Painted wooden egg, Archangel Michael - Bulgarian

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    Easter Eggs         

Hard-boiled eggs dyed all of the colors of the rainbow, eggs made of chocolate and other confections, plastic eggs filled with candy or tiny prizes, pysanki (eggs decorated in the Ukrainian fashion), painted wooden eggs, beaded eggs,  porcelain eggs,  jeweled  eggs

by Faberge--at Easter, eggs of every imaginable material and style appear.  Priests bless eggs and distribute them at church, people exchange eggs as gifts, children find them in baskets in their homes or hunt for them in gardens or roll them over the lawn.  It is hard to imagine Easter without eggs.  But what are they all about?

Ukrainian pysanka

As a source of new life, the egg was a symbol of creation, spring, and fertility in many cultures and religions, long before the advent of Christianity.  The ancient Persians exchanged eggs at the spring equinox, Romans gave red-painted eggs as gifts at the new year, and to this day an egg is one of the symbolic foods on the plate at the Passover Seder which celebrates the new life of the people of Israel when they were redeemed from slavery in Egypt. 


Christianity inherited this rich natural symbolic tradition.  However, the great spring festival of Easter, the Christian Passover, added a new meaning to the symbolism of the egg, for just as the hard shell of the egg is broken open so that new life can emerge, so was the rock-hewn tomb of Jesus broken open when he rose from the dead on the third day.   Ancient cultures saw the egg as a symbol of the rebirth of nature, but Christians came to see it as a symbol of the rebirth of mankind.
 

Painted wooden egg, victorious Lamb of God - Russian

It is often the case when symbols carry over from an old context to a new one that the symbols retain aspects of their former appearance.  Christians were not the first to color and decorate eggs, but when they adopted the egg as a symbol of the resurrection, they needed new traditions, new explanations for symbols which had acquired a new meaning.  These explanations are rarely found in Scripture.  More often than not, they are glosses on Scripture.  They are almost always rich and reverent extensions of canonical accounts, adding a layer of personal detail so that the symbolism of the egg not only has theological content, but has the effect of putting the recipient of an egg into the middle of the sacred story.  The basic stories have many variations.  Various cultures have their particular versions.


Scratch pattern egg - Czechoslovakian

Eggs in Christian Tradition

Simon of Cyrene is one of the little heroes of the Passion of our Lord.  An unsuspecting bystander, he is pressed into service by the Roman soldiers when Jesus collapses under the weight of his cross.  They compel Simon to carry the cross for Jesus for the remainder of the walk to Calvary.   But who is Simon?  And why is he in Jerusalem that day? 


Mark provides a partial answer to the first question.  Simon is the father of Alexander and Rufus.  Apparently these are men who would have been known to the members of Mark's community.  Presumably, they were Christians.  No doubt, they would have told their fellow believers all about their father's terrible, yet awesome experience.  They would have known why he was in town that day. 


An old tradition gives this explanation:  Simon was a farmer. He had come into Jerusalem that day to sell his produce to city folk who were preparing the Passover  feast to be eaten  that  evening.   Simon had eggs to sell,  something  that everyone would need for the Seder table.  When the soldiers forced him to carry the cross of Jesus, Simon had no choice but to leave his basket of eggs behind.  Remarkably, when he returned for his basket later in the day, it was still there, and not an egg was missing.  But, even more remarkably, the eggs were no longer white, but were brightly colored.  Christians continue to color eggs in memory of the first man to take up the cross of Jesus.
 

Ukrainian pysanka

The Gospels tell us that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, stood by his cross through the long hours of the afternoon of Good Friday.  In Eastern Europe it is said that she had with her a basket of eggs which she set on the ground near the cross.  The eggs reddened as blood from the wounds of Jesus dropped on them.  Romanians  recall  that, seeing  this, Jesus said to those who were

there, "From now on, you, too, shall paint eggs in red to remember my crucifixion, as I did today."  A Polish legend says that Mary gave eggs to the soldiers at the cross and asked them to be less cruel to her son.  As she spoke, she wept, and her tears fell on the eggs, spotting them with brilliant color.  Ukrainians relate that Mary gathered the eggs into her kerchief and went to the palace of Pontius Pilate to beg  for the  body of  her Son in order to bury  him. On the  way, she  gave her eggs to each child she met.  Finally arriving at Pilate's house, Mary fainted and the eggs from her kerchief rolled all over the world.  From that day, it became the custom for people everywhere to decorate eggs and give them to one another at Easter.
 

