Easter Eggs

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Easter Eggs

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Easter Eggs dyed with natural colors In some Germanic languages, Easter Eggs are connected to the holiday by the name, Easter in English and Osterei for ‘Easter egg’ at Ostern ‘Easter’ in German. In many Indo-European languages, including the Scandinavian languages, the name of the festival for the Goddess Eostra has been replaced by a christianized name of a holiday for one of the Christian Gods, of the type Paschalia, etc. However coloring eggs and sharing them at the time of the Spring Equinox is ubiquitous among Europeans, with the possible exception of the Celts (who may have had similar customs set to May 1st). This section will address this wider topic, that is, it is not limited to Germanic language-speaking areas.

Throughout Europe, Easter Eggs are typically dyed yellow or red and people who could afford it covered them with gold leaf. They probably represent the Sun at the time of its increase and are a suitable offering to the Goddess of the spring at the Spring Equinox. As the brothers Grimm put it (Osterei, Deutsches Wörterbuch 7, 1373), they are probably an altheidnisches frühlingsopfer “old heathen spring offering.” Naturally, there were objections from the authorities.

wer ostereier...gilt, der solle sie als zytlichen geben, da die herren iren [irren] notz damied schaffen. Whoever gilds Easter eggs, then in the time when they shall give them, then those men err disastrously by doing that work.

This objection to the gilding of eggs is from the Weisthümer, 2,185 (from the year 1407). Here it is actually quoted from Deutsches Wörterbuch, Vol 7, 1373, and translated by me. The Weisthümer are the custom laws for villagers and there are extensive books of these for the various areas among German-speaking people. Weisthümer are apparently much like “Penitentials” in other countries--long lists of idiotic things that the Christian authorities labeled “sins.” These sources are very useful for information about traditional folk customs.

Flirtation Gifts
Another use of colored or decorated eggs in the spring which was almost universal in eastern European countries was as a sort of flirtation gift. Young ladies would decorate eggs and give them to young men that they fancied. There was an elaborate symbolic language which turned mainly on the number of eggs given or accepted or not accepted. As with other folk customs, this has fallen out of practice in the last century or so, but the tradition of elaborately decorating eggs continues everywhere and especially in the United States where people from other countries continue it as a treasured part of their family heritage. Of this type especially are the pysanki eggs made in Slavic countries, and other decorated eggs which were not intended to be eaten.

More often dyed eggs were considered a food, and they are used as “offerings” in the traditional way of the Indo-Europeans (see Food Offering in Proto-Indo-European Rituals). This isn’t necessarily a continuation of a Pagan custom as such, rather it may simply express the universal human desire or need to share anything good with those we love, including the living and the honored dead as well as deities or especially revered persons. In many countries, especially in Slavic-speaking countries, where the Greek Orthodox church and later the Russian Orthodox churches were much less obsessive than the Roman Catholic church, eggs were taken to graves and offered to the dead like any other food. This was especially common on the Ancestor Days which in Christian times followed the moveable Christian holiday of Easter. Red-dyed eggs were also offered to the Domovoi (house spirits), Blajini (spirits of still-born children), and even birch trees in Slavic-speaking areas.

In both Orthodox and Catholic areas, eggs were brought into the churches and blessed, apparently as part of an attempt to “christianize” an older Pagan custom of offering them to the Goddesses, which everyone would have most certainly done. The Latin form for blessing eggs and other foods is given in the Durham Ritual and is probably a continuation of an older Roman Pagan blessing of food. In some churches, eggs were taken in and actually offered to the crucifix.

List of Countries
Among the countries or regions where eggs are dyed bright colors and given as gifts at Easter are: Persia (especially the Zoroastrians, at the New Year at the Spring Equinox), Greece, Macedonia, France, Italy, Moldavia, Portugal, Rumania, Savoy, Ireland (West Ulster, Limerick, Kilkenny, Wicklow, Holywood), Alsace, Austria, Belgium (my sources don’t say whether in the Walloon or Flemish speaking areas), Denmark, England, Germany, Germans in Bohemia and Silesia, Hessen, Holland, Isle of Man, Steiermark in Austria, Sweden, Switzerland (not sure which language groups), Tyrol, Bohemia (Czech Republic and Slovak Republic), Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hutzuls in the Tatras Mountains, Montenegro, Moravia, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, Sorb areas in northern Germany, Ukraine, Yugoslav Macedonia, Yugoslavia, Hungary (not an Indo-European language), Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia (a non-Indo-European language area), Albanians in Sicily (orthodox), Thrace, Armenia, Baku in Azerbaijan (Christians), Chaldean Christians, Moslems at the feast of Neby Musa, Mesopotamian Christians, Sinope, and Syrian Christians.

Most of this information is extracted from An Egg at Easter, A Folklore Study by Venetia Newall, which was published in 1971 and does not always clearly identify locations especially those that have changed since the breakup of Yugoslavia and some other changes in the Balkan countries.

