they do not sew (it is said that whoever breaks this taboo goes blind), they do not spin, does not weave, women do not whiten shirts (if they did, they would upset Holy Friday). Instead, they paint eggs red for the meal that will be served on the first day of Easter. Men avoid sowing anything in the ground at this point, because the seeds would dry out. Abstaining from regular work has as its purpose, among other things, the belief that in this way the cattle of the household will be protected and will not fall prey to wild beasts. Also for this purpose, on Friday morning, during Holy Week, women circle the house and the fruit trees in the garden three times, miring them, convinced as they are that these will bear fruit, and that insects and beetles will not do them harm.
On the eve of Good Friday, Christians go to church. After the service, they return to their homes, each with a lit candle, careful to keep it burning on the road home. Then they surround the house three times, carrying the light from the church in their hands, and make the sign of the cross with the flame, on the walls, in the four parts (cardinal points) of the house, believing that this way the house will be protected from fire, from lightning, and its inhabitants from diseases.
Ritual foods: pasca, reddened/painted eggs, lamb
When you say Easter, you inevitably refer to pasca, painted eggs, and lamb. All are ritualistic, symbolic foods, all part of the holiday’s culinary identity.
Pasca is the most important baked good that is made for Easter, from pure flour, sifted through a thick sieve. It has a round shape, because ancient faith has it that the diapers of the Baby Jesus were round, and it has four corners (“horns”) because the tomb of the Son of God had four corners. It is filled with eggs, cow’s or sheep’s cheese, and raisins.
Therefore, on Good Friday, women kneaded and baked pasca. In its center, they made a cross out of dough, and before putting it in the oven they marked in a cross with a wooden shovel on its walls, saying a prayer: “Cross in the house/cross in the stone,/cross in all four/ house’s horns/ God with us at the table, /The Holy Mother at the window”. The eggshells used for pasca were thrown by housewives into running water. They thought that this was how they could let the departed know that the feast of Easter had arrived on Earth again.
Red or painted eggs are another must-have on the Easter table. In the tradition of the Romanian people, they are of two kinds: cranberries, which are red and painted (“decorated”, “worked on”, “tormented”, “written on”, they are also called). Many local legends offer possible explanations for the custom of painting Easter eggs.
In the best known version it is said that the Mother of God, after a long journey, reaches Golgotha and, in order to appease the Roman soldiers, offers them a basket of eggs. They are left at the foot of the cross and, after a time, the blood of Christ turns them red. According to another legend, on the day of the Lord's resurrection, all the children in the world woke up with a red egg in their little hands. The drawings and symbols painted on the Easter egg are luxurious in their variety and enviably creative: the Easter cross, the rake, the spade, the chariot wheel, the Christmas tree, the Easter flower, the lost path, the fish, the goose's foot, the deer's horn, the whistle, the plow’s iron, the hat, the lady's earring...
Another traditional Easter course is lamb. It symbolizes Jesus Christ who, according to the texts read in church, brought himself as a sacrifice, as a lamb is led to the slaughter. In the past, peasants who did not have lamb did their best to put pork or poultry on the Easter table.
The departed on the shores of Saturday's Water
We have discussed the habit of throwing eggshells left over from Easter into running water and the belief that this will announce that Easter has arrived on Earth to the departed, or “the gentle ones”. But who are “the departed”? Some Romanian legends tell us that the departed are situated, in a potential hierarchy of beings, between giants and ordinary people. It is said that God first created the giants. He noticed, however, that they mumbled and stumbled both on mountains and in forests. Then the Demiurge created a nation of people opposed to the giants: he created the departed or “Rohmans”, who were so small that it took nine of the departed to work together at building an oven. These dwarves were people of character: kind-hearted, upright, gentle. Being too young, however, they began many tasks without being able to finish any. That is why God created us ordinary people. He moved the departed (or Rohmans), “so that there would not be confusion here on Earth”, to the other realm. That is where Saturday’s Water flows. Saturday’s Water, often found in Romanian fairy tales, springs from the root of the Tree of Life (located in Paradise; the Christian version of the axis mundi). After circling the Earth several times, it enters either hell, where it turns into a river of fire, or into the realm of the dead, carrying with it the souls of sinners.
