My earliest recollection of Easter is as a very young child living in Budapest in the early 1950s. I really tried to behave and be very good for I knew that the Easter bunny would visit and bring Easter eggs. Little did I know that the appearance of the Easter bunny originated in Germany, not in Hungary. It is a more modern tradition. However, it’s not a piece of knowledge a young child needs to know, is it?
No, for this young child the arrival of the Easter bunny would mean receiving Easter eggs and chocolate treats! I eagerly counted the days until Easter. Day after day, upon waking up, my first question was, “Máma van húsvét?” (Is it Easter today?). Anyu (Mom) or Apu (Dad) would reply, “Nem máma.” (not today).
Finally, one morning I was exhilarated to discover that it was Easter! My little eyes searched the house but spied no Easter eggs or candy. So, I enthusiastically ran and searched outside to see if the Easter bunny had hidden them in the yard; but there was absolutely no sign that he had come to our house at all! I was terribly disappointed; after all, I had been really very good!
Apu explained that Easter was celebrated for two days. On the first day, Easter Sunday, people went to church and prayed. In my child’s eye, I understood that going to church and praying was a serious thing and not a playful thing. As I got a little older, I gained a better understanding of this religious holiday — fully appreciating that Easter is a Christian holiday which celebrates Jesus Christ’s resurrection.
Apu cheered me up when he clarified that Easter Monday was also a holiday and surely the Easter bunny would come to our house the next day. Wow! The next morning, my eyes discovered colorful eggs and sweet treats which I had greatly anticipated! Oh, they were so yummy. Living in Budapest in the ‘50s, such delights were not something on which my parents could splurge their hard-earned money. The Easter bunny’s gifts were absolutely scrumptious.
Today in Hungary children can participate in an Easter egg hunt. Eggs may be hidden in the house or outside. Children may even receive Easter baskets!
We left Hungary in 1956. My brothers, sisters and I grew up in Connecticut. One Easter, Dad very quietly, almost whispering, called all of us into the living room. He asked the girls to give him a bottle of cologne. Of course, we were a little surprised and asked why he wanted it, for his request didn’t make any sense to us! We knew finding Mom’s cologne without her noticing would take a little effort. Without an explanation, he persisted. Furthermore, he asserted that we must be extra quiet because it was a surprise for Mom. When he had the bottle of cologne in hand and was ready we called Mom into the living room. She was reluctant for she was busy with preparations for dinner. Boy, was she surprised when Dad sprinkled her with cologne, reciting something in Hungarian which we, children, didn’t understand! Unexpectedly, Mom started to cry, and we wondered what was wrong! However, our concern was quickly alleviated when she said that she was crying because she was happy. Then Mom and Dad enthusiastically shared pleasant memories of locsolkodás.
On Easter Monday, especially in small villages, it was a custom for groups of young men to visit young women and splash them with a bucket of water! This tradition is known as locsolkodás, “sprinkling”. This sprinkling of water is connected with fertility and cleansing. The purification of water in Christianity is associated with the christening celebration.
During locsolkodás, young men visited young women in one house after another. Upon arriving, the young man would recite a poem in which he asked permission to sprinkle the young woman. When permission was granted, the sprinkling commenced. In return, the young man received painted red eggs and some food (perhaps some ham or sausage). In time, it became customary for men to sprinkle women with cologne or perfume instead of dousing them with a bucket of water. This is still a popular tradition today. In cities it is more customary to sprinkle women with cologne, but in some villages the art of dousing women with a bucket of water still brings lively merriment. An excursion to Hollókö (a UNESCO site in Hungary) will certainly delight visitors wishing to observe this tradition.
The Hungarian Easter meal is very special, featuring ham, colorful hard boiled eggs, pickled horseradish and fonott kalács, a bread milk loaf. Some homes also serve sausage and other goodies. Though we didn’t grow up in Hungary, our family always had a traditional Easter meal which Mom lovingly prepared. We had colorful dyed hard boiled eggs perched nicely on a dish. The ham was always tasty as was the sausage. However, the poppy seed rolls, walnut rolls and the fonott kalács were an absolute pleasure!
Much work went into preparing the fonott kalács. There were the flour, eggs, yeast…Mom mixed these ingredients and others in her large enamel bowl which she used especially for this purpose. No, she didn’t use an electric mixer! Then, of course, there was a waiting time for the dough to rise, which seemed to take forever. When the dough was finally ready, Mom gingerly rolled out several long pieces and braided them together! If my recollection is correct, she brushed the fonott kalács with some egg yolks, and finally it was ready to be baked. Though my brothers, sisters and I waited eagerly for the fonott kalács to come out of the oven, we knew quite well that it would not be served until Easter Sunday!
Making the poppy seed rolls and walnut rolls took even greater preparation. Mom’s simple reward was knowing how much we loved these tasty treats and how dearly we appreciated her baking them for us.
The practice of dyeing Easter eggs red is a tradition Hungarians have enjoyed for a thousand years. Eggs were primarily colored red for in the Christian practice it symbolizes Christ’s blood and the egg represents everlasting life. Also, the designs on the eggs had a special meaning. Though colorful red eggs have remained popular, other colors were eventually introduced. Today eggs are also painted by hand and contain detailed folklore motifs. Like the ancient Magyars, it is endearing for Hungarians today to give decorated eggs as gifts.
For years, we received postcards from relatives in Budapest which pictured ornate Easter eggs. The ones I especially liked were a deep red with traditional Hungarian folklore designs. The flowers or geometric patterns were so intricate. Then, one year with great determination, we set out to paint eggs like that. What a challenge it was! Only Mom was able to puncture two holes in an egg so that its contents flowed out without breaking the shell! After my sisters and I broke a few in our eager but cautious attempt, Mom laughed and announced that we won’t have any left to decorate if we continue breaking the shells! So we left that task for her.
Mom, using hot wax, drew floral designs on the eggs, explaining that that’s where the egg would remain white and the flowers would appear while the rest of the egg would be red when it was dyed. Well, we had other colors; but we especially looked forward to seeing the red ones like the ones on the postcards. After a few hours of illustrious effort and intense concentration our painted eggs did reveal floral patterns, but the eggs themselves were a pastel pink! Not one had that beautiful vibrant red pictured on the postcards from Hungary!
On Good Friday, Christians observe the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It is a day of solemnity as people remember the religious significance of the day. The churches are unadorned; and there is a purposeful absence of flowers. Countless partake in fasting. It is common for people on this day to forego eating meat. They often also forego chores.
On Holy Saturday afternoon, some people partake in a solemn procession in celebration of the Resurrection. Lent is considered to be over after the procession, and celebrating Easter can begin.
The pleasure of Easter Monday was not simply the yummy treats but the extra time we had with Mom and Dad who were off from work! Mom’s Easter dinner was truly a labor of love which we always enjoyed especially as adults. She did not have a set time for dinner then and encouraged us to arrive whatever time was convenient for us. My brothers, sisters and I, along with our spouses and children in tow often managed to arrive just about the same time!
Now our family gathering has changed some. Mom and Dad are no longer with us, and we also miss Rozika. Nonetheless, family time during the Easter celebration is still very precious. In my mind’s eye, Dad is sprinkling Mom with cologne; and she is crying happy tears!
Kellemes Húsvéti Ünnepeket! Happy Easter!