Egg Rolling


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Egg Rolling

Egg rolling is a traditional Easter game often played on Easter Monday. Participants choose dyed, hard-boiled Easter eggs and place them along a starting line on top of a hill or slight incline. Contestants release their eggs and cheer them on as they roll downhill. In some versions of the game players push the egg along rather than simply let it roll.

History, Legend, and Symbol

The earliest known egg-rolling games took place in Paris in 1587. Danish folklorists have also documented the existence of the custom in their country as far back as the sixteenth century. The earliest record of the game in England dates back to 1694. An old Ukrainian folktale proposes an ancient origin for the custom. It claims that the Blessed Virgin Mary obtained an audience with the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, when she heard that her son, Jesus, had been arrested. Before setting off for the governor's palace Mary filled her apron with eggs. When she knelt before Pilate the eggs rolled out of the sides of her apron. The eggs kept going until they reached the ends of the earth inspiring the invention of egg-rolling games (see also Mary, Blessed Virgin). Folklore common to both Orthodox and Protestant Christians sees in egg rolling a symbol of the rolling away of the stone that sealed Jesus' tomb. Thus the custom serves as a reminder of the Resurrection.

Egg Rolling in Europe and the Middle East

Egg-rolling customs can be found all across Europe. Egg-rolling contests often take place in northern Britain on Easter Monday. Contestants choose what they hope to be prize-winning Easter eggs and line up at the top of a hill. Egg-rolling rules vary from event to event. In some places the winner is the person whose eggs roll the farthest distance. In others victory attaches itself to the person whose egg survives the most rolls intact. In still others top honors go to the person whose egg rolls between two pegs. In Denmark egg-rolling contests take place on Easter Sunday. There the winner succeeds by knocking their egg against another person's egg. Sometimes the winner must repeat this feat or execute it with such force that their opponent's egg cracks. Afterwards contestants eat their eggs with bread and butter. In Sweden children eat the eggs that crack as the contest proceeds. In Austria children sometimes compete with wooden eggs. Egg-rolling contests can also be found in Switzerland, northern Italy, the Netherlands, France, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bohemia, Germany, and Latvia. The custom also exists in some countries in the Middle East, such as Azerbaijan and Egypt.

Egg Rolling in Washington, D.C.

In the United States a well-known egg-rolling contest takes place each year on Easter Monday at the White House. This contest dates back to before the Civil War (1861-65). In those days the main event took place at the Capitol building, where an assortment of Washington's children launched their eggs down the terraced lawns of the building's west front. While the public enjoyed itself at the Capitol building, the president's family sometimes hosted small egg-rolling parties on the White House lawn. The children of Presidents Abraham Lincoln (1860-65) and Andrew Johnson (1865-69) were known to have enjoyed these parties.

The Civil War ended just before Easter in the year 1865. In spite of this joyous event sadness enveloped Washington's egg-rolling affairs and all other Easter festivities that year. Just two days before Easter, on Good Friday, an assassin shot and mortally wounded President Abraham Lincoln as he attended the theater. President Lincoln died the following day, and the nation plunged from shock into mourning.

The Washington egg-rolling event first attracted public attention in the years following the American Civil War. The festivities taking place at the Capitol building brought together children of every race and color and so came to the attention of reporters. Journalists praised the event for effortlessly achieving the integration that the War and social reform programs had failed to bring about.

In the 1870s senators and congressmen began to complain about litter left behind by the egg rollers and the destruction of the grass that resulted from the enthusiastic tread of many little feet. To be sure, the elected officials also began to take offense at cattle crossing the grounds of the Capitol building, feeling that the dignity of the nation - not to mention the landscaping - suffered from the intrusion of such rustic activities on the seat of government. In 1876 Congress passed a law which forbade anyone from using the gardens of the Capitol building as a playground. In 1877 the egg-rolling event was rained out. Those who returned to the Capitol building for egg games on Easter Monday 1878 were kept off the grounds by the Capitol Hill police.

