1950s Archive

Viennese Memoir

Easter Sunday

Originally Published March 1959

“The Easter Rabbit is misunderstood.” This solemn pronouncement appears in Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, the accepted encyclopedia of the Viennese. Next to its ponderous pages of Gothic script, all other encyclopedias make light reading. The Viennese, who live by their Lexikon, take this information seriously and go far in their effort to respect the Easter Rabbit and to make him comfortable, if not actually to understand him.

Two weeks before Easter they sow oats on shallow platters and place the platters in their sunniest windows. If they provide proper care and watering, they can look forward to a good six-inch stand of fresh green oats by Easter Sunday morning. There the pampered rabbit lays an arrangement of brightly colored hard-boiled eggs.

His amazing task completed, he sits down in pride and comfort among the eggs in the largest of the oat nests. Every Viennese family owns an Easter Rabbit or at least a rabbit mold for baking. The inedible rabbits are made of plaster, wood, or papier-mâché, and the most magnificent are covered with genuine rabbit fur, always elegantly referred to as du vrai Lapin, of course. Whether permanent or baked for the occasion, the rabbits are always decorated with fresh new ribbons and have flower garlands wreathed around their necks. The eggs, instead of being hidden for the children to find, are used in traditional games and races, which make up an important part of Easter Sunday afternoon. The games also serve to crush, crack, and otherwise ruin many of the eggs, which helps to eliminate countless suppers of Indische Eier in curry sauce or Eier-im-Nest.

All of Vienna looked forward to the coming of Easter with a combination of spiritual and gastronomical pleasure. Fran Hofrat's oldest daughter Luzetta, called Lutz, counted the hours. She was in love and ready for a few more profane and a few less sacred preoccupations. She did not even know whether her young Herr Doktor's romantic interest had survived the soul-searching forty days of Lent. After a delightful, though well-chaperoned carnival season, Lutz had decided the Doktor was “perfect.” Fran Hofrat said “perhaps presentable,” and Herr Hofrat said “promising.” Since Shrove Tuesday the young couple had been able to manage only a few chance meetings, at art galleries, concerts, and similar gatherings approved for Lent. Actually, there was little chance involved, since Doktor Karl had plotted carefully and knew exactly when Lutz would cross the Ringstrasse and where she was bound. He was, in fact, a far more promising young man than Herr Hofrat suspected.

Whether the feverishly hoped-for proposal would actually come could not be predicted, since Doktor Karl's heart was not the only factor involved. The otherwise romantic Viennese were curiously mercantile in weighing career, family, fortune, and their grandparents' consent against what is known as the dictates of the heart.

A proposal in Vienna was not, as Franz Schubert would have you believe, a matter of a tremulously whispered declaration made under a lilac tree or at the side of a flower-festooned arbor by moonlight. It usually came through the Staatspost AMT, the post office, by broad daylight, not to the intended bride but to her mother, in the form of a rather cold-blooded letter. A man did not bare his heart on bended knee; he did it sitting at a desk, with rough penciled notes, with dictionary consultations and a wastebasket full of discarded first drafts. Finally he took his labor of love, in fear and trembling, not to the object of his passion, but to the corner postbox to be carried by a flat-footed postman to a mother who opened it along with her invitations and bills.

For some reason, the letter never asked for the beloved and treasured child but only for the hand of Fräulein Luzetta, your honored daughter. After due parental consideration the child was summoned and informed by her father of her young man's honorable intentions. A call could then be expected with a verbal request and flowers. If the young man was not acceptable to the young lady's parents, whom notoriously he did not plan to marry, she rarely learned that she had received and rejected a proposal, a fact which left Viennese ladies nothing to mull over in their old age.

On Easter Sunday morning Lutz accompanied her parents to the Stephansdom, the cathedral. As Vienna prepared to celebrate the Resurrection and the Light, Lutz took a quick look around and manipulated her mother to a strategically placed prie-dieu from which she could keep a careful lookout. She spotted Doktor Karl similarly ensconced behind his mother during the Gospel, and after that, much that should have been listened to in reverence was lost upon her. Apparently all was well—young Karl saw her, and from his blush of pleasure, she felt certain that the interrupted romance would be resigned and negotiations might reasonably start at any time, probably soon.

Young Lutz had the example of her four maternal aunts to guide her choice. Tante Pia's husband sat in the Chamber of Advocates. Tante Pauline's husband sat in the Ministerium, and Tante Felicitus was in Boston with her husband, whose dignity could not be measured by where he sat, but who was nonetheless a highly regarded curator at a Massachusetts museum. All nurses and governesses in the farflung family always used this fact to great advantage. The children were asked “Wo ist Tante Felicitas?” and were answered, “In Maasaaatschooosettts,” with crows of delight.

Tante Marietta, the one who had made the méstalliance of the century, was married to a man who didn't sit at all but rather reclined at home in Taormina and did nothing but cook divinely. She was reputedly extremely happy although a traveling Viennese reported that her husband always wore slippers! He spoiled his Cara Marietta and sang Puccini while he cooked. It was obviously not only a misalliance, it was a catastrophe.

Subscribe to Gourmet