I love that “lieldienas” literally translates to “Big Day!” I have spent the last few days soaking in some of the traditions of the Latvian version of this Christian holiday with lots of pagan influences.
Let us just break down Holy Week from my perspective. I want to preface this, however, by shamefully admitting that I did not go to any church services during this period. Things happened that are far too complex to explain.
Palm Sunday: pūpolu svētdiena
Because palms are not native to Latvia, they use pūpolu, more commonly known as “pussy willows” to ring in the first day of Holy Week. As I learned, not only are these pūpolu used in churches, but the first person to wake up on Palm Sunday gets to beat the others with the pussy willows! What a wonderful wake up call that was. Let us just say that I am not a morning person.
The next few days went by normally, but there was energy in the air, and it was finally beginning to feel like spring. That would not last. It was my third Spring Break… this time from RTU, so I did not have to work on Tuesday. Latvians officially get Friday and Monday off for Easter weekend, so it was a short work week for everyone.
Thursday arrived, but instead of the Maunday Thursday I grew up with, it is called Zaļā ceturtdiena or “Green Thursday.” I have no idea where this idea comes from. Two people admitted that it is likely pagan. The only tradition that I could uncover was that you aren’t supposed to bring home anything green from the market on this day. I kind of forgot as I was walking home, and I ended up buying strawberries. They aren’t quite green, so I am not sure if I broke the rule or not. These things are hard to police.
Good Friday or rather “Big Friday“, as translated in Latvian, arrived. We all had the day off, and I decided to have a little dinner party with my cousin, Gita. Rita invited her Russian friend (who also studies Latvian and Indian culture), Svetlana, to join us as well. In America, I have tried to have a little Good Friday celebration every year culminating in the observation of the 1970s musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, which is a big Grinvalds’ family favorite. This year, I see that John Legend is doing a live version in America… maybe I will get to see it! I like to see that other people love this show, too!
I decided to try my hand at a roast leg of lamb for supper. I was really feeling like having something roasted in the oven, something to give the evening a special formal feeling. Rita found these cute lamb-shaped cake pans, so we made little lamb cakes for dessert. The dinner started early, and we had wonderful company. Gita brought a photo album with pictures from my father’s time in America including old pictures of me and my siblings, many of which I did not remember at all. We shared food and wine, and then watched a bit of Jesus Christ Superstar. I was so impressed that Rita could sing along with most of the songs. This is something that I do with my family every year! If you’re in the mood, this song just jumped in my head as I was typing:
We didn’t really have any big tradition on Holy Saturday, and I didn’t find out if there was a name in Latvian. But we did go to a traditional Latvian market in Kalnciema kvartālā. Anna forgot her e-talon (tram fare card), but we thought we could fake our way there. To our surprise, a controller got on just before we crossed the Daugauva. Luckily, he got into an argument with some other man, so we jumped off at the next stop instead of trying to figure out what to do. We hopped a bus which took us right to the market, and all was well.
The market was mostly made up of local craftspeople selling their wares. There was a lot of delicious food as well as handmade items like wooden tools, ceramics, and clothing. Inside one small pavilion, along with a display of Soviet era posters, were children decorating eggs in the traditional German way with paints and such. In another, separate building, Tatars were having a celebration with their own traditional decorating workshop. It was truly a multicultural experience!
We had a wonderful time bargaining with a ceramic shopkeeper who loved that I was from America. We bought a sort of matching set of mugs, a vase, and large pitcher. All in all, I spent too much money on wonderful food.
Now it was time for the most Latvian tradition of all, EGG COLORING!
Last year, Rita came to visit America and we met in Washington D. C. We spent Easter together coloring eggs the American way with Paas egg coloring kits! I didn’t understand how novel that was until I got to see how they do it here. All year, Rita had been collecting onion skins. “What are these for?” I would ask. “They are for Easter eggs!” She would reply. I kept trying to imagine how onion skins could be used to color eggs. I was so naive.
