S is 54, he lived in England where his mother is from for the first ten years of his life before his family moved to California. He is soft spoken and pauses thoughtfully while speaking. He told me about this Easter tradition of a cake his mother used to bake.
“And then this is something my mom did… I’ve never heard it done anywhere else… for Easter she would bake a cake and make eleven marzipan eggs and put them on top of it… and it represented each of the disciples… except for Judas (laughs). I think it was a white cake… or I think a plain yellow… we always went outside and took an Easter picture with one of us five kids holding the cake.”
When I researched this, I found that this is a traditional cake known as a Simnel Cake. This tradition goes back to medieval times and started out as something more like bread than cake. Simnel comes from the Latin Simila – a fine white flour. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was something more like pudding. It wasn’t until the 19th century that it became recognizable as cake and the marzipan eggs don’t appear until the 20th century. It is described as a fruit cake, but lighter than the traditional Christmas version. S didn’t mention fruit in the one his mom used to make, but the white cake would have been in line with the original use of fine white flour. For more information and a recipe please see https://britishfoodhistory.com/2018/03/19/simnel-cake/
Background: The informant is a 26 year old female who lives in a suburb of Chicago. She was born and raised around the city with her grandparents, mother, and younger brother. Her grandparents, immigrants from Mexico, imparted most of their knowledge to the informant.
Context: The context was in a phone call, and the informant was asked if she knew any traditions surrounding Mexican folklore. She barely took a moment to think before she was recounting a very common experience happening to her as a child.
VA: When I was younger, the most common thing I can think of, is getting rubbed down by an egg would soak up the evil eye.
Me: Any specific type of egg?
VA: Not that I know of. We always just used chicken eggs.
Me: So, it would basically just be your family would rub the egg on you? Who would be the egg-rubber?
VA: Someone wise would usually do it. I’m not sure what qualities someone has to be the, uh, egg-rubber. I remember that my grandfather did it for us [informant and her brother].
Me: Is there anything else you would do?
VA: Yeah, after you rub it down on someone and soak up the evil eye… Afterwards, you crack the egg into a glass of water. So, the bad stuff can’t get out. It’s called oomancy.
Informant: The egg and the evil eye are a staple from her childhood. They still believe in the concept and it ties her back to her grandfather, who would always rub her with the egg.
Mine: I’ve never heard about the tradition with the egg, but it is apparently prevalent in Latin American cultures. It ties back into the elder being the wisest and the carrier of most of the traditions of a particular group. In the case of the informant, her grandfather would always be the one to perform the tradition, and in the process, he was imparting the knowledge he knew onto her and her younger sibling. I would suspect an egg is used to seep out the evil eye because an egg is commonly associated with purity, and by touching a dark thing with a pure thing, it will cancel each other out. Also, the egg has a hard shell and, as such, if the evil is taken within, the hard shell functions as a prison, and keeps the spirit within, until it is able to be cracked in the cup. I would think the wate functions similar to holy water and burns out the evil spirit.
(above image is taken from the informant’s Instagram with their consent. It was posted February 4, 2018)
Note: The tradition was performed by the 18 year old informant (notated I), while the further explanation was supplied by her mother (notated M).
Performance: This tradition was performed on February 4, 2022 by the 18 year old informant. Further information was collected over a phone call March 4, 2022.
Transcript of the informant explaining the performance:
[Note: the informant didn’t really explain the tradition in detail because it was something I already knew about. In essence it’s the balancing of eggs on the 4th or 5th day of Chinese New Year, however the informant does it every February 4th for convenience. Further detail can be found in the transcript from my conversation with the informant’s mother.]
I: um like, and I only like, we never like did it every year until a couple years ago, but like it was a long time ago since we were still living in that old house, um it’s like a fun good luck thing, and I get to do a fun thing for Chinese New Year that I understand and don’t have to speak Chinese for it AND I get to, it’s always been like a fun thing to include other people on. Because, like, I post on Instagram and half the people are like oh my god it’s f***ing egg day and the other half are like what is happening, what is egg day, why is everybody in on this?
And then, y’know, when I came here [Australia], two people were like what the f*** are you doing? and I was like balancing eggs do you want to balance eggs? and they were like kind of. So, I don’t know, it’s also something you can use to connect with people. And be like “this is a fun culture thing.” I don’t know, I just enjoy it. It’s a fun way to connect with my culture. But like, in a very, un-serious way.
And it’s not like a *super important cultural practice*, y’know? So, it really is like anybody can do it.
Transcript of the informant’s mother explaining additional information about the tradition:
Me: What is the name of the tradition, and what’s its origin?
M: Origin, Chinese. The name is call 立春 (Lìchūn)
M: Spring time (春Chūn) is in the middle. Li (Lì立) is like you stand straight. that’s called li.