Eastern Orthodox Christians call Mary Magdalene "Equal to the Apostles".  This is not a hint of suppressed arcane traditions about Mary.  Rather, it refers to the biblical accounts which show that Mary Magdalene was the very first witness of the resurrection.  To be considered an Apostle, one had to be a personal witness of the risen Lord.  However, although there were actually quite a few witnesses of the resurrection (Paul says there were more than 500, including James, the brother of Jesus), there were a limited number of Apostles.  Nevertheless, the Church has recognized  that,  in  addition to those called to

Icon of St. Mary Magdalene

be  Apostles, there have been, throughout the history of the Church, some whose lives have made them worthy to be called "Equal to the Apostles". 

Mary Magdalene is one of the myrrh-bearing women who went to the tomb early on the first day of the week, when the Sabbath was over, to anoint the body of Jesus.  One tradition says that she took a basket of eggs with her to the tomb since she planned to stay there to mourn and would need something to eat.  When she arrived at the tomb and uncovered the eggs, she found that the white eggs were now all the colors of the rainbow.
 

The sainted woman of Magdala was not a passive witness to the resurrection.  According to tradition she was a woman of high standing who used her wealth to travel and bear witness to the risen Lord. She even gained entrance to the court of the Emperor Tiberius Caesar. When she met Tiberius, she held an egg in her hand and announced "Christ is risen!"  The Emperor laughed at her and said that someone rising from the dead  was as likely as the egg in her hand turning red.   Of course, that is exactly what happened:  the egg turned red and she continued to proclaim the good news to the imperial household.  Icons of Mary Magdalene often show her holding a red egg and it is the custom of the Greeks to color their Easter eggs red. 

Carved wooden eggs

Easter Egg Customs

Customs involving eggs are widespread and diverse in the countries of the eastern Mediterranean basin, northern Europe, and North America, but less popular in southern Europe and South America.  In older traditions, eastern and western, eggs were, and in some traditions still are, one of the foods that were given up for Lent and one of the first foods eaten to break the fast.  Often, the custom of giving eggs at Easter was an act of holy charity, as well as celebration.  An Irish tradition dictates the number of eggs to be given to people of different status:  more eggs are to be given to someone who is poor than to someone who is better off.  Children came to expect eggs.  The rhymes which were created to express their expectation sometimes have a tone similar to the "trick or treat" demands of Hallowe'en.  An Austrian version sings:

We sing, we sing the Easter song:
God keep you healthy, sane and strong.
Sickness and storms and all other harm
Be far from folks and beast and farm.
Now give us eggs, green, blue and red;
Or else your chicks will all drop dead.

One cannot help but note that the sentiment seems to be a bit lacking in the true paschal spirit.  Nevertheless, the custom of giving eggs survives.  In 1307, King Edward I of England is reported to have had 450 eggs boiled and decorated to be given to the members of the royal household at Easter. 

Goose egg pysanka - Ukrainian

Before the invention of modern dyes, eggs were colored with vegetable dyes.  The Greeks boil their eggs in onion skins to get the necessary red color which is also favored in much of Christian Asia.  In Germanic countries, there are green eggs on Maundy Thursday, and eggs of many colors on Easter.  Patterns are created on the eggs in different ways.  In Austria tiny plants are fastened around the eggs while they are being boiled, leaving a white pattern when the process is complete. 

The Ukrainian art of pysanki is one of the most elaborate and famous methods of decorating eggs.  The name comes from the Ukrainian word pysati, to write.  The eggs are decorated by "writing" patterns with beeswax to shield sections of the egg from the dye.  After each bath in successively darker colored dyes, additional patterns are written until the dying is complete.  The wax is then removed, revealing an intricately colored work of art. 

