Egg-splaining Easter traditions

April 09, 2004|by Chris Copley

When it comes to starvation, modern Americans are privileged.With fast food restaurants sprinkled on commercial strips and grocery store shelves packed with food 12 months a year, the typical American family does not see hunger as a real issue.

So the coming of spring is more about pleasant weather and blooming flowers than about life and death.

But for families in temperate climates throughout most of history, growing food for basic nutrition has been a top priority. For farmers and herders, the coming of spring meant the beginning of the growing season, the birth of livestock, the time to plant seeds for a (hopefully) bountiful harvest in the fall.

For early European Christians, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus was a perfect fit for the season of spring. After months of dreary winter and seven weeks of the Christian season of Lent - with its emphasis on confession of sin - Easter represented a new start, a new life, a heart filled with joy.


Easter and spring traditions have blended into one joyful holiday. And many of these customs center on food and fertility.

Easter eggs

Eggs have long been part of Easter and coming-of-spring celebrations. Many ancient cultures have considered eggs to be a symbol for life. The Romans had a proverb: Omne vivum ex ovo - "All life comes from an egg."

Eggs were dyed and eaten at the spring festivals in ancient Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome, according to the Holiday Spot Web site at www.theholiday- Historians speculate this custom may have been brought to Europe by Crusaders returning home from battling Muslims in Palestine at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea.

Some eggs were dyed solid colors - red was popular; the wealthy used gold leaf - and others were decorated with designs. Eastern Europeans created pysanky - eggs colored with successive dipping in dye and decorated with a resist of beeswax applied in fine lines. Pysanky's geometric symbols reflect the animals, plants and Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions of Ukraine - pine needles symbolize health or eternal youth; diamonds symbolize knowledge; deer symbolize prosperity; ladders symbolize prayer; crosses symbolize Christ; wheat symbolizes wishes for good health and a good harvest; and so on.

One Ukrainian tradition, according to folklorist James S. Griffith of the University of Arizona, holds that each time a woman makes a pysanky, the Devil is pushed further into captivity. But if fewer pysanky are made, the Devil strengthens. If the making of pysanky should stop, tradition says, evil will reign on Earth.

Easter eggs have prompted playful traditions, too. Playing hide and seek with eggs has been common for centuries. Less common is the traditional egg roll. Children roll their eggs down a hillside, sometimes more than once; the winning egg is not the fastest but the egg that cracks last. One egg roll variant is to race across a flat field using a spoon to push the egg forward.

Another game is the egg-knocking game. Competitors pair off and knock their Easter eggs together. The egg that cracks loses; the uncracked egg advances. Pairs of children continue to knock eggs until only one person is left with an uncracked egg and is declared the winner.

Easter Bunny

OK, class. Name an animal renowned worldwide for its fertility. The rabbit? Right.

Hares and rabbits with their frequent, large litters have had a reputation for fertility among many ancient cultures. So the rabbit is a natural symbol of spring and new life.

Scholars don't know exactly when the tradition of the Easter Bunny began. The first published reference to a rabbit as a symbol of Easter dates to Germany in the 1500s. The Easter Bunny - by this time connected to colored Easter eggs - was brought to the New World by German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania in the 1700s. Easter rabbits sometimes were said to lay colored Easter eggs.

German children prepared for the coming of the Easter Bunny by building a nest using their cap or bonnet in a hidden spot in their home or garden. If the children had been good, the Easter Bunny would fill their nest with Easter eggs.

Other Easter traditions

The Herald-Mail Articles