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Friday, April 22, 2011

Jarping, Dunshing, and Just Having Fun

Pace eggs, image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The world "pace" comes from the old English word "pasch" for Easter.  In the north of England people make pace eggs, boiling them with onion skins, sometimes tying colored wool yarn around them.  These eggs are used in egg jarping, another word for egg tapping.

Competition eggs are numbered.
Image courtesy of The Northern Echo.

Pace eggs are distributed to players who hit each others' eggs with their own.  The person with the last intact egg is the winner.  There is a world championship held every year by the WEJA (World Egg Jarping Association) at the Peterlee Cricket Club in Peterlee, County Durham.  Last year's winner had only jarped or dunshed for the second time, but had been practicing by boiling at least two dozen eggs a week to try different methods.  There were only 16 competitors last year, but the event conflicted with another one, according to organizers.  Contestants in past years have come from as far as South Africa.

2009 World Champion, Ann Watson.
Image courtesy of The Northern Echo.

Competition rules state that the competition eggs must be boiled in the same container on Easter Sunday evening.  They cannot be tampered with.  In the past contestants have tried strengthening the eggs by dipping them in beer, painting with nail polish, rubbing in hair cream, or warming them.  The players got a free egg supper, salt and pepper courtesy of the club.  The entrance fee is usually £1. Proceeds from the event go to support cancer research.

Larry Mason and a female competitor at the 2009 contest.
Image courtesy of The Northern Echo.

According to Roy Simpson, WEJA chairman, "We just thought that everything at Easter was being aimed at the kids and it was time we did something for the grown-ups.  It's a daft little tradition, it does no one any harm and it raises a few bob for charity."

Pace egg plays are also an old tradition from the Middle Ages.  They were traditional village plays that once were performed all over England, but now are seen in a few areas, Lancashire and West Yorkshire particularly.  These short (sometimes just ten minutes) plays are a contest of light against dark, spring against winter, usually with St. George smiting all challengers.  In this rebirth scene, and hence its ties to Easter, the hero is killed and a doctor brings him back to life, often a quack doctor.

The words in the plays are probably 17th century, but the action has a longer history.  Only men perform them, no females.  The resurrection of the hero is thought to be the case of the winter and spring rising to fight another day.  Or year.

A Pace Egg Play from 2006.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Many areas ceased putting on the plays after WWI, when many men were killed. The Bury Pace Eggers (the name of the acting company) were revived in 1969. They perform in squares and pubs in town and sometimes in nearby villages over Easter weekend.  In West Yorkshire the plays have been going on for hundreds of years and are part of the Good Friday tradition.

However you plan to observe the Easter season, know that your ancestors probably observed some sort of Vernal celebration even thousands of years ago. Life goes on, and life changes.  Happy Spring!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Easter Games

Pope Gregory I by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1626-1627.
Oil on canvas, courtesy of the Museo Provincial
de Bellas Artes, Seville, Spain.

Pope Gregory I (circa 540 - 604 CE) is famous for, among other things, sending out a mission - the Gregorian mission - to evangelize the pagan Anglo-Saxons.  He ordered his missionaries to take their religious rites and festivals and incorporate them into Church rituals.  The mission was successful, and from England missionaries went to Germany and the Netherlands to continue their work.  Of course, the pagan festival of Eostre fit in nicely with the Christian celebration of the Resurrection of Christ.

In England, Germany, and other European countries, it was a tradition for children to roll eggs down hillsides.  Whatever its original meaning was, it began to signify the rolling of the boulder from the tomb of Jesus.  In most countries, a prize is awarded to whoever's egg rolls the furthest.  In Egypt children bowl with them, rolling red and yellow eggs toward a row of eggs.  Whoever cracks one egg gets them all.