Egg Rolling Moves to the White House

When it came to finding a new place to roll eggs the informality of Washington life in those days worked in the children's favor. The first official White House egg-rolling event took place in 1878 thanks to the initiative shown by one young lad. The boy spied President Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-81) walking down the street a few days before Easter and called out to him, "Say! Say! Are you going to let us roll eggs in your yard?" The President, disarmed by both the request and the breezy manner of its delivery, replied that he would look into the matter. After the White House staff explained the nature of the event to him President Hayes instructed them to let the children use the White House lawn for their egg games. The following year another boy approached President Hayes in the same casual manner. The president again agreed to host the Easter Monday egg-rolling party and a tradition was born.

The popularity of the White House egg-rolling affair grew as the years passed. In the early years the children set up their own games without much interference from the White House staff. An audience with the president, however, was one of the treats that children came to expect on this day of fun and games at the White House. Many presidents obliged them. A rule developed fairly early on that no adult would be admitted to the event unless accompanied by a child. Some cunning children cashed in on this regulation by escorting childless adults past the entry gates for a small fee. Then the enterprising youngsters snuck out the back way in search of another paying customer. In the mid-1930s White House officials got wind of these goings-on and broke up this miniature Easter Monday racket.

Cancellations

The Easter Monday White House egg-rolling event has suffered several setbacks in its history. White House officials cancelled it in 1917, the year the United States entered World War I, in the belief that the enormous waste of food involved would be inappropriate in a time of hardship. The event resumed in 1921. In 1942 the White House again cancelled the egg roll due to wartime difficulties. As a result the egg rollers temporarily reclaimed their old grounds at the Capitol building. After the war President Harry Truman (1945-53) dawdled in welcoming them back to the presidential gardens. Then extensive repairs made to the White House turned its lawns into a construction yard for a number of years, preventing the annual egg roll from taking place.

Renewal

The south lawn egg roll finally returned in 1953 under President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-61). In these later years of the event's history, however, it proved much more difficult for youngsters to catch a glimpse of, much less speak with, the president. From 1961 to 1975, Easter Monday found Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford away on business. Finally, in 1976, President Gerald Ford once again attended the event being held in his own backyard.

In the late twentieth century the White House egg roll has become a more structured and a more polished event, as new elements have been added to the celebration by successive presidents and first ladies. In 1969 the Easter Bunny, in reality a White House staffer in a white rabbit costume, appeared at the event for the first time. In 1974 the first organized egg races took place. In the White House version of this game children line up eight abreast and, with the use of metal spoons, roll their eggs down lanes marked in the lawn. During the Carter administration (1976-80) party organizers added other attractions, such as dancers, lasso-twirling cowboys, and petting animals. The Reagans (1980-88) also expanded the variety of entertainments offered. The Clintons (1992-2000), who attended every Easter Monday party held in their backyard during their eight years in the White House, made egg-rolling history by cybercasting the event on the White House web site, www.whitehouse.gov.

A brigade of nearly 500 volunteers aided the White House staff in preparing the annual Easter Monday festivities for the year 2000. White House staffers cooked up the official equipment for this event: 7,200 hard-boiled Easter eggs. They estimated that 30,000 children and their families would attend the presidential Easter party. Therefore they ordered 20,000 souvenir wooden eggs, to be given away as parting gifts for the youngsters. As has become customary in order to regulate the crowds, attendees must obtain advance tickets for the event. These tickets, given free of charge to parties containing a child between the ages of three and six, assign partygoers a specific time during which they may enter the south lawn area in order to participate in the egg-roll contest.

Further Reading

Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and Company, 1976. Newall, Venetia. An Egg at Easter. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1971.

Web Sites

"White House Easter Egg Roll Scheduled for Monday, April 24," a White House press release available at:

"With Easter Monday You Get Egg Roll at the White House," an article by C. L. Arbelhide, posted at the National Archives and Records Administration at:
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