The Pennsylvania Dutch Easter Spirit
© Copyright 2018 by Richard Orth
A Dutch woman in the greater Oley Valley area dyeing Easter eggs and onion shells on her corn-fed stove. Simply marked by turn of the century photographer, H. Winslow Fegley, “A Dutch woman dyeing Easter Haas eggs with onion shells,” Fegley took many photos in the Oley Valley area of Berks County. Was this farmwoman one of our past residents? Photo courtesy of the Schwenkfelder Library Archives, Pennsburg, PA
Of the various seasons of the year there is none so nostalgic or enchanting to the rural Pennsylvania Dutch than that of Easter. Perhaps almost everyone in America with an agrarian past feels the innate excitement of this time of the year as we anxiously await the rebirth of the earth. Long winter months, which in the past found our ancestors busily practicing folk crafts and arts as an interlude to their year-long lives as tillers of the land, are not much different from today's. As daylight begins to linger in the waning winter weeks our senses become aware of the gradual renewal of spring life, which is otherwise so taken for granted were there not a phenomenon known as winter.
To the folk mind it is all but impossible to separate the splendor of mother nature from the magnificence of God. Whether by accident or by Christian tradition, the Dutch celebrations of this time of the year in Pennsylvania are a classical example of folk cultural anthropology. Starting with Shrove Tuesday, March 6, and ending with Ascension Day (40 days after Easter) the customs of the rural Dutch follow a pattern of folk religion which is lost in antiquity.
Shrove Tuesday Before Ash Wednesday
The day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent is Shrove Tuesday. This day folk custom decrees that the housewife use up as much lard as possible, for the use of lard will be forbidden in the forthcoming Lenten season. Somewhere, in ages past, the custom therefore evolved that a deep fried "cake" made from raised dough be used for the purpose. This cake, made with a potato yeast, was called by the early Dutch a “fawsenacht.” There is however a considerable disagreement among the present-day Dutch as to whether the original fawsenachts were made with yeast. In Lehigh County, for example, many state that cream is to be used and that the cake is not to be raised. For the most part the Dutch in the Oley Valley and the remaining Dutch in Lehigh state that the potato yeast combination is vital to the difference as to whether the cake is a fawsenacht or a dull doughnut.
Whatever the case may be, thousands of Dutch still awake Shrove Tuesday morning to the haunting smell of fresh deep-fried fawsenachts being prepared in the kitchen for breakfast. There is a tradition on this day that the last person out of bed be called a "fawsenacht," usually in jest, for the rest of the day. This folk custom would lead one to believe that fawsenachts were probably always made with raised dough, since housewives prepare the dough the day before Shrove Tuesday and get up early to fry them on Tuesday morning.
Special Powers of Fawsenacht Lard
Our ancestors, who may not always have had a sense of time, through folk customs were reminded of their responsibilities. The lard with which the fawsenachts were fried, no longer usable during Lent, became part of a folk practice itself. The legend is that if one greases the farm machinery, etc., with Fawsenacht lard this lubricant will be superior to any other. Was there some kind of religious significance to this? Or did our frugal ancestors refuse to simply discard the lard? Then again, what a wonderful way to have lazy prone farmers encouraged to begin to look after their machinery for the oncoming spring planting which might otherwise be left to the last minute. Ash Wednesday in the Dutch culture has the religious significance to it found almost anywhere with the exception of the fact that the last person to get out of bed
on this day is called the "escha-puddel," ash-pile. Then again, there were plenty of fawsenachts left over from the day before. Come to think of it, there was sometimes an abundance that reached into the next week!
Saint Patrick's Day Tradition
Ironically enough, the Dutch, who were usually suspicious of the Irish, did attach significance to Saint Patrick's Day. As part of the entire scope of God and nature, March 17th was traditionally the day when every self-respecting Dutch farmer planted his onions and peas outside in the garden. Inside hot-beds were prepared for tomatoes and cabbage plants. To the folk mind there was no hesitation as to whether the weather was right for planting---this was the day to do it and it was done as religiously as taking Holy Communion. In fact, in the folk culture there is an expression for any snow that falls after March 17th, and that is known as an "onion snow." Optimistically, the onion snows re to be only a scant amount, but this was not always the case.
