In my childhood Easter egg hunts were something to look forward to. Coloring the hardboiled hen eggs was the first step, and I remember having an envelope with tablets of different colored dyes to dissolve in warm water plus a little vinegar. There were also some candy eggs that didn’t taste very good. Having an Easter egg hunt outdoors after an adult hid the hardboiled eggs was fun for the little kids. What I didn’t know as a child was all the symbolism associated with Easter eggs.
I certainly had no idea that Easter eggs were supposed to symbolize the empty tomb from which Jesus was resurrected. Only recently did I become aware that there was an ancient tradition of staining Easter eggs with the color red to represent the blood of Christ, shed at the time of his crucifixion.
In fact the practice of decorating eggshells as part of spring rituals goes back much farther than the Christian era. Decorated and engraved ostrich eggs that are 60,000 years old have been found in Africa. As early as 5,000 years ago, in Egypt and Mesopotamia, eggs were associated with death and rebirth, and decorated eggs were commonly placed in graves of the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians. It is thought that these cultural practices may have influenced early Christian cultures to use eggs as symbols.
In 1610 the Christian Church officially adopted the custom of coloring Easter eggs red as a memorial for the bloodshed of Jesus. However, texts of much older date mention a tradition of Easter blessing of certain foods, including one for eggs, along with bread, lamb, and new produce. This was a blessing for nourishment rather than symbolism.
As for the Easter basket of foods, one of my elderwriters shared a story about the Polish tradition of having a priest bless a basket containing the “holy menu” of Easter food. This ritual was performed the Saturday before Easter to thank God for all his gifts. The key ingredients of the basket were eggs, sausage, breads, and butter (molded into the shape of a lamb).
The crowning touch of the Polish Easter basket was richly decorated eggs, symbolic of rebirth and immortality. In preparation, fresh eggs were first washed in a vinegar solution, then boiled and cooled. Elaborate decorations were penned in wax to create curlicues or Easter greetings or symbols. The eggs were dipped into dye solutions and allowed to soak until the desired hue was achieved.
As a child I never even heard about Easter egg rolling as a traditional game played at Easter. In England, Germany, and other countries children traditionally rolled eggs down hillsides at Easter. This tradition was brought to the U.S. by European settlers, and it continues to this day with an Easter egg roll on the White House lawn.
A Latin American tradition called Cascarones is now practiced in many U.S. states with Hispanic populations. Emptied and dried chicken eggs are stuffed with confetti and sealed with a piece of tissue paper. The eggs are hidden in a similar tradition to the American Easter egg hunt, and when found the children break them over each other’s heads.
One more Easter egg tradition is worth mentioning: A Fabergé egg is a jewel-encrusted egg created by the House of Fabergé. The most famous are those made for the Russian Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II as Easter gifts for their wives and mothers. Fifty of these “imperial” eggs were manufactured between 1885 and 1917, and forty-three of them are believed to be still around.
Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches older adults to write their autobiographies and family histories. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.