I hadn’t really noticed, but all the eggs I had bought since I had come to Latvia were brown. They don’t really have white eggs except at Easter time. So we had to go out of our way to buy 30 white eggs, and sadly, they all come with red ink on them to designate some kind of code that they are not radioactive or something.
Rita was afraid that she had not collected enough onion skins, so she asked a shopkeeper for some, and she was able to get them. When we went to the market, we saw them selling bags of onion skins for a Euro or so. Can you imagine? Capitalism is awesome!
Step 3: String, lots of string
So, the trick is that you wrap each egg individually with onion skins. In addition, you can put other leaves and flowers inside the skin to create a negative effect when they are boiling. I had no idea how this worked until after it was all over, so I was just guessing. The hardest part, however, is that you have to wrap the egg with thread to keep the skin in place while they cook. You have no idea what a challenge this is until you try!
Only two eggs were harmed in the making of this blog post, so please do not report us to the egg-cruelty police.
Step 4: Boil
After binding all the eggs, they go into a pot with all the extra onion skins. Then they boil. We added vinegar while they were boiling. This seemed to be a part of all the recipes I found online. I don’t know if it did anything or not. I couldn’t believe how the water turned this lovely burgundy color as the skins started to release whatever chemical they have in them that colors eggs.
Today, I have been pondering the origin of this tradition. Who was it who first boiled onion skins and saw how they turned reddish-brown and thought, “I wonder if this will work with eggs?” And so on. Traditions are so cool like that.
Step 5: Cool down
After we finished boiling, then the eggs were carefully removed from the hot water and left to soak in the sink filled with cold water for many minutes. We passed the time by finally watching “The Young Pope” on HBO… little did we know that Cardinal Ozolins, obviously Latvian, makes an appearance.
Step 6: The unveiling
This was the moment I had been waiting for. With Paas, there isn’t much suspense. You can see what color the egg will be. You put in in a cup and wait, and voila, yellow! Blue! Pink! etc. But with this process, each egg is unique and you really don’t know what they will look like until you cut off the thread and take off the strings and skins. This was when it all made sense to me.
If you don’t wrap the eggs in skin, then they will all just turn the burgundy color that the skins release when cooking. This is what I thought we were going to be doing, and I did not understand the appeal. But when you wrap the eggs and put other leaves and such inside, it creates a negative marbling effect that makes each one special and interesting.
We cut each egg open to find that many had cracked, but all of them were beautiful. I just marveled at the variety of shapes and colors that could be produced with only purely natural ingredients. It felt so good to do something so sustainable and authentic!
Now that I fully understand the method, next year, I look forward to trying different shapes and methods of tying to come up with interesting patterns. You can also use different vegetables to produced different colors. Legend has it that red cabbage will turn the eggs blue! Rita wants to try that next time. I am all in!
The final step was to rub a bit of olive oil on them to make them shine… oh, and then, of course to eat them.
Lieldiena arrived without much fanfare. Rita said she heard bells ringing from various churches across town, but with my limited aural senses, I could not hear them. We made coffee together and began the morning with egg fights. I had thought that this was a purely Grinvalds’ tradition, but all Latvians (and many other ethnic groups) are quite aware of the joy of pounding one egg against another to see which is the strongest.
I made an American-style Easter basket for Anna and we hid it before she woke up. Although she is a bit old to show the enthusiasm that I had on Easter morning searching for my basket, it was still a nice time, and we all enjoyed the candy together.
Unfortunately, we missed our church service, and a walk to the newly the newly renamed “Freedom Square” revealed that they had one Easter swing (read about the witches and swings here!) on display… but Anna and Rita admitted that they were too introverted to wait in line and have people watch them swing, so we passed. The weather really wasn’t making us feel very Easterly.
Last night, I saw the full moon rising, and I thought that I would wake up to be greeted by a bright and sunny Sunday morning, but it was cloudy, windy and gloomy all day. I guess it snowed in my part of America, so I shouldn’t feel too bad. And hey, we get Monday off, too!
Side Note: Enjoy the Dance of the Egg
And a slideshow of the eggs and some other pictures! Enjoy!