Czech Culture & Adaptation Holidays

The elusive white egg

March 29, 2013
Samuel, Oliver, and Anna painting easter eggs

Perfecting our Easter decorating skills

For the past several days, I’ve been scouring the supermarkets high and low for white eggs, the prized foundation of any good egg decorating endeavor. While everything from chocolates to margarine are being marketed in Easter packaging – white eggs have been nowhere to be found. I discovered that I could buy a dozen pre-decorated, brightly-hued, had-once-been-white eggs in a plastic case. But the act of decorating was really the point here, so, like the rest of the Czech shoppers I met in the egg aisle, I had to settle for brown eggs this year.

In hopes of finding the lightest brown eggs I could, I opened carton after carton, stopping only when Samuel threatened to climb out of the shopping cart and help me check too. Eventually we settled on a 10-pack of eggs and headed to check one more grocery on our way home. When chatting later with neighbors, I discovered that many of them decorate the brown eggs, since those are the easiest to find. I usually feel a bit more natural eating our brown-shelled eggs, but apparently there is no nutritional difference between brown and white shelled eggs. Nonetheless, for dyeing purposes, white eggs are definitely superior.

Each spring, my mother and sister-in-law faithfully send us an Easter package with the newest version of a PAAS brand egg dye kit. The children typically decorate Easter eggs in school, following the Czech technique of carefully painting fragile, blown-out eggs called kraslice. Each child is usually responsible for bringing in their own blown-out egg shells. In our house, Radek, is entrusted with the painstaking job of tapping the shells at either end and blowing out the innards. He often goes through one or two mishaps in the effort to produce two or three perfect ones. It seemed hard to me, but until this year, I’d never actually tried it.

For many years we’ve been too involved in spring’s arrival, getting the garden ready and preparing our indoor and outdoor Easter trees, to have time to dye eggs at home. Outdoors, the children decorate our Japanese cherry tree and another bush with brightly-colored plastic eggs. Inside, an Easter tree made from various small branches stuck together in a flower pot is displayed prominently in our front hall. Each year, the children and I gather branches and piece them together to hang our blown-out Easter egg collection. In addition to artisanal eggs, we have a variety of tiny, wooden rabbits, eggs, flowers and carrot ornaments and a dozen or so papier-mâché eggs that the children painted several years ago. Our tree isn’t high art, but it is a colorful symbol of Easter. This year, the children strung ribbons from their previous years’ pomlázka (braided pussy willow whip), adding an extra bit of Czech Easter to the tree.

Originally, the bulk of our egg collection was bought at local Easter markets. At Prague’s main Easter market on Old Town Square we watched the artisans paint the eggs as they sold them. Now our tree also holds several of the children’s blown-out eggs that they’ve decorated at school. These eggs have been either hand-painted, dipped in sparkly sand, painted with a picture screened onto the shell or painted then rubbed with sádlo (animal fat) for a glossy sheen. They are usually hung in pairs on a bright, checkered ribbon. This year, Anna’s teacher opted to use the old-fashioned method of coloring the eggs in boiling water using onion peels.

Years ago, Radek and I tried this technique with my aunt’s four children. I remember cutting stockings and stuffing the eggs wrapped in the onion peel down inside. The end results were a pretty marbled, auburn egg. The natural effect didn’t impress my young cousins who turned to their picnic table full of bright modern dyes for the “real” dying experience. The dye-packets available in the Czech Republic don’t seem to be as bright (perhaps not as artificial) as the PAAS packets my mom sends.

After another week of gray skies and snow flurries and our family still recovering from our flu epidemic, the children and I decided that white eggs or not, we’d spend the Wednesday before Easter decorating eggs. Initially, we tried the onion technique. Oliver helped peel a few onions and we wrapped the largest pieces of the skins around the egg. We then tucked this into a coffee filter and secured it tightly at the top with a rubber band. I added a bit of oil and a dash of vinegar to a pot of water and set it to boil. While the onion and egg boiled, we cooked up six more eggs to dye with our supply of PAAS colors. The children each chose the darkest dye tablets, in hopes that the “vibrant” colors promised in the instructions would be enough to soak into the brown egg shells. While they were happily messing with the dyes, I began my first attempt to “blow out” egg shells so that each child could have one keepsake egg to decorate.

Five eggs later, I had three successfully blown out shells and our lunch menu of scrambled eggs was prepped. We attached each egg to a paintbrush so the children could paint the egg on all sides without touching it. I was surprised that even toddler Samuel managed to hold his own egg and carefully paint it. The children took their time painting the eggs, and they seemed to enjoy the process of mixing colors and trying to produce their own designs, adding flowers and squiggly designs. Artisanal products they were not, still it gave me hope that we could continue the hand-painted egg tradition in the years to come. The PAAS eggs in contrast, were a bit of a bust on the brown eggs, but it was a fun experiment nonetheless.

I vaguely remember my German grandmother blowing out eggs to decorate with my aunt when I was a child. Nowadays, my mother always brings a few new kraslice back from her visits to the Czech Republic. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future she’ll be displaying eggs that her Czech grandchildren have decorated as well.

With a few days left until Easter Monday, the children have begun to ask whether we’ll have an Easter egg hunt in the garden, and when they’ll get to buy their pomlázka. Unless the weather improves, I’ve told them we’ll have our Easter Sunday egg hunt inside, in the playroom. As for their pomlázka, we haven’t ventured to the Easter markets in search of a pomlázka, yet, but a few of our neighbors typically braid their own willow branch whips. Although I’m not a fan of the whipping tradition, it is a part of the Czech heritage. I thought that if the boys learned to braid their own whips it might help tie the tradition back to its roots as a celebration of spring and fertility, rather than just a chance to brandish a long whip.

We plan to visit the Easter markets this Saturday, so if they don’t manage to braid their own whips by then, I’m sure they’ll find one there. I’m also curious to check out this year’s kraslice collection. Perhaps, I’ll buy a unique one to add to our collection, in hopes of one day replicating the technique myself.

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