Dyeing Eggs
It is very easy to dye eggs with vegetable dyes. First the eggs are hard-boiled by boiling them in water for about 20 minutes. Then the dye is made in a non-reactive pot (glass or ceramic) by adding the dye material to water and boiling that for a few minutes.

Dye materials:
onion skins will dye the eggs either red or yellow depending on how long you leave them in the dye. Other choices are:
red cabbage or purple cabbage
tea or coffee
beet roots
wild gathered plants such as wild herbs and birch bark are used in many areas.

The dye can then be poured off the dye material (or strained if you like) and two tablespoons of vinegar are added. This helps the dye fix to the eggs and brightens the color. Then the eggs are added and they can be left in the water for about half an hour to absorb the dye. Finally the eggs are taken out and left to dry (in the refrigerator) and then rubbed with a small amount of vegetable oil (olive oil or other oil) to make them shiny. These eggs can still be used for food. There are much more elaborate ways of decorating eggs especially if they are going to be used as flirtation gifts, but those eggs are not meant to be eaten.

Food Safety
A lot of the folk customs that people had in the old days are not in accord with modern standards of sanitation, nor with the proper way to handle eggs for food safety. Fresh eggs can be kept in the refrigerator for up to six months as long as they are clean (but not washed) and not cracked. They will eventually dry out a little but they can still be used for food.

Eggs which are to be dyed and eaten can be hard-boiled, typically for about 20 minutes. Eggs which are to be used in games like egg-rolling may be boiled for about 30 minutes (and they can still be eaten). They should be kept in the refrigerator before they are dyed or boiled and they should be put back in the refrigerator after dyeing as soon as they have cooled off to room temperature. They should be kept in the refrigerator until right before they are eaten. In the old days, people used to leave eggs in graveyards, churches and gardens overnight for “blessing” and then eat them or share them with other unsuspecting recipients days or weeks later. Eggs can develop bacteria in them and make people very sick. People died of “natural causes” all the time in the old days and nobody really knew why--don’t let this happen to you.

Eggs which are decorated with very complex designs and which are meant to be keepsakes such as the pysanki eggs should not be boiled. They are kept on a shelf in a dry house and the egg inside will eventually dessicate (dry out), hopefully without going bad, but there is no guarantee. In the old days, houses did not have central heating so they were much cooler, and in Slavic countries, the decorated eggs were kept on an icon shelf which was near the stove so it was fairly dry. Make sure nobody eats an egg that has been sitting out in a bowl on the table for a while!

And finally, if you are blowing out the contents of an egg to use the empty shell, please save them in the refrigerator for use as food. Have some nice egg recipes in mind like quiche, omelette, egg bread, and other recipes that can use scrambled eggs because they will be scrambled. Chickens go to a lot of trouble to lay eggs, and it makes me sad to see their effort wasted.

Warning: Gross Out Alert
Christians put forward a different explanation for why eggs were dyed red at Easter--red eggs are supposed to represent the blood of one of their gods who they think was sacrificed by being killed in human form. Nobody in their right mind would eat an egg dipped in human blood even symbolically, but that’s the Christian explanation for why eggs are dyed red. In many areas eggs are more likely to be dyed yellow and wealthy people gilded them which does not fit with the Christian belief anyway, but somewhat supports the view that brightly colored Easter eggs especially represent the Sun at the Spring Equinox.
Death at Lent
Lent is a custom in the Christian Church of forbidding people to eat the foods that are most available in the spring, namely eggs, dairy and meat, when vegetable food is very scarce in northern countries. Sets of rules like this, which have no moral value, are called Purity Laws and many religions have them. The period of Lent usually began in February and ran for forty days until the date of Christian Easter which varies each year by as much as a month, because Easter is a moveable holiday in the Christian calendar. Many people would have eaten most of the food they had saved over winter (if they even had the ability to save food, as farmers and householders do). Since all food would have been scarce by spring, the prices of everything would have been higher for people who lived in the city or had no place to store food. Often the only thing left at that time of year which people had or could buy was small grains like wheat and barley and while that is enough to keep adults alive for a period of time, small children can starve to death on a diet of starch.

By forbidding people to eat, buy or sell eggs and dairy products which many people would have had access to at least in small amounts, the Christian Church condemned untold numbers of people, especially small children, pregnant women, the very old and the sick to a slow death. It’s heartbreaking to think of parents watching their small children starve to death in front of them, when there was food available that could have saved their lives, but which was forbidden based on Christian purity laws. No doubt many parents broke the rules to save themselves or members of their families, but they didn’t always fare better. If they were caught, they were punished by church authorities. The Christian Church’s excuse for this ridiculous law was that one of their gods Jesus (a name you may have seen Aeusoswhere) fasted for 40 days, so everyone else had to, too. What could compel such extraordinary hostility it is impossible to say, but starving peasants into theological correctness seems preposterous even by the standards of “Christian morality.” Was keeping Lent really worth dying for? Apparently not, because in 1965 the Roman Catholic Church scrapped the whole thing, although the Reformation had effectively ended it in Western Europe anyway. The Orthodox Christian Church continues to encourage an endless round of complex and idiotic fasts but it seems not to enforce them, presumably because it lacks the authority. There isn’t much good anyone can say about communism, but at least it put an end to those old destructive patterns -- while creating new ones as the Ukrainians will no doubt attest. And now we will move on to a much more pleasant topic.

