Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Easter in New Mexico


The main event at Marsha’s family’s Easter gathering was the egg fight.

The sparring match involved knocking a hard-boiled, colored egg against that of your opponent until one of them cracked. The player with the intact egg then took on another opponent and so forth. The final winner was the one person whose egg didn’t crack – in this case the red one.

Although Irish/Italian Jim had never seen or heard of this Polish tradition – it is not unique to just the Kosinski family or their former homeland. The practice is said to have started during medieval times in Europe and is variously known as “egg tapping,” “egg knocking,” “egg picking,” “eiertikken” (the Netherlands), “Koni-juj” (India), “epper” (Central Europe) and “tsougrisma” (Greece.)

New Mexican families also practice a similar, but less violent, Easter tradition. They paint and decorate empty eggshells, refill them with small pieces of colored paper and seal them up with tape or tissue paper. The confetti-filled eggs are known as “cascarones." On Easter Sunday or soon thereafter those eggs get cracked over the heads of unsuspecting (or maybe not so unsuspecting) family members and friends. The word cascarone comes from the Spanish word “cascara,” which means eggshell.

“People will start saving cascarones early before the Lenten season,” says retired professor Juan López. “Then the family will gather a week or two before Easter with the kids to decorate them.”

The idea started in Asia, where the eggs were filled with perfumed powder. Explorer Marco Polo brought the custom to Italy from where it spread to Spain and finally Mexico in the mid-1800s.

Like so many other Old World traditions the practice came to New Mexico with travelers along El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The Royal Road of the Interior Land) according to former TV reporter Carla Aragón. Aragón celebrated the custom with her family as a child but with an added component – dance. She wrote a children’s book on the subject in 2010 called “Dance of the Eggshells (Baile de los Cascarones).”

“In the old days, people would not eat meat for all of the Lenten season,” Aragon said. “What they did to get protein was make a lot of egg dishes. They also couldn’t dance (during Lent.”  A week after Easter northern New Mexicans would get together to celebrate and take joy in being allowed to once again dance. “If you want to ask someone to dance, you break an egg on their head,” Aragón said. “It’s said the people with the most confetti in their hair are the most popular dancers.” The La Sociedad Folklórica group in Santa Fe has tried to preserve this tradition by hosting an annual Baile de los Cascarones. For the event, the group makes cascarones that are sold during the dance.

But here in deeply Catholic New Mexico Easter obviously has more serious and spiritual traditions.

Holy Week is the most important part of the year for many Los Hermanos Penitentes (a Catholic order of lay men who provide community service, mutual aid and community charity – as well as sometimes practicing physical acts of penance and atonement.)  During the week before Easter members are praying the rosary with the community, participating in Mass at the local Catholic church, and serving dinner for their neighbors. But at certain times during the next few days, the doors of their meetinghouses close and the brothers retreat inside by themselves to take part in their secret, sacred rituals.

According to Huffington post, “Unlike the very public penances conducted in other parts of the world, such as the crucifixions that occur every year in the Philippines, the brotherhood in New Mexico gathers inside small, windowless buildings, called moradas...sacred spaces where the men of the community meet to conduct religious rituals.

In 2014 NPR reported, “They typically sing alabados [ancient Spanish hymns about life, death and piety that they've helped preserve] at wakes...and during Holy Week services like this one. Alabado comes from the Spanish verb alabar — to praise. "We say alabado, but it's really a longer phrase — it is Alabado sea Dios o Alabado sea el Señor," says A. Gabriel Melendez, a professor of American studies at the UNM in Albuquerque and a Penitente brother himself. "It would be translated 'Praised be the Lord, praised be God.’ "

“As the Tenebrae service [a ceremony observed during the final part of Holy Week] nears midnight, all of the candles have been extinguished. In the darkness, the oratorio smells of wood smoke, and there's a feeling of suspense. Then, just after midnight, the brothers create – in sound – the moment when Jesus died, with a cacophony of yelling, noisemakers and drums. Despite the late hour when the alabados have lulled everyone into spiritual serenity, the cacophony startles the congregation.

"’When I sing an alabado it's a moment in which I am at the doorway, at the boundary line between the present and the eternal,’ Melendez says. There is a funeral-hymn alabado that is sung in the voice of the deceased. ‘This life is a riddle,’ it goes. ‘And it keeps us in a dream. And we invent amusements, in order to support the pain.’”

And there is one other New Mexican Easter tradition, which while it is conducted largely in public is nonetheless intensely private – the pilgrimage to Chimayó Chapel.

“The Santuario de Chimayó is an adobe church nestled in the dusty hills of New Mexico north of Santa Fe. Each year during the week before Easter, the secondary roads winding through these hills toward Chimayó are filled with pilgrims. Some may walk only the seven miles from Española, others thirty miles from Santa Fe. A few will have walked more than seventy miles, all the way from Albuquerque. It is estimated that more than 60,000 pilgrims come to Chimayó during Easter week, making this the largest ritual pilgrimage in the United States.” (pluralism.org)

The sanctuary is a place of healing, sometimes referred to as the “Lourdes of the Southwest.” The Pueblo Indians of this region long believed the mud springs at Chimayó to be a sacred, therapeutic place. Then, according to local legend, on Good Friday early in the 1800s a Spanish villager found a cross buried in the earth in this space. He brought the cross to his local priest, but the cross disappeared. Again the villager found it in the earth at Chimayó. The villagers took this as a sign to build a church, which was completed around 1815. Hispanics and Native Americans have come here on pilgrimage for over a century.

Elementary school teacher Anne Probst trekked the final eight miles of the journey carrying on her back a hand-carved statue of the crucifixion that was made by her ailing father. “There are healing powers here, and there is meditation and prayer on the walk,” she said.

At the shrine, the faithful duck their heads and file through a low doorway into a room adjacent to the chapel with a small open pit of dirt that some say has curative powers (tierra bendita.) Pilgrims and other visitors kneel to scoop the earth into plastic bags, ambling by the hundreds through a narrow passageway lined with cast-off crutches that bear testimony to healing.

2020’s and this year’s pilgrimages were cancelled due to Covid.

Other public events with private meanings occur at some of the nineteen Pueblos of New Mexico. Many of the Native’s traditional religious rituals and feasts were co-opted by the Spanish Franciscan missionaries into Catholic practices and beliefs during the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, as we have mentioned before, many Pueblo Indians profess to practicing both Catholicism and their tribal faith. At Easter several Pueblos decorate their churches and hold their Basket and Corn Dances, which are generally open to the public to observe, with no explanations as to what is happening or being symbolized.

We ourselves have not yet been to any of the aforementioned events. Some we would not consider watching – feeling it would be intrusive on our part.

However, if someday you should choose to take part then remember one important thing. Never let someone break an Easter egg on your head if their last name ends in “ski.”

So “Wesołych Świąt Wielkanocnych,” “Felices Pascuas,” or just plain “Happy Easter” – depending of course on how you like your eggs prepared.

1 comment:

Bram said...

We were worried by all kinds of shiny things in the grass the Monday after, walking the dog through the local park. Closer inspection led us to believe there were Easter celebrations there.

Also, New Year's in Oaxaca. Breaking eggs on unsuspecting heads.