Decorating eggs is a Sorbian folk art
Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American
On a past visit to Saxony in Germany, I met Hiltrud Jainsch seated behind a table displaying her tools and decorated Easter eggs in Bautzen’s Museum of Sorbian Culture. A living example of the Sorbian way of life, from the village of Schleife deep in the countryside between the Spree and Neisse Rivers, in a region of eastern Germany called Upper Lusatia, Jainsch’s art developed from the social environment of a rural population originating from pre-Christian times closely aligned to the agricultural work cycle and church calendar.
Here near the border of Poland, the Sorbs, a Slavic minority, settled this part of Germany more than 1,400 years ago. They brought their own language, Sorbish, described as a mixture of Czech and Polish, and they retained their own cultural identity with folk-art traditions and celebrations. Easter, the Sorbs’ most important annual holiday, is a high point of family life. Customs dealing with the egg, such as egg decorating and egg rolling, are practiced with great enthusiasm.
But it hasn’t always been easy. Having been suppressed for centuries in Prussian Lusatia, the maintenance of their traditions was a very important aspect of the Sorbian peoples’ self-preservation. Then during the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazi practice of Germanisierung prohibited the use of the Sorbian language or practice of Sorbian customs. The Domowina, an umbrella organization for Sorbian associations founded in 1912, became a target of political oppression, and all Sorbs had their activities declared illegal. As a result, fewer people spoke the language and practiced century-old customs. Then after World War II, for the next 40 years during the German Democratic Republic or East Germany, political control and regimentation suppressed most activities.
It would have been a matter of time before the German language and culture overwhelmed the Sorbian minority. With the collapse of the East German regime in 1989, however, everything changed. The Domowina was restructured, and there is now a full-blown cultural resurgence for Germany’s 60,000 Sorbs. Dual-language street signs, the wearing of the national costume by old and young alike, and the celebration of Sorbish festivities demonstrate a healthy renewal.The origins of egg-related Easter traditions are murky, but some folklorists believe they can be traced to the barter payments that peasants paid their lords in feudal times; others say it goes back to the pagan worship of the Teutonic goddess of fertility, “Eastee,” or “Eastre,” or “Ostara” and the coming of spring. The egg and rabbit were symbols of growth, fertility, and new birth to the Germanic tribes, who welcomed spring with glowing bonfires just as they do today across Germany. The egg released the earth from the cold restraint of winter, establishing the beginning of spring, which symbolized new hope or new life. The early Christians adapted this new life to mean the Resurrection, or a new life through Jesus.
The Sorbish belief that the egg’s strength is passed on to the person who receives the egg blends the custom of giving Easter eggs today with pagan beliefs about the rebirth of nature at the end of winter and the Christian belief in Resurrection. Since Sorbian Easter eggs were first mentioned in literature about 1700, coloring and decorating eggs with symbols and ornaments is one of the older artistic expressions known to man. These eggs are recognized by recurring decorative elements, with certain ornaments believed to heighten magical powers. Symmetry and the use of ornaments like the triangle, the wolf tooth symbolizing strength and protection, and the pine twig symbolizing health are some of the motifs.
Sylvia Panoscha of the Sorbian Culture Center in Schleife extends an invitation: “Every year on the second weekend before Easter, the Sorbian Culture Center invites everyone to the annual Easter market.” She explains that market booths include arts and crafts, farm produce, and culinary delicacies. The poultry club in Schleife prepares a breeding box some three weeks in advance with eggs timed so that baby chicks will arrive during the time of the market. Some 30 Easter egg artists from the region assemble to work and converse with visitors as well as sell the ordinary eggs that they transformed into mini works of art.
Four decorating techniques are on display, including the Wachsbatiktechnik, a process of wax-resist, similar to batik. With a cut goose feather and a pinhead, molten wax is applied to the egg that is then placed into a dye bath. To make multi-colored eggs, wax marks are applied again and again while the egg is immersed repeatedly into other dyes. The procedure can be repeated up to six times. In the end, with a piece of soft cloth, wax is removed from the surface of the egg. The wax seals the dye into the egg with the colors and patterns revealed after the wax is removed from the surface of the egg warmed above a candle flame. Other techniques include “drop-pull,” a variation of batik which uses a simple pin head to apply wax, a “scratch” technique in which dye is applied to an egg and patterns scratched onto the shell, painting the eggs using a brush, and versions of appliqué like straw, beads, and sequins glued to the eggshell.
According to Sorbish tradition, the days before and after Easter Sunday are busy ones. Good Friday is a solemn day of rest. There is an unwritten law that at least one member of the family must go to church. After breakfast, the family gathers to decorate Easter eggs at the kitchen table until midday. During the evening before Easter, the doors of the stables, barns, and gates to the yard are locked because during the night young men from the village wreak havoc. They take the gates off their hinges, block chimney flues, and hide car parts. The women and girls who sing in the choirs are active too. They meet at the choir leader’s house all dressed in black and then go singing from house to house until they finish at sunrise.
On Easter Sunday the entire family attends church. Then children, dressed in their best outfits, visit their godparents to receive presents, including gingerbread cakes, small sums of money, and decorated eggs. When they get older, they give presents in return. The popular Easter Ride has its roots dating back to pre-Christian times when people believed that riding around the fields could save the germinating crop from evil spirits. This custom evolved into a Christian procession. Today the Easter Ride is a confession of faith. Its preparation and organization are in the hands of locals with the parish priest. Riders in formal wear from each parish sit on groomed horses and line up in pairs to gather around the church. After distributing church banners, a statue of Christ Risen, and a cross to the riders, the priest blesses them. Then the procession takes off to visit a neighboring community. Today nine processions and 1,500 horsemen participate.
The next day villagers prepare a sloping surface with a shallow trench where children will attempt to roll an egg down the slope so that it hits another one. Whoever is successful is allowed to take out two eggs, but the eggs nearly always roll in the wrong direction and few leave the game with more eggs than they brought.
It’s all part of Sorbian Easter festivities, a time of visiting, sharing traditions, and eating cakes made with eggs, of course!
Cynthia Elyce Rubin, Ph.D., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history, who collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. She is currently working on Enorme Amerika: Norske utvandreres postkort, humor og rariteter to be published by SpreDet Forlag in Oslo and is completing a manuscript on O.S. Leeland, Norwegian immigrant photographer who worked in South Dakota in the early 1900s. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.
This article originally appeared in the March 23, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.