Easter Bunnies
Leaving aside the important but boring discussion about the difference between hares and rabbits (all domestic animals of the long-eared kind are rabbits; hares have not been domesticated), the Easter Bunny is considered a late comer, though dearly loved, to the seasonal festivities. In fact Easter bunnies who leave colored eggs seem to have been originally limited to areas of Germany, but every other sort of animal and bird leaves colored eggs at Easter in different regions. The idea that something is leaving colored eggs for children seems to be fairly widespread by the time it shows up in the folklore literature.

The oldest reference that I could find to Easter bunnies is in a letter by Martin Luther (1483-1546). The letter is referenced as br 5, 716 by the Bruder Grimm & Cryptic. Luther mentions Osterhase who leave colored eggs for children. The relevant text is quoted in Deutsches Wörterbuch, Vol 7, 1373-4 under Osterei:

gemeint sind die roth oder bunt gefärbten (am osterabend in den kathol. kirchen nebst andern eszwaaren geweihten) eier, womit besonders die kinder von den eltern oder pathen beschenkt werden gewöhnlich in der art, dasz sie im garten oder wol auch im zimmer die nach ihrem glauben vom osterhasen oder kukuk gelegten eier suchen müssen. die reifere jugend treibt mit diesen eiern mancherlei spiele. Commonly there are red or brightly-colored eggs (in Catholic churches, blessed on Easter evening along with other sweets), by which particularly the children and the parents or godparents usually share them in this way: that they must search either in the garden or in the house for eggs laid by Easter hares or cuckoos according to their thinking. Then the young do a great deal of playing with these eggs in a number of games.

A much later rhyme expresses a child’s enthusiasm:

O Osterhaas, O Osterhaas
Leg deine eier bald ins gras!

O Easter Bunny, O Easter Bunny
Lay your eggs quickly in the grass!

This is also quoted from Deutsches Wörterbuch and dates to 1859.

Osterspiele or Easter Games
Having found some eggs, children play a number of games with them. Egg rolling is more widely referenced than any other activity at Easter, including on a number of Scandinavian islands. Rolling eggs may have been meant to represent the movement of the Sun which is of particular interest at the equinoxes and solstices, but there is no way to be certain. We may perhaps grant that children just like to play with anything they can get their hands on. Generally egg rolling was played by simply letting eggs roll down a hill or small slope. A ramp could be used in the house, especially when the weather was inclement. Whichever child’s egg rolled farthest was deemed the winner, which would require that the eggs be differentiated somehow, presumably by the decoration. A slightly rougher version of an egg rolling game was a bit like bocci, in which players took turns and each player tried to roll their egg at the eggs of previous players hard enough to crack them. The last child to have an uncracked egg was considered the winner--at which time it is reported that all the children sat down and ate their eggs cracked or not, after they had been rolling them in the grass for hours. No wonder they sometimes got sick!

The luxury of coloring eggs may have been influenced by the prevalence of domestic fowl and especially chickens which were certainly not widespread in Europe before Roman times. Proto-Indo-European-speaking people probably had domesticated poultry such as water fowl, that is, geese and ducks, but most people did not have chickens until the early Middle-Ages. Reports come from Finland and other far northern countries that children went out and built nests of leaves and grass and put colored stones in them to try to encourage wild birds including ducks to lay eggs in them. This may be a relic of a very old practice which actually increased the food supply at this time of the year. Chickens do not do very well so far north, so the customs which held until recently (that is, two hundred years ago) in Finland or Estonia may accord with circumstances in more southern Indo-European-speaking areas before the introduction of chickens. It seems that the Easter Egg Hunt may long predate the Easter Bunny.

There is a vast literature of folklore about the powers of Easter eggs and readers may regale themselves with a million magical uses for eggs dyed bright colors at Easter, all nicely laid out in the books included in the reference section, however most of it is nonsense. One useful custom remains and that is to increase the fertility (e.g., to fertilize) the orchards, fields and gardens by spreading the broken eggshells around and this might actually have worked, at least a little. [fuggle26]

Deutsches Wörterbuch, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, S. Hirzel, Leipsig, 1854-1971.
Deutsche Mythologie by Jacob Grimm, (Teutonic Mythology in the Stallybrass translation), George Bell and Sons, London, 1883.
An Egg at Easter, A Folklore Study by Venetia Newall, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1971.

This page was originally at pierce.yolasite.com/eastereggs but Yola was hacked on Nov. 22, 2011 so it has been migrated here.

© 2011, last updated 3/13/2013, piereligion.org/eastereggs.html