There was once a village world that lived more by the beliefs and superstitions left over from the ancestors than by church rules. Although it tried hard to stamp out ‘paganism’, the church ended up tacitly accepting it. So there wasn’t a day that went by without some prohibition, some custom that had to be observed, which, if not observed, risked bringing disease, drought, household poverty or poor harvests upon the community.
Today, almost all of these customs have been lost in the mists of time, but the objects collected over the years by the specialists of the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant and gathered in a “bouquet” called the Miscellaneous Collection (Customs) “speak” about them.
The collection contains around 8,000 items hoarded “in times of peace and war” and consists of painted eggs, folk masks (costume-masks and head masks), ceremonial props – from carol stars, sticks and buhaie (popular musical instruments consisting of a small leather-bottomed keeve through which a tuft of horse hair is pulled with moistened fingers, producing a sound similar to a bull’s bellow) to mărțișoare (small ornaments tied with a red and white braided thread, which are given as a gift as a sign of the arrival of spring, especially to women and girls on 1 March) and wedding and funeral textiles -, as well as musical instruments, household objects and decorative objects.
When Tancred Bănățeanu, the museum’s second director, grouped the museum’s existing patrimony into collections, the inventory register of the Miscellaneous Collection (Customs) was opened with objects representing painted eggs and folk masks made by skilled craftsmen for use during the winter holidays. Made of wood, fur, feathers or fabric, they have different meanings and cover the wearer’s head or body, shielding him from the eyes of others. Taking on new faces – of goats, bears, little horses, ugly men, doctors, old women, fathers, grooms, brides, etc. – the masked men and boys allow themselves to express themselves freely, without social constraints: they adopt a trivial language, mock the behaviour of the village, satirise their fellow villagers, but no one is offended and they all take part in the show.
In the 1990s, cardiologist Maria Zahacinschi and her husband, pharmacist Nicolae Zahacinschi – an Oltenian woman from Caracal and a man from Botoșani, Mihăileni – donated to the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant an impressive collection of about 3000 eggs, in addition to those already existing from the 1950s and 1960s. Thus, almost all the egg-painting centres in the country are represented: Argeș with Lerești, Corbi and Albeștii de Muscel, Olt with the well-known Oboga, Dâmbovița with Vișina, Arad, Botoșani with Mihăileni, Brașov with Bran and Poiana Mărului, Doljul with Drănic and Valea Stanciului, Vrancea with Nereju, Suceava with Ulma, Breaza, Vatra Moldoviței, Moldova-Sulița, Izvoarele Sucevei, Vatra Dornei.
Around them swirl legends, beliefs, techniques and motifs of egg-painting. For example, in Lerești, women used to paint eggs on Maundy Thursday, for fear of the “Joimărita” – a kind of tagster, who punished housewives who did not finish the hemp to be spun or the eggs to be coloured. They also kept an Easter egg, red and painted, which they put in the summer in the silkworm bed, so that the worms or the worms’ cocoons wouldn’t get sick.
In Bukovina, where there are eggs decorated both with colourful drawings and floral motifs – ouă închistrite and muncite (worked out), the latter reminding us of Christ’s Passions, the technique of painting is quite painstaking. Before anything else, the eggs are washed, degreased and placed next to the hearth to keep them warm. For the închistrite ones (with waxed contours), the housewife applies warm wax to the clean surface, using a waxing pen for the outlines of the design to remain white and a stick with a small rag at the end for the dots. Thus painted with wax, the eggs are then coloured as desired (red, yellow, green, blue, etc.) and boiled. The heat of the water melts the wax and red, yellow or green eggs remain, waxed with white figures. The muncite eggs are washed, degreased, hollowed out, waxed in white (wax is applied to the white surface) and put in yellow paint. After yellowing, they are waxed in yellow and put into red paint to turn red. The red waxing is repeated and it turns green and so on until the last desired colour is reached. When the eggs are removed from the last paint, being warm, they are wiped with a clean cloth and the different colours they were waxed with come out, and the field remains as it was the last colour. They are brushed with grease for shine.
As decoration on the surface of the eggs, simple motifs can be seen, ranging from lines, lozenges and flowers to complex motifs known by various names: ‘pig’s tusks’, ‘swirl’, ‘lost path’, ‘shepherd’s crutch’, ‘ram’s horns’, etc.
Following field research carried out between 1991 and 1992, in the locality of Brănești, near Bucharest, the collection was enriched with masks and costumes from the “Cuckoo’s Wing”, a spring custom practised in Bulgarian communities in our country. According to the tradition, young unmarried men dressed as “Cuci” or those who take part in their retinue, participated in a series of actions (sometimes quite aggressive) on the first day after the Shrovetide, aimed at purifying the space and ensuring the health of their fellow citizens. They would dress up in traditional costumes and add masks – spectacular “faces” made of cardboard and decorated with beads, mirrors, paper or rabbit fur.
The value of the collection is enhanced by the almost 500 objects that have been part of the Museum’s heritage since its early years. We mention here wedding headdresses that were presented at the Jubilee Exhibition of 1906, Banat oprege (embroidered rectangular and narrow aprons put over the skirt) worn and donated by Crown Princess Maria herself in 1907, embroidery donated by Mrs Maria Fălcoianu, president of the “Munca” Society, in 1907, the collection of ceramics from Cocioc donated by Ioan Kalinderu in 1911.