Ukrainian pysanka             Ukrainian pysanka - Trypillyan pattern (5000-3000 B.C.)            Ukrainian pysanka

 

 

 

There is a whole vocabulary of the symbols which are used to decorate the eggs.  Many of the symbols are universal, drawn from nature:  the sun and stars, flowers and fruits, leaves and trees, animals, birds and fish.  Sometimes the pagan meaning is simply carried over to the Christian use of the symbol, and sometimes a new layer of meaning is added.  A fish is an ancient symbol of health and also a symbol of Christ himself.  A pine tree represents youth and health, as well as the Christian hope of eternal life.  A rooster is a symbol of fertility, and also a reminder of the cock  that  crowed  when Peter denied his Lord.   Geometrical symbols are also popular:  a triangle represents the human family--father, mother, and child--as well as the Holy Trinity.  An egg with forty triangles represents the forty days of Lent.  Specifically Christian symbols such as the cross and a church need no interpretation.

                                     Ukrainian pysanka on turtle stand

Eggs are symbolic, but they are also food.  They are often the first food to be eaten at the end of the Lenten fast.  In Eastern Europe it is traditional for people to begin their Easter breakfast by sharing a blessed egg.  Before sitting down to eat, the father of the family gives each person a small piece cut from the egg and wishes her or him a happy feast.  Everyone eats the morsel in silence before sitting down to the first meal of the festival.

In some European countries, eggs used to cook Easter foods are not broken but the ends are pierced with a needle and the contents are blown into a bowl, preserving the shell for other purposes:  children use them for games and eggs are suspended on trees and shrubs much like ornaments on a Christmas tree.  Armenians decorate empty eggs with religious symbols and pictures of Christ and his Mother and give them to children as gifts. 

Russian egg - wax decoration                          Beaded egg

One popular game with hard boiled eggs around the world is egg rolling.  Egg rolling has been a fixture of the season in Washington, D.C., since before the Civil War.  The original object of the game was to roll the egg down the hill without breaking it.  This would appear to be a derivative of egg-pecking, or knocking, still played by children and adults in many churches.  Two people knock their eggs together, saying "Christ is risen!"  The purpose actually is to break open the symbolic tomb, so the "winner" is the person whose egg breaks other eggs.  The owner of the egg that cracks all of the others open is considered to be specially blessed. 

Another game is the Easter egg hunt.  The search for eggs again recalls Mary Magdalene who went looking for the body of Jesus when she found that the tomb was empty.  In this game, eggs may be hidden in a house or in a garden and children hunt for eggs to fill their baskets.  Children in France are told that the eggs were dropped by the church bells on their return from Rome.  Parents explain that the bells fall silent on Maundy Thursday because they have gone on pilgrimage to Rome and do not return until Easter.

                        

We are always looking for new ways to decorate eggs. The two eggs above are called "Washi eggs." This is a Japanese method of decorating eggs, using patterned origami paper which is cut and pasted on to the eggs. Here is a link to a site that explains the process.


Faberge egg - coronation coach

Finally, a word about the most elaborate eggs of all.  In 1885, or thereabouts, Carl Faberge, jeweler to the imperial court of Russia, proposed to Tsar Alexander III that he create a unique egg for the Tsar to present to the Tsarina on Easter.  The idea was Faberge's and the only thing he would tell even the Tsar was that there was to be a surprise inside the egg.  What appeared to be an egg was in fact full of tiny jeweled surprises.  The Tsar was delighted and gave Faberge a commission to create a new egg each year, always to be given to the Tsarina.  Upon the accession of Nicholas II, the custom continued, but there were two eggs each year, one for the Dowager Empress and the second for the new Tsarina.  Each egg is a masterpiece of the jeweler's art, and each egg contained a surprise, such as the 1897 miniature replica of the imperial coach used the year before at the coronation of Nicholas and Alexandra.  Forty-nine of these unique creations were produced by Faberge--some even had a recognizably religious motif!


