Easter Eggs


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Easter Eggs

Pisanki, Pysanky

No one is sure exactly when the exchange of dyed eggs became part of the Easter festival. Nevertheless, folklorists believe they know why colored eggs became a symbol of the holiday. The egg has long served humanity as an emblem of new life (see also Egg Lore). All around the world Christians eat eggs at Easter. They also decorate them, using a variety of methods to dye them a single color or to cover them with elaborate designs. In some cultures these decorated Easter eggs are exchanged as gifts. In others people hang them on Easter egg trees. In still others they become part of Easter egg hunts and various other egg games, including egg rolling, egg tapping, and pace egging (for more on Easter egg hunts, see Easter Bunny).

Eggs as Currency

In late medieval Europe people paid their clergymen and made donations to their local church in the form of eggs. These "egg tithes" came due at Easter time. They might also pay their landlord in eggs. These customs can be traced back at least as far as the late thirteenth century in England. They also existed in the Netherlands, Estonia, and Germany during this era. Germans dubbed this unpopular levy of precious springtime eggs the Osterrecht, or "Easter Right."

In some countries people made these offerings on Good Friday, during the ceremony known as the Veneration of the Cross. As they approached the cross they left baskets of eggs, sometimes accompanied by other foodstuffs, such as bacon or grain. Documents reveal that this custom was practiced in England and Italy. It began to die out in the sixteenth century. Folklorists believe that traces of this old practice lingered for centuries in the common folk custom of making the local priest a small gift of eggs at Easter time. Researchers recorded evidence that this custom was still being practiced in parts of France, Hungary, and Italy well into the twentieth century. In some places families sent children to church with great baskets of Easter eggs. The priest blessed the eggs and the children gave some of them to him in return. Afterwards the children brought the eggs home and the family placed them on a beautifully decorated table, along with other elements of the Easter feast.

Easter Eggs as Gifts

The earliest historical records concerning decorated Easter eggs indicate that they were given as gifts. In 1290 King Edward I of England had his servants prepare 450 Easter eggs by boiling them and covering them with gold leaf. He presented them to members of his household on Easter Sunday. Historical documents reveal that Easter eggs were also known in Poland and Germany at this time. People gave Easter eggs as gifts in Tsarist Russia as well. The tsar and members of the nobility exchanged them at Easter time. In the late nineteenth century Tsar Alexander III commissioned famous jewelry designer Karl Fabergé to make an Easter egg-shaped trinket for his wife, which he presented to her on Easter morning. The gift so delighted the Tsarina that the Tsar decided to give her a new jeweled egg every year. Alexander III's son, Tsar Nicholas II, carried on this tradition. These eggs not only feature rare jewels and precious metals, but also exquisite craftsmanship. For example, Fabergé designed an egg for the Tsar measuring five inches in height which he covered with translucent lime-green enamel and a gold trellis of laurel leaves. At each intersection of the trellis he placed a doubleheaded eagle of black enamel with a rose diamond stud in its belly. The egg could be separated into two halves and indeed was made to house a miniature coach made from gold, a replica of the one that Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra rode in for their coronation. Eggs made by Fabergé have become valuable collectors'items.

Today people still enjoy giving and receiving decorated eggs at Easter time. In the United States, children participate in Easter egg hunts on Easter morning, searching for dyed eggs thoughtfully prepared for them by others, but often said to come from the Easter Bunny. This custom is also practiced in much of western Europe. In Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal, Belgium, and the Czech Republic young women traditionally gave gifts of decorated Easter eggs to suitors or potential suitors. Ukrainians give Easter eggs to express their fondness for someone. In many European countries, families keep a bowl of dyed eggs on the table during Easter Week. Anyone who visits them during this time is presented with an Easter egg. In Poland, Russia and the Ukraine, families took their Easter feast, including their Easter eggs, to church on Holy Saturday, where the priest blessed the food. In return, each family gave him an Easter egg. On Easter Sunday the head of the family peeled one blessed egg for every member of the family. Then everyone ate the eggs, wishing each other long life and happiness. On Easter Sunday and the days following, an old Russian folk tradition encouraged people to greet one another with the gift of an Easter egg and the greeting, "Christ is risen!"

Dyes, Designs, and Techniques

Before the advent of modern dyes, people colored their Easter eggs with a variety of naturally occurring substances. Boiling eggs with onion skins, a common method of coloring eggs in many parts of Europe, turned out a golden, deep orange or reddish brown egg. Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Greeks, Russians, Slovenians, Serbians, Czechs, and Yugoslavians used a dye made from Brazil wood to impart a bright red color to their Easter eggs. Cochineal, a dye made from the bodies of female scale insects, was also used in some places. Inventive women in many lands found ways of transferring the color of local vegetables, flowers, moss, and leaves onto eggs.