The White House Easter Egg Roll in 2007.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the U.S., children use a spoon to "egg" the eggs on.  The White House hosts an annual Easter Egg Roll on the lawn.  Dolly Madison is credited as starting the event in 1814, on the grounds of the Capitol building.  In 1877 a new lawn was planted and the event was cancelled.  Congress then passed a law forbidding the use of the grounds for children's play.  Then President Rutherford B. Hayes brought the event to the White House lawns.  It wasn't held during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, but was brought back by Mamie Eisenhower who also opened the event to black children for the first time.  In 2009 President Barack Obama formally invited same-sex couples and their children to the Easter Egg Roll, although same-sex families had attended before.

"Beim Eierhärten" - German egg tapping.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Egg tapping is another tradition, also known as dumping, shackling, or jarping. This involves attempting to tap the hard-boiled eggs of others with your own without cracking yours.  In Holland the game is called eiertikken.  In Bulgaria it is believed that the winner will have good health for the year, and the first painted red egg may be preserved until the next Easter as an icon of good health and good luck.  The Greeks call it tsougrisma, which means to clink together.  Even in the U.S., the state of Louisiana has a tradition of pocking eggs, which is a serious competition.  So serious that those involved know which breeds of chickens lay eggs with tougher shells and when.  Chickens are fed calcium-rich foods and are exercised and kept healthy.  Even how the egg is boiled is important - tips must be down in the pan so that the air pocket is in the wider end.

The red egg is the winner!  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
An interesting custom is the egg dance.  Eggs are placed all over the floor, and the object is to dance among them without breaking any.  An 1895 issue of The American Magazine described an egg dance held in 1498.  Eggs were scattered over a level surface covered with sand and a young couple holding hands danced. If they finished the dance without breaking any eggs, they were betrothed, and no one could oppose the marriage.  (Klutz that I am, I am sure I'd still be single if this were still a requirement!)

The Egg Dance by Pieter Aertsen, 1552.
Image courtesy the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

There was also a game/dance where one had to roll an egg out of a bowl keeping within a circle on the floor, using the feet without touching other objects on the floor.  Then the dancer had to flip the bowl over and cover the egg, again with feet only.  It is depicted in the image above.  In England the dancing was done by hopping and it was sometimes referred to as the hop-egg.  Perhaps because of its silliness, the word "hop" became a pejorative for a dance.

Dancing on one foot was a specialty of women dancers called hoppesteres according to Chaucer.  In the 18th century blindfolded egg dances were popular.  One of these dances was the hornpipe, a traditional Irish dance, one of which is the sailors' hornpipe, as seen below:

Sailors' Hornpipe in 1928, image courtesy of AP.

And last but not least is the egg hunt, where eggs are hidden for children to find.  This can be done indoors or outdoors, and real, plastic, or chocolate eggs can be used.  Prizes are often given for a number of different things - who found the most eggs, the largest, the smallest, etc.  In some parts of Europe the placement of the eggs is meant to be difficult for the hunters, and may be placed among thorns or some other hard-to-get place.  According to Guinness World Records, the largest Easter egg hunt was held in 2007 at the Cypress Gardens Adventure Park in Winter Haven, Florida.  9,753 children searched for 501,000 eggs.

Let's see...eating, artwork, dancing, games...sounds like a holiday to me, whatever religious twist you put on it.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Easter Eggs

Decorated eggs from the U.S.

Colored eggs have been associated with Vernal festivals since ancient times. Ancient Greeks and Romans used eggs as symbols of fertility, rebirth, and abundance.  This pagan symbol of the rebirth of the earth in celebration of spring was adopted by early Christians as a symbol of the resurrection of Jesus.  The egg had previously figured in the festivals of numerous resurrected gods, since it is dormant but has new life sealed within it.

The ancient Zoroastrians painted eggs for Nowrooz, their New Year celebration which falls on the Vernal equinox, making it now a tradition of approximately 2,500 years.  For the Passover Seder, also held in spring, hard-boiled eggs called Betzah are dipped in salt water which symbolizes the peace offerings sacrificed at the temple in Jerusalem.