Painted wooden egg, Pantocrator - Bulgarian

The Blessing of Eggs at Easter

In many churches, it is the custom to bless various foods at Easter.  On Holy Saturday, Eastern Orthodox Christians bring baskets of special foods, including cheese and eggs, to be blessed by the priest in preparation for breaking the fast on Pascha:

O Master, Lord our God, the Creator and Maker of all things:  Bless this curdled milk and with it these eggs, and preserve us in Your goodness, that partaking of these, we may be filled with Your gifts, which You bestow on us ungrudgingly, together with Your unspeakable goodness.  For Yours is the dominion, Yours is the Kingdom and the power and the glory:  of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen. >  

It is also customary for Blessed eggs to be distributed to the faithful at the end of the Liturgy.  Similar customs are observed in many western churches.  In the 16th century, Pope Pius V approved this blessing to be used for the eggs: 

Bless, O Lord, we beseech Thee, this Thy creature of eggs, that it may become a wholesome sustenance to Thy faithful servants, eaten in thankfulness to Thee, in honor of the Resurrection of Our Lord.

Similar prayers are found in the customs of local churches.

Most Holy God, whose majesty and purpose are veiled in ineffable mystery, yet wonderfully manifest in the most fragile of the works of thy hand:  Bless these eggs to be signs of the Tomb which could not hold thy Son; grant that they may give wholesome nourishment to thy faithful people who are baptized into his death and share in the new life of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit in glory everlasting. Amen.

The Book of Occasional Services of the Episcopal Church provides this prayer for use by households and in parishes at a meal:

O Lord our God, in celebration of the Paschal feast we have prepared these eggs from your creation:  Grant that they may be to us a sign of the new life and immortality promised to those who follow your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Ukrainian pysanka on swan stand


Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!


A Recipe for Tsoureki
(Greek Easter bread with red eggs)

This braided bread recipe has its origins in the Byzantine Era. One does not have to be a theologian to understand the correlation between the Easter season and bread making as nearly any yeast-activated bread will rise again when properly prepared.


Ingredients:

2-7 gram packets active dry yeast
2 cups warm milk
9 to 10 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 tsp. Makhlepi (optional; essence drawn from the seeds of
                           Mediterranean wild cherries)
8 Tbs. butter, melted and cooled
5 eggs
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbs. grated orange rind (zest)
1 Tbs. grated lemon rind (zest)
hard-cooked red-dyed eggs (optional)

For glaze:
2 Tbs. orange juice
2 Tbs. sugar
1/4 cup slivered almonds

 

tsoureki

In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warmed milk. Stir in 1 cup flour and 1/2 cup sugar, cover bowl with plastic wrap and set aside for 1-hour. Steep makhlepi (if utilizing) in 1/2 cup simmering water for about 5-minutes. Strain mixture and discard seeds. Set remaining liquid aside to cool.

Stir 1/2 cup water or makhlepi-scented liquid into the yeast mixture. Add butter and eggs and thoroughly combine. Sift in 8 cups of flour, salt and remaining sugar into bread mixture. Add salt, orange and lemon zest, and mix thoroughly with a large wooden spoon. Turn out dough onto a floured surface. Knead, adding more flour if necessary, until smooth, approximately 10 minutes. Form the dough into a ball and place in a lightly greased bowl. Cover the dough with a clean dish towel and set aside to rise for about 2 hours.

Return dough to the floured surface. Divide the dough into 6 equal parts and roll into ropes about 15 inches long. For each loaf, loosely braid 3 ropes, turn under ends and press dyed eggs (optional) into the center of the braids. Set bread aside to rise again for at least 1 hour on a lightly greased cookie sheet.

Meanwhile, prepare a glaze by mixing the orange juice, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and the almonds in a bowl.

Pre-heat oven to 350 F/180 C degrees.  Bake for 30 minutes.  Remove from the oven and glaze the top and sides of the loaves.  Return the loaves to the oven and bake until the color is a rich and shiny chestnut, approximately 20 minutes. Store cooled bread in an airtight container or serve warm.  Note:  the eggs are for decoration only!  After baking, they will be inedible.

St. Paul - Russian porcelain egg

If you found this page interesting, you might also like to read our newest page on Easter Customs.

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