Bites of History: Easter egg tradition reaches far and wide

All about the eggs

If the Easter Bunny brings your family a basket full of brightly colored eggs, keep in mind that Easter eggs were originally meant to be more than a seasonal decoration or a future ingredient for potato salad.

As far as anyone can tell, the egg-dying custom at Easter began in what is now Iraq and Kuwait, where early Christians stained eggs red in memory of the blood Christ shed at the crucifixion.

Another explanation is that Christians were not allowed to eat eggs during Lent. But since chickens kept laying, the faithful would boil and color accumulated eggs to mark the end of fasting, and then feast on their decorated goodies at Easter.

On the whole, Christians came to believe the egg represents the lifeless stone to the cave where Jesus was buried, and when an egg hatches, life springs from what seemed lifeless, thus symbolizing the resurrection.

But Christians certainly weren’t the first to decorate eggs. Engraved ostrich eggs more than 60,000 years old have been found in Africa. More than 2,500 years ago, Zoroastrians, the oldest religious group in Iran, decorated eggs for their New Year celebration. And ancient Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians and Hindus all believed the world began with a giant egg, and so every spring either painted or somehow celebrated the egg as a symbol of new life and rebirth.

Until relatively recently, folks in the U.S. stained Easter eggs with natural colors obtained from the bark of trees, leaves, flowers, berries and insects.

Today, we tend to turn to decorating kits with dye tablets that tint eggs cheerful colors. But back in Eastern Europe, some of the old dying methods live on. Some traditionalists even still perforate drained eggs or cover eggs in intricate embroidery or knitted designs.

In countries such as in Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and the Ukraine, artists also write on eggs using beeswax in a batik wax-resistant method. Many of these eggs are designed with the meaning of colors in mind, with red symbolizing fire and sun, black for absolutism and eternity, yellow for happiness and youth, green for spring and fertility, and blue for health and vitality.

The lines on intricately decorated eggs also have meaning, ranging from life, death and eternity, to water, purification and time. Egg decorating is taken so seriously in this region that the Ukrainian city of Kolomyia erected a museum for the pysanka, a decorated Easter egg, and it houses more than 10,000 elaborate specimens.

Then, of course, in Russia there’s the famous Fabergé Imperial Easter eggs, which aren’t real eggs at all, but egg-shaped jeweled works of art that had been commissioned for the czars. The Italians, too, are famous for faux Easter eggs, made of chocolate, which are massive and elaborately decorated and typically hold a gift inside.

Throughout the world, Easter eggs have become part of various traditions, with Germans tying dyed eggs in the branches of trees and girls in the Czech Republic giving Easter eggs to boyfriends on Easter Monday.

Bulgarians throw red Easter eggs close to the family house to keep evil spirits away.

Australian children exchange Easter eggs, which nowadays are usually chocolate, and French children have contests tossing eggs into the air.

The English have fun pace egging, with costumers performing a traditional play and begging for eggs and gifts.

In Great Britain, people also enjoy egg jarping, tapping opponents’ eggs until one breaks, which is similar to the egg pocking, la toquette, which the Cajuns still do here in south Louisiana.

Egg rolling, too, is popular in much of Europe, and this custom is nothing more than a contest to see whose egg rolls the farthest.

This ritual carried over to the U.S., with President Rutherford B. Hayes holding the first official White House egg roll in 1878.

Today, still, children push decorated, hard-boiled eggs across the White House lawn every Monday after Easter. But egg rolling really never caught on in south Louisiana. We do, however, have our traditions, including pocking in Cajun country and egg hunting there and everywhere else.

And then we do what we do best, find creative ways to turn a stash of something edible into dinner.

Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’s title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her through www.cynthianobles.com.

Sources: Geddes, Gordon and Jane Griffiths, Christian Belief and Practice, www.books.google.com/books; Egg Painting: the meaning of colors. www.Library.thinkquest.org; Easter Symbols and Traditions, www.history.com; Your Safe Food Handbook, www.fsis.usda.gov.