Living in a time with no refrigeration and vegetable imports from warmer climates, these pioneers were similar to the seafaring crews of the day that suffered unbalanced diets, especially fresh vegetables. When the first signs of spring therefore became evident, our clever ancestors turned to the young, newly-rejuvenated dandelion plant. To this day, in the earliest part of spring, one can see cars parked along rural lanes where individuals are seeking fresh-growing dandelion. It has become so much a tradition among the folk that the Thursday before Good Friday has been called Grie(ner) or "Green" Thursday. On this day one is supposed to eat something green. Again, this an excellent reminder to the country folk of the absence of fresh vegetables in their winter diet and the need to indulge in the offerings of spring. There is hardly an Easter dinner in the Dutch Country that does not have a hot dandelion salad smothered with sliced hard-boiled Easter eggs. The hunting of the dandelion is a spot in which the entire family participates, and the ensuing dinner is quite a reward.
Good Friday Work Taboos
Good Friday is certainly a day of religious remembrance among the Dutch, and one cannot forget, for there is a taboo of any kind of work. Tradition proclaims that on Good Friday you cannot sew any crops, plow any land, or even work in the house, Crops sown on Good Friday will not come above ground, and anything assembled will
probably fall apart. If one eats an egg laid on this day for breakfast, he or she will have good health. With the awakening of Mother Nature in spring out of doors, there is an equally interesting creation indoors. Where the hens had not been laying too frequently because of the molting season, they were now indeed laying quite well.
Children following their appointed task of collecting the eggs knew of the disappointment of the mother in the lack of eggs for baking and the market. Since eggs were scarce from the low production of the winter months, they brought a very fine price in the market. However, the devilish Dutch children, instead of bringing in the increasing daily amounts of eggs, decided children would Bring into the house such an abundance of eggs that it would indeed seem as though happy days were here again! By the contrary-minded mother, the idea was not too well liked, but there would be certainly enough eggs for Easter.
The Pennsylvania Dutch Easter Haas Eggs
Perhaps it is with the lack of refrigeration that the practice of boiling eggs became so prevalent at this time of the year. The most common way to dye traditional Pennsylvania Dutch Easter "haas" eggs is to boil them in water mixed with a quantity of dried onion shells. The resulting color, if one uses Rhode Island hen eggs, is chocolate brown. Various other natural dyes gave any number of colors. The crowning achievement in decoration was not the color, but scratching a design into the shell of the egg with a pen-knife. The mere fact that the Easter egg is traditionally laid by a "rabbit" called in Dutch a "haas" is another tribute to spring with the mobility of this animal in preparing its nest for new generations of its kind. Where the custom originates, I do not know. The tradition that the Dutch "haas" eggs children look for the nests filled with Easter " on Easter Sunday an enchanting practice long established.
Well, we have planted our onions, but what about the corn? The folk calendar-oriented Dutchman say that when the "Dogwood" tree blooms, it is time to plant the field corn. By this time, spring is well under way and the Dutchman is glad that he had a head start by remembering to look after his equipment with the leftover fawsenacht lard. Forty days after Easter is Ascension Day. Like Good Friday, this is a day when one cannot work, but should turn to thoughts of the Divine. Often boys will go fishing and adults to markets or farm sales. While attending a farm sale in Lehigh County one time I was surprised to hear the auctioneer announce that none of the farm machinery could be moved off the premises that day, since it was Ascension Day. This day is also a time when mushrooms are sought. Fawsenachts, fresh dandelion, Good Friday eggs, fishing pole, and a gently flowing stream; these are the traits of a people in love with God’s earth and of life of which defies description unless you experience it.For nearly 25 years, I worked in field research and museum exhibits with the American Folklife Institute, located in historic Kutztown, Berks County, of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country.