My Greek mother always insisted on red eggs, and we tapped each other's eggs together to see whose cracked (more on cracking eggs tomorrow).  The Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches dyed their eggs red.  The red symbolizes the blood of Christ. One of the sacred traditions of Eastern Christianity is the story of Mary Magdalene bringing eggs to share with the other women keeping watch at the tomb of Jesus. When she saw the risen Christ, the eggs in her basket turned red. The egg also represents the boulder at the tomb, and the cracking of eggs symbolizes the resurrection.

Mary Magadalene holding a red Easter egg.

The Germans had a tradition of the Osterhas - the Easter bunny, which German settlers brought to the U.S.  Modern custom often uses chocolate eggs or plastic eggs filled with goodies, placed in baskets with artificial grass or straw to resemble a nest.  Tradition is to hide these eggs - real, chocolate, or plastic - for children to find on Easter morning.

Chocolate Eggs
REALLY good chocolate eggs - Cadbury.

Many countries have egg decorating traditions.  Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and other Slavic countries make them into works of art:

Belarusian eggs.
Embroidered eggs by a folk master from Ukraine - Inna Forostyuk.
Eggs from Serbia.
From the Czech Republic.

Eggs were forbidden food during traditional feast days in Western Christianity, and still are in Eastern Christian churches.  Both meat and dairy were forbidden, and eggs were considered dairy (a foodstuff from an animal gained without killing it). This included Lent.  Therefore, it was necessary to use up the egg supply before Lent.  Hence the name "Mardi Gras", or "Fat Tuesday", for the Tuesday before Lent -  all the eggs and dairy would have to be consumed by this day.  Since chickens cannot be told to stop producing for a while, their eggs would be boiled to prevent them from spoiling.

A hornazo - a type of meat pie made with hard-boiled eggs and often served
after Easter in parts of Spain.  There is a folk story that on Lent the prostitutes
of the town were sent away, so as not to distract the men from their  religious
observances.  On Monday, after Easter Sunday, the students would throw a
party celebrating the return of the prostitutes, and serve hornazo.

One of the most beautiful "art eggs" is any of the thousand or so made by Fabergé. The one below was commissioned by Czar Alexander III of Russia for his wife, Maria Fyodorovna...

This egg commemorates the 200th anniversary of the founding
of St. Petersburg.  It is made of red, green, and yellow gold,
platinum, diamonds, rubies, enamel, rock crystal, and watercolor
on ivory.  The paintings are by B. Baal, and the one shown is the
Winter Palace.  When the egg is opened a miniature of a famous
statue of Peter the Great appears.  Currently housed in the Virginia
Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia.  Height:  4.37 inches.

There are many other decorating styles, and also traditions for giving decorated eggs.  Sometimes they have been given as gifts in love, friendship or as tokens of esteem.  Below are a few more from other cultures as inspiration:

From France.
From Ukraine.
From Vienna, Austria.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Easter Bunny

"A Young Hare" by Albrecht Dürer, 1502.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

First of all, why a rabbit?  Most likely the animal selected to represent Easter was a hare, not a rabbit.  Hares are generally larger than rabbits, have longer ears, and black markings on their fur.  While rabbits have been domesticated and kept as pets, hares have not been.  But the major difference in regard to Easter is that hares do not bear their young in burrows like rabbits.  Rabbits must use underground warrens because their young are born hairless and blind.  Baby hares are born with fur and eyes open, and can function on their own quickly.  So they are born in forms, shallow depressions or flattened nests of grass.  Some birds lay their eggs in the grass, and that may account for the confusion as to who laid the eggs.

European Hare.

Hares are an ancient symbol among many cultures, from China to Peru.  They represent fertility (for obvious reasons) and especially the rising fertility of the earth in the spring.  The Vernal Equinox was considered an especially fecund time since it was thought that the male and female energies were balanced.  Both hares and rabbits can conceive a second litter while still pregnant with the first litter, and mature sexually at an early age, the perfect symbol of fruitfulness.