While North Americans often dye their Easter eggs a single color, many central and eastern Europeans etch elaborate designs on their Easter eggs. Often these elaborate eggs are saved for display and other, plainer eggs are eaten. Over the years certain designs emerged as traditional favorites for the folk artists of various nationalities. In crafting their fancy display eggs Romanians favor flowers, the symbols of the evangelists, and even a serpent, as a reminder of the Garden of Eden. Russians and Armenians often paint icons of Christ or the saints on their eggs. An old Croatian design contrasts a crown of thorns with a garland of flowers. Other traditional Croatian designs include pine needles, ladders, wheat stalks, and roosters. Hungarian eggs often feature stylized flowers. Rakes and combs may appear on Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Hutzul, and Romanian eggs. Radiating spokes, which may be said to represent the sun, a star, or a daisy-like flower grace many eggs from Lithuania, the Czech Republic, the Ukraine, Poland, and other eastern European countries. Trees, crosses, and abstract geometric designs also appear on many eggs from Slavic lands.

In some parts of central and eastern Europe, folk artists preferred the scratch technique to create Easter designs. This technique produces eggs with a white design etched into a colored background. Folk artists working with the scratch technique first dye the eggs, then create white designs by scraping away a thin layer of eggshell. The scratch technique is popular in the Slavic countries, as well as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and parts of Germany.

In certain parts of Europe folk artists prefer the appliqué method, which involves attaching various material to the egg to create a design. Traditional egg designs in Portugal called for applying sea shells to eggs. In Austria people garnished their eggs with strips of dough, in Serbia metal coils, and in Poland paper cuts. In the early twentieth century Moravian and Bulgarian metalsmiths developed a technique that permitted them to attach metal ornaments to Easter eggs without breaking them. In parts of Poland and Germany, folk artists once decorated eggs with the pith of the rush plant and bits of wool or cloth. This method traveled to the United States with German immigrants and established itself in Pennsylvania Dutch country.

Many of the complicated designs found on eastern European eggs result from the careful application of a dye technique known as batik or wax-resist. This painstaking technique produces complicated, multi-colored designs.

Pysanky

Many experts and collectors believe that the most exquisitely designed and executed batik eggs come from Ukrainian and Polish folk artists. These artists create astonishingly intricate designs in bold colors such as red, yellow, black, and green. They call their creations pisanki or pysanky. This word comes from the Polish verb pisac or the Ukrainian verb pysaty, both of which mean "to write."

Traditional pysanky artists began by preparing their dyes. They made green dye from moss, a deep yellow-orange dye from crocus flowers, and black from alder bark and cones. Nowadays, however, most artisans use chemical dyes. They start by applying part of the design to the egg with hot wax funneled through the tip of a tiny metal tube, or dripped from the end of a needle. These miniature instruments permit them to inscribe delicate wax lines and shapes onto the surface of the egg. When they immerse the egg in the first dye bath, those areas covered with wax will not absorb the dye and so will remain white. After removing the egg from the first dye bath and letting it dry, the artist applies a second layer of design with wax. This second coating of wax preserves that part of the design which the artist wishes to remain the color of the first dye bath. Then the egg goes into its second vat of dye. The egg may be waxed and dyed a number of times, in order to build a multi-colored design. When the design is complete the artist holds the egg next to a candle flame in order to melt the wax. Then varnish is applied to protect the egg. The next day the artist completes the egg by piercing it on both ends and gently blowing out the white and yolk.

Ukrainian folklorists believe that pysanky date back to ancient times. Some of the symbols commonly painted on these eggs reflect this pre-Christian heritage. The most popular of these motifs is a stylized sun, often represented as a broken cross, triangle, eight-pointed star, or rosette. Other popular emblems include flowers, leaves, endless lines, birds, stags, and horses. Ukrainian folk artists also paint specifically Christian symbols on pysanky. These include crosses, fish, and churches. The colors used to paint these designs also have meaning. Red represents life, joy, and the sun. Yellow symbolizes fertility and wealth. Green stands for growing plants and the season of spring.

Polish folk custom calls for giving pysanky as gifts, especially to one's godparents and friends. Recipients treasure these gifts, both as symbols of their ethnic heritage and as beautiful pieces of art. In past times, however, people valued pysanky for practical as well as artistic reasons. Polish folklore asserted that pysanky planted in the vineyard could shelter the vines from storms, hail, and wind. Both Polish and Ukrainian folklore suggested that the decorated eggs could protect the home against evil forces and attract good luck. Ukrainian folklore added that in order to have these good effects, the artist making the pysanky must begin with prayer, and avoid arguments and ill will throughout the decorating process.