Ethnologists and ethnographers see in the departed (also called Rohmani, Rocmani, Rugmani) “mythical representations of primordial people, or of elders and ancestors, celebrated in spring, at the Easter of the Departed, usually on the Monday which comes after Thomas Sunday”. The mythical departed came to be known to the people by way of the wide circulation that the popular novel Alexandria had in the Romanian Middle Ages.
As mythical characters, the departed inhabit a liminal space, a transitory zone: be it on the border that separates this world from the one beyond, or beneath the ground, or on the banks of Saturday’s Water, where it flows into the Earth’s Vortex. The departed are the direct descendants of Adam and Eve, they witnessed the creation of the world and were given the task of supporting and sustaining the Earth. Seen from outside, the departed are very short, their bodies are covered with hair and they walk around naked (clothing appeared later, as the fruit of human civilization, in the paradisiacal state or in the state of nature it was not needed). From a psycho-moral point of view, they are, as stated, gentle, kind-hearted, wise, faithful; they practice fasting and other deprivations (for example, they meet with women only once a year, on Easter, to procreate). Although they are pure of heart, they are also somewhat narrow-minded: they don't know how to calculate when holidays fall. That is why they hold Easter about seven or eight days after it is celebrated on Earth. To let them know of its coming, housewives from the village threw red eggshells into running water, on Good Friday or on the Saturday of Passion Week. Our ancestors believed that all waters flow into and unite in Saturday’s Water, which eventually enters the underworld, bringing the Easter eggshells to the departed. Once they see them, the departed begin to celebrate Easter, while we here on Earth celebrate “Easter of the Departed”, also called the “Easter of the Dead” (as stated, seven or eight days after the resurrection, on Palm Sunday or the Monday after). “On this day, believers place offerings on graves, mourn the dead, give out alms, make libations, spread festive meals in the cemetery, near the church, or in the field, out in nature (in Moldavia, Bucovina, Dobrogea, Maramureș, Bistrița-Năsăud)”, according to ethnographer Ion Ghinoiu.
The Easter meal – an occasion for human communion
As stated at the beginning of this article, Romanian peasants cleansed themselves for the eve of the resurrection. Before heading to church, they washed their faces with fresh water - in which they placed a few sprigs of basil, a silver coin, and a red egg, in order to be healthy and rich all year round. They dressed in newly sewn clothes. Everyone, no matter how poor, sought to wear new clothes with this occasion. There was even a saying about it: “Proud Easter/with a new blouse/with eggs in the house”. Finally, they started towards church, carrying pasca, sweatbread, red eggs, sausages, cheese, flour, garlic blessed by the priest. Towards morning, they returned home with the lit candle, which they extinguished in the beam, with the sign of the cross. They first ate “Easter” - a special bread blessed by the priest, then all the members of the family cracked their eggs against each other, going on to enjoy the dishes cooked with such great care. For Romanians, the Easter meal continues to be an occasion for communion, for family reunion. In recent years, a newer tradition has been added to this ancient custom: Romanians like to give each other presents on Easter and receive much-desired gifts. Children receive them from the Easter Bunny, and even sweeten them with chocolate bunnies.
Easter in red, white, and blue
Photo source: https://airflyby.com/20-family-easter-travel-destinations/
Not only Romanian peasants were preoccupied with welcoming the feast of the resurrection of Christ in new, festive clothes: so were American citizens. Some suggest that this preoccupation originated in the Middle Ages when, if you couldn't afford new clothes, you had to at least wear a ribbon. Over the centuries, American families, once the cold winter was over, went to local shops, where women procured the necessary fabrics for the tailoring of a new wardrobe, which they displayed on Easter. Whoever was too poor for this would buy a new tie, or a new bonnet or cap. The Easter bonnet became very popular in the first half of the 20th century, with Bing Crosby referring to in in his famous song, “Easter Parade”.