Hares are/were sacred to many cultures and often associated with lunar deities. Hares are often depicted in "moon gazing" poses.  In China, the hare was thought to be gazing up at his ancestors in the moon.  The goddess Eostre (there are various spellings) was a Saxon deity in the second century, and later was very popular with Germanic peoples.  They told their children about the Osterhas (hase means "hare" in German, and not "rabbit"), who brought gifts of colored eggs to good children.

"Ostara" as depicted by artist Johannes Gehrts in 1884.  She flies through the air
surrounded by angels as the Germanic people below gaze up at her.  Notice the
hare flying behind her, middle right of image.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Christian church was very clever in its proselytizing, and finding that while people were willing to accept another name for their gods, they were much more reluctant to give up their rituals.  So pagan practices were incorporated into Christian festivals.

Folklorists have been trying to tease the meaning out of the Easter bunny/eggs/celebration and it makes for interesting reading, although there is no consensus of opinion as to their origins.  In the next few days we'll look at Easter Eggs, Easter rituals, and other related topics.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Monday, April 18, 2011

It's Great and It's Gatsby

"It's hard to enjoy a party when you're being chased by 
wacky waiters, dizzy drinkers, and crazy dancers!  
Now you have to find Gatsby, the mysterious 
man you saw disappear on the hillside...or did he?"

Whilst booklovers and avid readers bemoan the introduction of the ebook and the loss of popularity of the real book, i.e. that physical object that requires the use of one's hands to advance the perusal of it, books live on in their roles as muses.

From the time that the first books inspired art, books continue to inspire new genres.  Radio, cinema, television, and now video games are born of books.  The latest sensation is a game based on that American classic, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel about the "Roaring 20s".  In this 8-bit video game, a throwback to 80s NES style, Nick Carraway fights his way through gangsters, flappers, ghosts, and evil eyes, energized with martinis and tossing his hat at them. If Nick dies you receive the message, "Game Over, Old Sport!

Rumor has it that the developers, Charlie Hoey and Pete Smith, found the 2D game at a yard sale for 50 cents, but that story is suspect.  The website states that it appeared to be an unreleased Japanese game called "Doki Dokki Toshokan: Gatsby no Monogatari".  But the real story seems to be that Hoey, a Gatsby fan and game developer, was playing with Photoshop when he came up with the idea for the game.  He worked with Smith and they created the game together.

They began work on it about a year ago, and put the game online on a Monday morning.  By Tuesday the number of requests to play it brought the site down. They considered developing a whole arcade of literary classics - Jane Eyre was next-in-line - but put the source code online for other developers to use instead. An earlier version of a Gatsby video game was panned, but this one has gone viral. The game can also be found on the Big Fish website, where you can play a free trial and/or buy it, but only for Windows.

Game cover.

This game seems to be following a trend.  A little over a year ago Dante's Inferno was made into a successful video game.  It took the idea of Dante's Hell - perfect for gaming with its monsters and all nine circles of Hell to explore.

In 2009, Don't Look Back came out, a retro platform game by Terry Cavanagh based on the Orpheus and Eurydice legend.  While receiving kudos for its presentation, many critics complained about its high difficulty level.

One of the latest to be released (last June) is Waiting For Godot, an interesting book to base a video game, as the play by Samuel Beckett involves two people waiting for a third - the mysterious Godot.  An absurdist play made into an absurdist game?

These games follow a long line of books made into video games, from classics like the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to the Berenstain Bears.  However most of the books that earlier video games are based on are already action-adventures, so its not much of a leap to an action-adventure game.  Some of these newer ones are based on "great books" - from the canons of literature - and thus are more unusual choices.  It remains to be seen how the popularity of these video games affects the popularity of the books they are based on.  But it's nice that classic books are still the basis of concepts in pop culture.  It speaks of their resiliency and impact.  A dubious future indeed, but if the circle goes round game players may want to read the real thing...

Images courtesy of their respective websites.