Green Eggs

In Germany and Austria people dye eggs green on Maundy Thursday. This custom springs from the folk name for the day in Germanspeaking countries, "Green Thursday." Researchers have come up with several explanations for this name. One theory traces it back to the reconciliation of penitents that used to take place on this day (for more on the concept of penitence, see Repentance). The penitents carried green branches as a sign of their joy. Indeed, Dies viridium, an old Latin name for the day which means "Day of the Green Ones," came from this custom. The green eggs match the green foods that are traditionally eaten on this day.

Red Eggs

Although red is not a popular color for Easter eggs in this country, many Europeans favor red eggs. This preference might come, in part, from old folk beliefs connecting the color red with magic, love, blessing, and renewal. In many places, however, especially those regions in which Orthodox Christianity has taken hold, red eggs represent the blood of Christ. Indeed Orthodox Christians prefer red Easter eggs for this reason. Not only do they eat them, but they also bake them into braided Easter breads and use them in games (see also Egg Tapping). Orthodoxy is one of the three main branches of the Christian faith. It developed in north Africa, the Middle East, and eastern Europe, and most of its adherents still hail from these parts of the world. Orthodoxy and Western Christianity - that is, Roman Catholicism and, later, Protestantism - split apart from each other about 1,000 years ago. This split has resulted in the emergence of different folk customs and traditions between the two groups of Christians.

Many Orthodox Christians consume a boiled egg before beginning the long Lenten fast. Before eating the egg they announce, "With an egg I close my mouth, with an egg I shall open it again." This phrase signifies that the fast has begun. It also makes mention of the custom of ending one's fast by eating an egg. Accordingly, red Easter eggs are often distributed to parishioners after the Resurrection service, ending in the early morning hours of Easter Sunday (see also Easter Vigil). In some places people bring red eggs from home and crack them at that point in the service when the priest announces the Resurrection. Baskets of red eggs may also be brought to the church service to insure that they absorb the Easter blessing. The red eggs serve as a symbol of the Resurrection. The red shell represents Jesus' blood, the egg itself stands for his tomb, and the cracking of the egg recalls Jesus'emergence from the tomb.

Many Greeks and other Orthodox Christians dye their Easter eggs on Maundy Thursday. In reference to this custom Greeks have nicknamed the day "Red Thursday." In some lands the first Easter egg to emerge from the dye was thought to be blessed, especially with the ability to confer health and well-being. Often families keep a red Easter egg in the ikonostasi, a shelf or niche where the family keeps devotional materials such as icons (religious images used in prayer and worship), incense, blessed palms from Palm Sunday, a Bible, and a cross. The Easter egg and other seasonal items, such as palm crosses, remain throughout the year, until they are disposed of on the following Maundy Thursday.

Easter Egg Charms and Superstitions

Over the centuries many superstitions developed concerning Easter eggs. Folklore from many regions of Europe taught that they had mysterious powers, often to bless or to make fruitful. Accordingly, Easter eggs, or their shells, became important components in various magical charms.

In past times many people believed that Easter eggs stayed fresh for an unusually long time. Bulgarian and Tryolese folklore asserted that they might last as long as a year. Greek folklore taught that they might last indefinitely, but that after a few years the egg inside the shell would change into a pearl. In France, eggs laid on Green Thursday might yield an even greater prize. French lore presumed that the yolk of a Green Thursday egg, if preserved for one hundred years, would change into a diamond. In Alsace-Lorrain eggs laid on Maundy Thursday and tucked into cupboards and drawers were thought to protect wool and linen from moths and decay.

In Germany people hung Easter eggs from the ceiling with ribbon. The eggs were thought to act as good luck charms. In Russia one might find them dangling in front of icons, and in Catholic countries sitting at the bases of crucifixes. French folklore added that Good Friday eggs have the power to extinguish any fire that they are tossed into.

According to certain folk beliefs, one had to consume the egg to obtain a blessing. In parts of France and Germany people thought that eating an egg laid on Green Thursday insured the blessing of good health. The Pennsylvania Dutch believed that Good Friday eggs had medicinal properties, especially if consumed on Good Friday or Easter Sunday.