As for the Easter Bunny, who in recent years has conquered the hearts of children in Romania, its legend and habit of leaving colorful eggs for the little ones - which they “hunt”, with great enthusiasm, around the house - and baskets full of chocolate, candy, and small toys seem to have arrived on the American continent with German immigrants around 1700. The basket was considered the “nest” in which the Easter Bunny “lays” its eggs. From a symbolic point of view, the Bunny is a symbol of fertility and its appearance in the collective mind is, of course, related to the arrival of spring and the wonderful rebirth of nature.
Also at Easter, Americans decorate their churches with lilies. It seems that this custom was imported from Japan, but on a symbolic level it can be connected to Jesus Christ, given that he gave them as an example of beauty, what with God adorning them splendidly, although the lilies of the field neither toil, nor spin (Matthew 6: 28-29).
The American habit of sending postcards (decorated with the Easter bunny, children, lambs, or with Christ surrounded by sheep) became widespread between 1800 and 1900. Some Americans still send out Easter cards today. A minor detail: during the Second World War, on Easter postcards, the symbols listed above were replaced by soldiers, and the Easter Bunny wore a military coat.
Christians in America also go to church on Good Friday and Easter, enjoying the service and Gospel readings.
We might mention the famous Egg Race, one of the oldest annual events taking place at the White House, in which American presidents and their families participate. From 1878 to today, this tradition has known variations, each president putting his personal imprint on this social act.
Photo source: https://www.recreation.gov/ticket/facility/250029
The first annual Easter Egg Race, held at the White House, took place on April 22nd, 1878, with President Rutherford Hayes providing the White House lawn on the Monday of Holy Week for children who wanted to roll Easter eggs on the grass. In 1885 the little players were received in the East Wing, in an audience with President Grover Cleveland, who received them with affection. Thus, from that moment on, the race and its related reception acquired a customary status. In April 1889, President Benjamin Harrison added a new element: he mandated that music be played at the Easter Egg Race, ordering the United States Navy Band to perform energetic songs while the children competed on the Southern Lawn.
Claiming that “no food product should be destroyed”, the administrator of the D.C. Food Division, Charles Wilson, announced on March 3rd, 1918 that the food restrictions caused by the war meant that the destruction of eggs for the purpose of the Egg Race was not acceptable, and so that year the Race was canceled.
In 1921, racing was resumed. Among those present were: President Warren G. Harding, the First Lady, Florence Harding, the presidential puppies - Laddie Boy and the Airedale terrier, the characters from the children’s press - Alice and the White Bunny.
On April 1st, 1929, the White House Egg Race was first broadcast on the radio by WRC station in Washington.
The outbreak of World War II caused the Easter Egg Races to be canceled from 1943 to 1945.
In April 1969, the official tradition of the Easter Bunny was born at the White House, when a staff member of First Lady Pat Nixon’s wore a white rabbit costume and a Peter Rabbit mask, frolicing with children along the circular alley around the South Lawn.
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan hosted a hunt for wooden eggs bearing the signatures of celebrities. Not long after this, wooden eggs became the official souvenirs of the Easter race held at the White House.
In conclusion, we can discover similarities between Romanian and American behaviors with the arrival of Easter: both are animated by the same care to fully experience the joy of Christ's resurrection, by the feeling of rebirth of nature, by the desire for renewal (even the effort of manifesting this impulse by wearing new clothes is something they have in common), and by the need to share the joy of being together, to communicate in order to be in communion, to open up entirely.
Text by Ciprian Voicilă, sociologist at the National Museum of Romanian Peasant
EP. 3: Easter Celebrations
Text by Ciprian Voicilă
Translated into English and presented by Andreea Scridon
Videography by Dragoș Popa
Music: Love Song From Naipu / voice: Marin Duță, Petre Calistrache (source: the Ethnological Archive of the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant: