Folklorists believe that the Easter egg tree got its start in central Europe, possibly in Germany. In this region of Europe people often make indoor egg trees by placing cut branches in a vase and hanging eggs from them. In Germany Easter trees may also be called Easter pyramids or Easter wreaths, names perhaps borrowed from the pyramids and wreaths that Germans use as Christmas decorations. Swedes also enjoy making egg trees out of cut branches. They decorate them with dyed eggs and ornaments representing small birds and witches (see also Easter Witch).
German immigrants brought the notion of Easter egg trees with them to the United States. In the German-American communities that make up the Pennsylvania Dutch country, Easter egg trees can be traced back to the second half of the nineteenth century. The earliest form of the custom seems to have been the outdoor egg tree. According to historical documents from this era, when decorating outdoor Easter trees and branches the Pennsylvania Dutch used blown egg shells (pierced eggshells out of which the egg itself had been emptied). They jammed them onto the ends of twigs without dye or decoration. In the late nineteenth century indoor Easter egg trees constituted something of a novelty. In making these trees folk artists hung dyed and decorated eggs onto small trees or barren branches with thread. Early commentators speculated on the similarity between the Easter tree and the Christmas tree, suggesting that the popularity of the Christmas tree had inspired the new Easter custom.
In 1950 Katherine Milhouse published a children's book called The Egg Tree. In this book Milhouse described the Pennsylvania Dutch customs concerning egg trees and Easter egg designs. Folklorists credit this popular book with spreading the egg tree beyond GermanAmerican communities into the wider U.S. population.
Egg Trees on Other Holidays
In many European countries trees and branches decorated with eggs make appearances at festivals other than Easter. In parts of Germany people put them up for Pentecost and the summer solstice, or St. John's Day (June 24), as well as Easter. Traditional adornments for the St. John's Day tree include fresh flowers, candles, and chains of eggshells. In parts of France and Germany old folk customs called for egg trees at harvest time.
On May Day in the Czech Republic folk tradition encourages young men to give branches or small trees decorated with ribbons and dyed eggs to their sweethearts. Over the past two centuries folklorists have spotted May trees decked with eggs and other ornaments in parts of Ireland, England, Hungary, and Germany. Germans decorated their May trees with cakes and sausages as well as eggs. Following an old Polish folk tradition, young people decorated green branches with colored eggs and took them door to door on May Day. With these branches in hand they sang for their neighbors and received in return a gift of eggs. Traditional crafts appearing in Swedish markets around May Day included maypoles covered with colored paper and gilt eggshells in honor of the holiday.
Laetare Sunday is another day traditionally associated with green branches adorned with eggshells. In past times these were carried in processions as symbols of summer. In Germany this custom can be traced as far back as the seventeenth century. Although the carrying of these branches was forbidden in the late nineteenth century, the practice still survives in some places, often as a children's custom. It can still be found in parts of Germany, Moravia, and Bohemia. Often, ceremonies depicting the burial of winter precede the triumphant carrying of these branches (see also Czech Republic, Easter and Holy Week in).
Newall, Venetia. An Egg at Easter. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1971. Russ, Jennifer M. German Festivals and Customs. London, England: Oswald Wolff, 1982. Shoemaker, Alfred L. Eastertide in Pennsylvania. Kutztown, PA: Pennsylvania Folklife Society, 1960.
Egg Tree(religion, spiritualism, and occult)
Vance Randolph speaks of an old Ozark custom, no longer practiced, of creating an egg tree as a protection from witches and witchcraft. The basis is a small, dead bush—the closer to the home the better. The branches are closely trimmed, and then dozens, if not hundreds, of carefully blown eggshells are tied to the branches. Over a period of years, eggs may be added until it is completely covered with them. Exactly why it should work, no one seems able to recall.