In some parts of eastern Europe Easter eggs were thought to increase the crop yield and protect plants from harm. In these zones Easter eggs might be planted alongside seeds and vines. Some Germans put them inside the first sheaf of wheat along with a loaf of bread to insure a smooth and bountiful harvest. Another cluster of folk beliefs centered around the power of Easter eggs to increase productivity and fertility in animals. Ukrainian beekeepers set an Easter egg under each of their hives to insure a plentiful supply of honey. French farmers placed a blessed Green Thursday egg into a clutch of newly laid eggs to help them hatch. Even the Easter egg shells were thought powerful in some places. In Slovakia people hung them on fruit trees in the belief that they would help the tree to become more fruitful. They also buried them in their gardens to support plant growth and scattered them between the garden rows to repel caterpillars. In France Easter eggs, especially those laid on Maundy Thursday, were thought to promote human sexuality and fertility. The Germans held similar beliefs, but placed more faith in Good Friday or Easter Sunday eggs.

Easter Egg Legends

Over the years numerous legends have sprung up concerning the origins of Easter eggs. Many of these imaginative tales propose an ancient and a Christian origin for these Easter symbols. One Polish tale claims that the first decorated eggs were created by the Virgin Mary as toys for the baby Jesus (see also Mary, Blessed Virgin). Searching about for something to amuse her child, she dyed a batch of eggs in various colors and gave them to him to play with. Another Polish story credits Mary Magdalene with the invention of Easter eggs. It says that on the morning of the Resurrection she took a basket of boiled eggs, her food for the day, with her to Jesus'tomb. When she arrived and found the stone sealing the entry to the tomb rolled away, the eggs suddenly took on bright, beautiful hues.

A Ukrainian tale says that Simon of Cyrene, the man who carried Jesus' cross for a while (Luke 23:26), spread the custom of coloring eggs for Easter. According to the folktale Simon was an egg peddler. After his encounter with Jesus, Simon found that his eggs always took on bright, cheerful hues. Another Ukrainian tale states that when Jesus hung on the cross, each drop of his blood that hit the ground became a red egg. As Jesus' mother Mary wept at the foot of the cross, her tears splashed onto some of the eggs, leaving behind intricate designs. Yet another Ukrainian story suggests that one winter the weather was so harsh that birds plummeted from the sky, overcome by the cold. Some peasants felt pity for the birds and took them into their homes until spring came. The birds returned to their foster homes several days after their release, each one bearing a beautifully decorated egg as a token of their gratitude.

A Romanian legend tells how Christ himself invented red Easter eggs. It states that the Blessed Virgin Mary brought a basket of eggs to the site of the Crucifixion, hoping that by presenting the soldiers with a gift of eggs she could influence them to spare her son (for more on crucifixion, see Cross). The soldiers, unmoved by this gesture, continued to mock Jesus, offering him vinegar and nettles. As Mary began to cry, blood poured down from Jesus' wounds, splashing some of the eggs and covering others completely. Jesus then instructed Mary that, in memory of this moment, all Easter eggs must be dyed red in whole or in part. The Blessed Virgin carried out this command, presenting those she encountered with a red egg and the greeting, "Christ is risen!"

A well-known legend among Orthodox Christians tells that after Jesus' ascension Mary Magdalene traveled about spreading word of Jesus' resurrection. When she arrived in Rome she visited the emperor Tiberius in order to lodge a complaint against Pontius Pilate and to bear witness to the Resurrection. During her audience with the Emperor she picked up an egg from a nearby table in order to illustrate the concept of resurrection. Tiberius scoffed at her, however, declaring that a man once dead couldn't rise again to new life any more than the egg in her hand could turn red. At once the egg flushed a deep, blood red. In Orthodox religious art Mary Magdalene is sometimes portrayed holding a red egg. Greeks and other Orthodox Christians tell this tale to explain the origin of the red eggs featured in their Easter celebrations.

Further Reading

Hogan, Julie. Treasury of Easter Celebrations. Nashville, TN: Ideals Publications, 1999. Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and Company, 1976. Krysa, Czeslaw M. "How to 'Write'and [sic] Easter Egg. Pisanki Comes from the Polish Word 'Pisac,' Meaning 'to Write'." Polish-American Journal 86, 3 (March 1, 1997): 9. Available online at: Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter Garland. 1963. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1999. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971. Luciow, Johanna, Ann Kmit, and Loretta Luciow. Eggs Beautiful: How to Make Ukrainian Easter Eggs. Minneapolis, MN: Ukrainian Gift Shop, n.d. Newall, Venetia. An Egg at Easter. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1971. Thompson, Sue Ellen. Holiday Symbols. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 2000. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954. Zenon, Elyjiw. "Ukrainian Pysanky: Easter Eggs as Talismans." Ukrainian Weekly 13, 16 (April 16, 1995): 11.

Web Site

"Pysanky - Easter Eggs," a page sponsored by the Ukrainian Museum, New York City, New York:
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