[FROM LATER IN THE TRANSCRIPT]
M: I don’t think this is from like, from China. I think China people don’t do that though I don’t know why. This is more like Taiwan people do that, Hong Kong, of course Malaysia, right. Singapore. I don’t know, I kind of shocked when I asked my neighbor, she’s from Shanghai. She said she never did it. Maybe is not from China, I don’t know, but Hainam, the Hainamese do that.
What is the origin or meaning behind this tradition?
W: So we do that on…the the the meaning behind doing this is just to start, it means that the new, the spring day is coming. Is a new day, so for a new year, so that’s why Chinese doing it on the Lunar calendar New Year, um usually count it like fifth days, fourth or 5th days after the Chinese New Year, count it, start from the first day. And, lichun leans that in the old time, all the farmer right? So when it’s time to plant, that is when they do this, is called lichun. Lichun is just to like, to tell that it’s time to plant and that it’s spring time.
so this standing the eggs thing is just a…they believe the Earth is tilted on that particular day, that is straight. straight down like this that means it balance on both sides right. And somehow, I don’t know when it started, that they tested it… you can actually balance, because egg is the only thing that is not, you know, that is impossible to stand an egg. but on that day, actually they tried it, it worked, so it’s proof that the Earth is actually really straight and with the strong gravity. So we do that, then of course why they say do that is because to bring good luck in, into your house, prosperities. so that’s why Chinese do that during Chinese New Year, and then during Chinese New Year you want to bring good luck, you want to bring money into your house, so doing that means that, so you stand an egg, means that if it happens, if you’re successfully, you can do it, means that you have good luck. Then you let it stand in your house. I always let it stand for 15 days because Chinese New Year is 15 days so-
I: It means I have great luck.
M: So Chinese New year is always 15 days, right? And so a lot of celebration going on the 7 day, the 15 days, it depends on what you origin from. So like you’re Hawkin you do it differently, if you are Hainamese you do it differently, so all of it if you are different province you have different belief.
This tradition is particularly fascinating to me, because it displays an awareness that the Earth is not perfectly upright. While this tradition fulfills typical traits of many Chinese New Year traditions – an association with good fortune, it also differs greatly by balancing eggs. While the informant’s mother said that they balance eggs on this particular day because eggs are not perfectly round (and are difficult to balance), I also wonder if it’s because eggs are supposed to be a potential reflection of the world balancing on this particular day. Many ideas of world eggs are discussed in Venetia Newall’s Easter Eggs. While none of them particularly match Egg Day, they share an idea of an egg as something greater than just an egg.
Additional Notes: For additional discussions of Eggs and their significance to folklore, go to: Newall, Venetia. “Easter Eggs.” In The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 80, No. 315. (Jan. – Mar., 1967), pp. 3-32.
G: Bà Âu Cơ, nghe nói là đẻ ra một bọc. Trong bọc nó nở một trăm cái trứng. Ông Lạc Long Quân lấy bà Âu Cơ, get ready với bà Âu cơ. Đẻ ra một trăm trứng. Một trăm trứng đó nó ra một trăm người con. Những người con đó, sau lớn lên, mỗi người… lớn lên thì mỗi người ngự trị một vùng… giống người ở bắc, người ở nam, người ở trung, người thì ở xa xôi trên rừng núi, còn người thì xuống biển. Năm mươi người con lên rừng, và năm mươi người con xuống biển. Tức là vùng biển. Rồi mới sinh ra những người trên rừng đó thì mới lập ra những, cũng như là vùng thượng du, rồi cao nguyên, này kia. Năm mươi người con xưống biển, thì ở những cái vùng thấp đồng bằng giống như mình.
Translation: “Lady Âu Cơ, I heard that she birthed a pouch. Inside the pouch was one hundred eggs. Sir Lạc Long Quân married Lady Âu Cơ, get ready with Lady Âu Cơ. She gave birth to one hundred eggs. From those one hundred eggs emerged one hundred children. Those children, when they grew up, each child… when they grew up, each child came to rule a certain area… like the people from the North, people from the South, people from the central area, those people split up far from each other, some living in the jungle while others lived by the sea. Fifty people went to live in the jungle, while fifty people went to live by the sea. That is the sea. When the children were born and came to live in and rule the jungle, they established the Northern region, then the highlands, and things like that. Fifty of the other children who lived by the sea, established the lowland Delta region who we are today.
My informant is my grandmother, who was born and raised in Vietnam. She grew up in the Delta region of Vietnam, and first heard pieces of this creation myth from her father (my great-grandfather), but learned the long-form written version while she was in school. She explains that her father was told this story by his father, who was told the story from his father, and onwards. It is a story that is thus passed down from generation to generation, but also became a part of Vietnamese history taught in schools when my grandmother was in third grade. She likes this story because of the fond memories she has attached to it.
This is a transcription of a live conversation between my grandmother and I. I have been able to visit her from time to time during the pandemic and recorded this conversation during one of those visits.
The creation myth of Lady Âu Cơ can be complex and complicated, and this telling of it is a very simplified version of the myth. Many other details regarding the relationship between Âu Cơ and Lạc Long Quân were not included in my grandmother’s telling of the myth. One element that is not clearly explained is how Lady Âu Cơ is a fairy deity, while Lạc Long Quân is a dragon deity. Their separation then is due to the difference of their needs; Âu Cơ wanted to live in the mountains while Lạc Long Quân needed to live by the sea. Despite the simplicity of this telling, most of the main points of the myth are covered. That is, eggs often appear in creation myths due to their symbolism of life. Such is the case with this myth, in which the first people of Vietnam emerged from one hundred eggs. I love this story because it captures how different groups of Vietnamese people (those from the Delta and those from the Highlands) came to be through a loving relationship between two deities. One note to make about myths and legends is how their classification depends on the storyteller’s belief. For my grandmother, this is a sacred creation myth that details how the Vietnamese people came to be. For me, who was not raised with the story, it is more of a legend.
NM (49) is a Massachusetts native living in California. He commits to a regular exercise routine and owns/operates a metal decking supply firm. NM enjoys strategy games, world news/current events, and participates in a weekly chess match with friends.
Context of Interview
The informant, NM, is met in his garden by the collector, BK, his nephew. They speak poolside.
BK: How about folk objects? Often these are handmade crafts, with a long tradition.
NM: Well, my mother is almost a professional Ukrainian egg [maker]. You’ve seen her eggs?
BK: Can you speak to those a little bit?
NM: I think she picked that up completely on her own. It was not something her family did. I think one of her friends introduced her to it. But yeah, I mean, the way it works is you’ve got these small little, little scooping tools that you heat up in a candle, scoop up a little bit of wax. And then if the metal of the scooper is heated up there’s a small pin for coal at the other end of the scoop. So then you’re drawing on an egg with that melted wax in a pattern, and then you’d dye-in a particular column. Let’s say you wanted to dye it blue, and then you wanted to heat up your little tool, the wax melts, and color in the triangle [with wax] that you wanted to remain blue. Then you’re dipping again in another color, so you’re losing whatever didn’t get covered in wax.
NM: So you’re starting off, you know, there’s some planning obviously going on if you’re– if the base color, the whole thing is red, you started with the red egg, and then you’ll have to cover the whole egg with wax and leave a couple [sections open to be re-dyed]. Yeah, like I know [my mother] has one that’s like red, white, and black. So she would have needed to make parts that she wanted to stay white. Make that design. Dip the whole thing in red. Then color all that in, in, in wax to keep the red and then leave little strips if she wanted those black and then dip that last bit in black.
NM: That’s my basic understanding but she’d do it with a full egg, not hard-boiled. And then after it was the way you wanted it, you would take this little contraption that would poke a hole in the bottom and suck out the goop, and put a shellac on it. And then hope the cat doesn’t jump up on the table and knock the basket onto the ground and break them all. Because it happened a couple times.
BK: Oh my gosh, how long would one take to make?
NM: Yeah, I mean, it depends on the time she had. But I think if you were dedicated to it on just the weekends. Yeah, weeks. Yeah, cuz it’s, I think, yeah, because it’s slow. It’s kind of slow work getting the wax. And they would actually, my sister would know, too, because they both did it. But my mom was, you know, [my sister is] pretty good at it, too. But my mom was really good at it. And I was little, so I wasn’t really ever paying attention to how long it took. But I think it would take a while. And maybe she’d have a couple going at once, where you’d get a basic pattern going. And what made it easier, were a lot of thick, elastic, rubber bands, so that you could create, you know, you put a thick elastic rubber band around, then you would have a guide that you could follow with your wax. So I think that helped a lot in some of the patterns. But it’s still very time-consuming. I don’t know if that’s big in New England or if she just took a little class on Ukrainian egg making.
The process of Ukrainian egg making is laborious and time-consuming, but the end result is more than beautiful. Their traditional nature adds to their value, but NM’s mother’s involvement calls the value into question. As NM mentions, his mother “picked up” Ukrainian egg making. Their family is mostly Irish; this was not a tradition that was “theirs” or passed down. So, are her Ukrainian eggs still “valid”?
In the case study of the New Mexican Natives selling traditional jewelry at the portal, the courts decided that such “appropriation” would not be supported or protected. But in that case, non-natives were looking to sell native-passing works. NM’s mother does not sell her eggs, though she may gift them. Though I, a non-Ukrainian, take no issue with her hobbyist involvement, I am curious to hear a Ukrainian perspective.
Pictured Below: Two of NM’s Mother’s Ukrainian Eggs