Next to the cross, the egg is the best known symbol of Easter. The custom of decorating special Easter eggs developed among the nations of Northern Europe and Christian Asia soon after their conversion to Christianity.
Our pre-Christian Indo-European ancestors had no scientific knowledge and were startled to see something alive emerge from a seemingly dead object - the egg. For them, the egg became a symbol of spring and fertility. The early Christians gave a religious interpretation to the egg. It reminded them of the rock tomb from which Christ emerged to a new life. Today’s Easter eggs remain as decorative symbols of the Resurrection.
Eggs were one of the foods forbidden during the long harsh fast of Lent, so they also became a special sign of Easter joy. The faithful then, as now, painted and colored them in bright colors. They had them blessed and ate them on Easter morning or presented them as gifts to their friends.
During medieval times, eggs were traditionally given to the children and to the servants along with other small gifts. In most countries the eggs were dyed with simple vegetable colors. Onion peels boiled with the eggs resulted in a soft yellow; beet juice was used to dye them red. Other herbs and roots added different colors to the palate.
The Chaldeans, Syrians, and Greeks dyed their Easter eggs crimson to symbolize the blood of Christ. In the Slavic countries, the people make the distinctive krashanky and the masterpieces of patience known as pysanki. The krashanky, or plain colored eggs, are used to break the Easter fast; the entire family shares one of the eggs as a symbol of hope and family unity. The pysanky are richly decorated with Christian symbols and are exchanged as gifts with friends and relatives.
The Armenians decorate blown eggs shells with religious pictures, and in some parts of Germany the eggs are hung on shrubs and trees much like we hang ornaments on our Christmas trees. In Southern Germany, elaborate sugar eggs became popular at the beginning of the last century.
In the Slavic countries, baskets of food including the ornately painted eggs are taken to the church on Holy Saturday to be blessed. In Ukraine, after Mass the families gather outside the church to admire the heavily laden Easter baskets. Each basket contains a lighted candle to symbolize the radiance of the resurrected Christ. Here, when religious freedom was still possible, the people celebrated Easter for three days. No work was done, the blessed food was eaten, and memorial services in honor of the dead were held. These services were not sad, but were joyous in anticipation of the promise of life everlasting.
The Roman ritual had a special blessing for Easter eggs: "We beseech thee, O Lord, to bestow thy benign blessing upon these eggs to make them a wholesome food for thy faithful who gratefully partake of them in honor of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ."
In Italy, bread was sometimes formed in the shape of an Easter basket as well as other fanciful shapes. These were presented to the Virgin and the saints in the churches as ex voto offerings.
In many Christian nations, Easter is a traditional day for an open house when friends and relatives come to visit. In the Near East, the Christians spend all of the day after Mass visiting friends. The adults enjoy chatting and the children are delighted with gifts of eggs and sweets.
For the Russians, Easter was a primary holiday for gift giving. During the last years of Tsarist rule in pre-Revolutionary Russia, the royal family commissioned many works from the talented jeweler Peter Carl Faberge. Among these were exquisite Easter eggs made from precious metals, jewels, semiprecious stones and exquisite enamel work. The eggs were gifts exchanged by the Tsar and Tsarina. Most contained a "surprise" inside; others had mechanical works. The first Imperial Easter egg was presented to the Empress Maria Feodorovna in 1884. After that, they exchanged eggs each year until the violent end of the Romanov dynasty. One of the most exquisite has cleverly constructed little doors. When each door is opened, the portrait of one of the royal children is displayed. Although our version of the Tsar’s family egg doesn’t have doors, it is a clever way to display small family photographs at Easter and can serve as a hand-made heirloom for years to come as well as a reminder to live our lives in the joy of the Resurrection.
Make Your Own Faux Faberge Family Eggs!
The late Ann Ball is the well-known author of several books on saints, crafts and history. Visit her website.