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Towards the end of Lent comes Holy Week, a time of solemnness since the Thursday before Easter marks the day Christ was crucified. After Mass on this day in Catholic churches flowers are removed from the altar and the bells may be tied up so they go silent. Legend has it that the bells go to Rome to mark Easter.
Good Friday for Catholics is a fast – no meat and nothing fatty should be eaten, and the amount of food eaten should be just enough to stave off hunger. Interestingly though, drinking red wine is encouraged to strengthen the blood.
During Holy Week in households across the country spring cleaning takes place to mirror the spiritual and bodily cleanses and to make homes bright as a pin for the Easter celebrations to come.
Everyone can understand why we celebrate the departure of winter and the coming of spring. But if we know a little bit more about life in rural communities it becomes clearer what all the symbols of Easter are about.
Still today many people’s livelihoods depend directly on a good harvest and the wellbeing of their livestock – not to mention their own health and strength of themselves and that of their family. On Easter Sunday in Croatia, in towns, cities and villages alike, a very popular custom to this day is taking a basket of food to Mass to be blessed. At Easter, the blessed food is the first thing to be eaten. This is to help bestow health on the family. The eggshells left after peeling the blessed eggs were to be kept and buried in the garden to help the fertility of the land. Other rituals less often seen today include the housewife running home from church early to sow the corn to guarantee a good harvest.
The significance of eggs as a symbol of Easter is clear – as eggs give new life they are a symbol of fertility. It is thought that eggs have been seen in this way since prehistoric times since clay eggs have been found at archaeological sites in this part of the world.
In many countries of central and eastern Europe decorating Easter eggs is a very important cultural activity. Traditionally, every household would colour eggs using natural dyes such as onion skins or berries, creating designs either by wrapping leaves around the egg before dyeing; by drawing designs in molten wax prior to colouring (wax resist) or by engraving the already coloured egg. However, this activity can be taken to a whole new level achieving astonishingly rich and intricate designs. This is why decorating Easter eggs is listed as part of Croatia’s intangible cultural heritage.
The decorated eggs are called pisanice, and while the word seems to be related to pisati (“to write”) the word stems from an old Slavonic word meaning “to paint”. However in some parts of Croatia the designs also include written messages, and often the eggs are exchanged as tokens of love or friendship.
There is also a game called tucanje in which children knock their coloured eggs together. The first to break drops out, and the winner of the game is the egg which stays intact through all the rounds.
The significance of the Easter Bunny is a little more disputed. Some say that the rabbit is a symbol of spring and therefore Easter because rabbits breed particularly rapidly. Not only do rabbits and hares tend to have large litters, the females can also conceive a second litter before they have given birth to the first. This is called “superfetation”, and when you know this it’s hardly surprising rabbits are a symbol of fertility!
However there are also folk legends connected with our beloved Easter Bunny. German settlers in the USA are believed to have imported an Easter custom whereby children made nests for a rabbit to put coloured eggs into if they had been good. The popularity of the Easter Bunny then grew in the English-speaking world. This custom is also still alive in the Srijem region of eastern Croatia – possibly bequeathed by ethnic Germans who lived in that culturally diverse region.
A lamb is also a popular motif decorating Easter cards. The lamb is of great significance in Christianity since Christ, the Lamb of God, sacrificed his life to save humanity, and thus the Easter story was born. This is why in the religious calendar Easter is even more significant than Christmas since at this time we celebrate the life and deeds of Jesus, not just his birth.
Easter in Dubrovnik
In the Dubrovnik region decorating eggs using the wax relief method is a cultural activity that is taken very seriously. The technique of drawing designs in molten beeswax and dipping the eggs in water coloured with natural dyes such as onion skins or pine needles is passed down through the generations and is known locally as penganje. A great many eggs are prepared by each family since eggs are given as gifts to family members, friends, neighbours and respected members of the community.
An art form unique to Dubrovnik is the poma, a particularly decorative ornament made from plaited palm leaves, usually featuring a cross. These, or olive branches, are taken to Mass on Palm Sunday to be blessed, much as in other parts of the world people take branches of palm, olive or pussy willow. The blessed branches are taken home and kept as decorations to ensure good health in the coming year. Workshops are held today for young people helping keep alive the skill of plaiting palm leaves.
The Žudije Festival
The Žudije Festival celebrates a Holy Week tradition in Dalmatia of re-enacting the story of the Resurrection. Twelve men dressed as Roman soldiers and a thirteenth, their commander, are charged with the duty of guarding a replica of Christ’s tomb. In some places the Roman outfits are replaced by sailor’s costumes or folk costume.
The re-enactment begins the day before Easter Friday. In groups of four, the men take it in turns to guard the “tomb” until midnight on Easter Saturday, when the Holy Vigil is held. In the Bible story, the Roman guards sent to prevent Jesus’s body being removed from its tomb and the women who had come to anoint his body were terrified when a strong earthquake struck and an angel appeared, after which they found the door to the tomb open and the body no longer inside. This scene is shown in the dramatisation.
The žudije is a tradition widespread in Dalmatia since the late 19th century, with every parish developing its own variation. This festival started in the coastal town of Vodice in 2001 as a way of celebrating and preserving those traditions. Žudije groups from all over Dalmatia gather in a different parish every year, but every sixth year they return to Vodice where the festival began. This year the Žudije Festival will be held in Oklaj, Šibenik Knin County on Easter Monday, April 22nd.