Pocking Easter eggs
According to Christian tradition, the period of Lent, the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Day excluding Sundays, is marked by abstinence and self-denial in preparation for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Everyone knows that meat is prohibited on Fridays during this time, as was the case for all Fridays of the year in the past. In the Middle Ages, Catholics had to observe “lean days,” that is to say, going without meat, on Wednesdays, too, year round. Nowadays, especially in Acadiana where the seafood is so abundant and succulent, one might think that it is not a great sacrifice to replace a ham sandwich with five pounds of boiled crawfish, so much so that Pope Francis had to remind his flock about the spirit of penance that must accompany the Easter fasting. It is a time to reflect on the meaning of our mortality and the renewal of the spirit.
But what do all these religious and philosophical questions have to do with eggs? The next time you eat a seafood gumbo with boiled eggs, you need to be aware that eggs were also forbidden during Lent. Christians could not eat them, but you could not prevent hens from laying them. So as to waste nothing, the farmers boiled them and kept them until Easter. In addition to the symbolism associated with the rebirth of life in spring, the eggs played a practical role in the observation of the end of Lent. Who among us has not participated in the hunting of eggs hidden in the budding clover of this time of year, first as a hunter, later as a hider? Also, at the White House, the President and his family invite other families to roll eggs on the lawn. Tradition has it that Dolly Madison inaugurated the practice in 1814, not in the White House of course, but in front of the Capitol. The event was abandoned and taken up several times before finally being restored for good by Mamie Eisenhower.
With our tendency in Louisiana not to do things like everyone else, we can easily believe that “pocking” is just another native idiosyncrasy. It consists of a fight between two opponents, each with a hard-boiled dyed egg. You hold your egg above the other while knocking the tips together. The goal is to crack your competitor’s shell. We do this all over Acadiana, but the cities of Cottonport and Marksville, at the top of the triangle, organize competitions over Easter weekend. In several cities, especially in Ville Platte, they take this custom very seriously. Some begin to boil eggs for weeks in advance and train like elite athletes. It’s not unheard of that some try to cheat by putting varnish on the shell or even using stones shaped like eggs!
And yet no, egg battles are not unique to South Louisiana. They go way back in time and are not solely related to Christianity. At the Passover Seder, boiled eggs that could end up as ersatz weapons at the end of the meal may be distributed. In the city of Assam in India, they are called Koni-juj. They are also practiced across Europe. In Greece, it’s tsougrisma and in the Netherlands, children fight in a game of eiertikken. In all three cases, the names can be translated more or less as “knocking eggs.” In French Louisiana, the origin of the term “pocking eggs” is more elusive. One can believe that with his paschal association, the French word for Easter, “Pâques”, was simply converted into a verb. It’s not impossible, but I think the most likely explanation is that it comes from the sound the eggs make when they bump together. For the more competitive, it is the sound of victory when the other is cracked. The pressure to win is enormous; it is almost a matter of life or death, which is nonetheless in the spirit of the celebration of the Resurrection.