Pysanky Can Save the World

My collection of decorated eggs from Prague and Salzburg on display as an Easter egg tree in 2015.

Pysanky are the decorated eggs in Ukraine or other Slavic areas which are a very important part of the holiday season. It is important to keep making new pysanky every year to replace those that were broken by accident last year because the pysanky keep an evil dragon away from the earth. The more pysanky there are in the world, the further away the dragon must hide. But if there are too few pysanky, then the dragon can come closer and if there are really not enough pysanky in the world then the dragon can eat the earth!

Easter baskets were traditionally baskets of holiday food (meat, cheese, eggs — all the things that people were supposed to be fasting from during Lent!) that were brought to church to be blessed. Easter Monday was a good time to keep eating what was in the Easter baskets as well as enjoy the decorations and displays of Easter eggs. In many parts of Central Europe, people make “Easter trees” to hang their elaborately decorated Easter eggs on.

Pysanky were thought to protect households from evil spirits, catastrophe, lightning and fires. Pysanky with spiral motifs were the most powerful, as the demons and other unholy creatures would be trapped within the spirals forever.

Pysanky held powerful magic, and had to be disposed of properly, lest a witch get a hold of one. She could use the shell to gather dew, and use the gathered dew to dry up a cow’s milk. The witch could also use bits of the eggshell to poke people and sicken them. The eggshell had to be ground up very finely (and fed to chickens to make them good egg layers) or broken into pieces and tossed into a running stream.

The cloth used to dry pysanky was powerful, too, and could be used to cure skin diseases. And it was considered very bad luck to trample on a decorated egg -– God would punish anyone who did with a variety of illnesses.

There were superstitions regarding the colors and designs on the pysanky. One old Ukrainian myth centered on the wisdom of giving older people gifts of pysanky with darker colors and/or rich designs, for their life has already been filled. Similarly, it is appropriate to give young people pysanky with white as the predominant color because their life is still a blank page. Girls would often give pysanky to young men they fancied, and include heart motifs. It was said, though, that a girl should never give her boyfriend a pysanky that has no design on the top and bottom of the egg, as this might signify that the boyfriend would soon lose his hair.

Holy Week Folklore

A detail showing Christ and the two theives on their crosses from “The Crucifixion” by Cranach the Elder (woodcut from approx. 1500-1504)

Holy Week, the days between Palm Sunday and Easter, is one of the most important and busiest times of the year in traditional European societies. Everyone is busy baking and cleaning and preparing for the great festival. There are many church services, especially at the end of the week on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

One of the more fascinating or frightening folktales of Holy Week tells us that in Prague and the Czech countryside, underground vaults, caves, and holes that contain hidden treasure will open up shine with a faint light as the Passion is chanted in church. A treasure-seeker can go outside church then and see these places and mark them to come back later. Or, if the treasure-seeker can’t wait to get rich, he can go inside the caves right then but he must get out before the last verse of the Passion reading is complete as the vault or cave will shut when the reading is complete and the treasure-seeker will be trapped inside until the next year.

In Russia, the tale is told that anyone who dies on Good Friday will be ushered directly into heaven just as the Good Thief was. (Many artists who painted depictions of the two thieves actually used the bodies of criminals who had been executed on the wheel as their models as no one was crucified any more; if you look closely, you can still see the thieves’ limbs twisted and bent in strange ways that don’t match descriptions of crucifixions because of their torture on the wheel.)

Much of the folklore associated with Holy Week involves protection of various sorts: To protect against the evil eye, wax from candles burned in church during the Holy Week services would be stuck to the heads of children or animals. Hanging a wreath on the door after sunset on Good Friday will protect the house against lightning. Hot cross buns baked on Good Friday and hung in the kitchen will protect against poverty and if they are hug over the bed, will protect against nightmares.

April 7: National Beer Day

Got hiccups? Plunge a dagger into a mug of beer and then drink it all in one breath. You’ll be cured!

National Beer Day celebrates the end of Prohibition with the Cullen-Harrison Act, which went into effect on April 7, 1933.

A thirsty public lined up outside breweries in 20 states and Washington, DC on April 6, or “New Beer’s Eve,” counting down until midnight. They purchased 1.5 million barrels and April 7 has unofficially been National Beer Day ever since.

Beer has a long history in folklore and mythology as well as US legal history. Aegir was primarily the Norse God of the Sea, but was also the brewer to the Gods of Asgard. He and his nine daughters (the billow maidens) brewed ale in a large pot given to Aegir by Thor. His association to brewing is most likely due to the foam on the ocean looking similar to the foamy head of an ale. Aegir was also a terrific host. The mugs in his house refilled themselves with more ale when you drained your cup so your never went thirsty. Albina was the goddess of white barley, which was used to make beer; one of the earliest names for the British Isles, Albion, is thought to come from her name. (Find out more gods and goddesses of beer here.)

St. Amand is the patron of bar staff, bartenders & beer merchants while St. Urban of Langres is the patron of coopers (barrel makers). St. Hildegard of Bingen protects hop-growers.

Beer is said to froth and bubble if an absent loved one is in danger. See? Never let a relative go drinking without you!

It is also said that if spilled beer runs toward you that good luck is coming your way which may be the source of the custom in some parts of Russia to pour beer over a groom’s horse at the wedding! But if you dream of beer, then trouble is on its way.

Don’t forget to celebrate beer on September 9 as well–since 2013, it’s been designated “International Buy a Priest a Beer Day!”