At this time of year, back in the old days, the Easter cry sailed through the alleys of Baltimore.
"Who's got an egg?
Who's got an egg?
Chicken with a wooden leg!
Who's got a guinea-ghi?
Who's gonna pick-a-me?"
The challenge was one of a basket full of Easter traditions peculiar to Baltimore, rituals that included parades, butter shaped like lambs, and Easter Monday picnics in Druid Hill Park; customs that have faded with time.
The cry of "Who's got an egg?" would bring youngsters out of their homes, ready to do battle with hard-boiled eggs dyed in shades of blue and pink and yellow.
The game, which today endures around Easter tables in certain families, worked like this:
One kid wrapped a fist around his egg, leaving only the point exposed through a hole between his thumb and index finger. The challenger used the point of his egg to aggressively tap his foe's egg until one of the shells cracked. The eggs were then turned over and the game repeated with the butt end of the eggs.
The stronger egg would usually win at both ends, and the owner of the weaker egg would forfeit the ovum that had failed him. If there was a draw, the uncracked point would battle the #i uncracked butt. The loser surrendered his egg.
"Picking eggs was a big thing around the neighborhoods, I don't really know where it started," said Gene DeCarlo Sr., 68, who keeps the tradition alive in Highlandtown with his grandchildren. "You've got to remember, in them days eggs weren't as plentiful as they are now. You won a hard-boiled egg from another kid -- that was something good to eat."
Old-timers remember the sight of champions running the alleys with the pockets of their Easter Sunday trousers bulging with eggs.
"I think picking eggs was just something they did around Baltimore," said Dorothy Kraft, 68, who grew up on Decker Avenue. "I never heard of out-of-towners doing it."
For generations it was part of local Easter along with cakes that looked like chickens and lumps of butter shaped like lambs; pre-dawn street processions with Easter lilies; taking baskets of food to church to be blessed; boys chasing girls on Easter Monday -- known to some as "dingus day" -- to beat them on the legs with switches; sunrise services at Memorial Stadium; and the annual Easter parades along Charles Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
"People would dress up in their Sunday best and parade up and down Pennsylvania Avenue and we stayed dressed up until late in the evening," said Walter Taylor, a longtime resident of West Lafayette Avenue who didn't want to give his age. "It just was so beautiful, so exciting. I always liked to wear white: a white suit with a white shirt, white socks and black and white shoes."
The parades included people with Easter lilies. "The lily is resurrection white, for purity," said Wadsworth Robinson, whose family has sold flowers from a shop on East Monument Street since 1935. "Carrying a cut lily reminds me of authority, like a papal staff. They look delicate, but they're very tough."
Pat Beczkowski remembers carrying a lily through Fells Point before the sun came up on Easter Sunday.
"We had to carry it from home to St. Stanislaus where we put
them on the altar," she said. "It was tradition."
On Charles Street, said 85-year-old Rose Ellen Clarke, the Easter parade was "something wonderful" until too many automobiles began crowding the boulevard after World War II.
"This was back in the '20s and '30s, when it was in its highlight," she said. "People would walk in their finery coming from church; all the way up Charles Street people joined in. There was no planning, it just happened."
In the city's Polish neighborhoods, once Lent officially ended at noon on Holy Saturday, families brought baskets of food to church to have them blessed.
Yesterday, Father Joseph Grybowski, pastor of St. Casimir Roman Catholic Church on O'Donnell Street, blessed about 400 baskets.
One of them belonged to Catherine Smertycha, who keeps alive the Polish tradition of making lambs out of butter at her rowhouse on South Linwood Avenue.
Her basket, covered with a white cloth embroidered in the Ukraine with a Bible, chalice and flowers, included homemade kielbasa, horseradish, a braided, Polish bread called bobka, raisin bread, hard-boiled eggs dyed with onion skin, salt and pepper, and a lamb made from butter.
"My mother had metal molds that came from the old country and every year at Eastertime she made butter in the shape of a lamb," said Mrs. Smertycha. "It's the sign of new life."
The blessed food will be eaten today after morning Mass.
"And if it was blessed, you better be sure you didn't get no crumbs on the floor," Agnes Borkowski said.
EASTER EGGS DYED WITH ONION SKINS
1. Soak outer layer of onion in pot of water. Skins can be from brown or red onions. Keep colors separate. Boil water until skins turn water to desired color.
2. After removing skins from water with strainer, add three
tablespoons of vinegar to the water.
3. Hard-boil white eggs in the colored water. When the eggs are cooked, they will have attained the color of the onion water.
4. Some people use a small stick or a nail to make patterns or names on the egg with melted beeswax before the eggs are boiled. The onion dye will not stick to the wax, allowing decorations to show.