Although Easter is primarily celebrated as a religious Christian holiday, the traditions associated with the day of jubilee are often a favorite secular indulgence as well. Origins of many of Easter’s exploitive practices, such as the Easter Bunny, dying Easter eggs, parades, and the annual Easter Egg hunt are heavily rooted in pagan vernal rituals, which may be unknown to many who honor the holiday for its Christ-centric principles. The egg has, for as long as can be considered, been symbolized as a harbinger of new life. To date, the egg is used in many pagan festivals as a celebration of spring and the world awaking anew from its dormant winter slumber. In addition, many historical religious traditions involving Easter eggs is also unknown.
“Easter” eggs, or more specifically painted eggs, actually predate Christianity. There have been 60,000 year old decorated eggs that have been discovered in Africa, and as early as 3000 B.C., red dyed Persian eggs were given as gifts to honor the first day of spring. Christianity at some point adopted the practice of dying eggs red, retelling the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The red dye was to represent Christ’s blood shed on the cross, and the egg, cracked open–or “hatched,” on Easter Sunday was meant to symbolize Jesus emerging from the tomb, having been given new life.
Those who practice Greek Orthodox still follow this historical tradition, which can be dated back to the early Christian church in Mesopotamia. The exact reason the Orthodox Church adopted the tradition is still disputed among the practitioners. The most commonly told story is that since Mary Magdalene, who was Biblically the first to see the empty tomb after Christ’s resurrection, rushed to the Roman emperor to explain what she saw. The emperor told Mary that her story was erroneous and the only way he would believe her is if the eggs in the basket next to him would turn red, which legends say they did instantly. Another story tells the tale of the Virgin Mary offering the guardsmen of her son’s tomb a basket of eggs, so they would treat him with care. Grieving over the loss of her son while preparing the eggs, legend says that Jesus’ mother’s tears turned the eggs red. According to a different variation, an anonymous woman is said to have been doubtful of Christ’s resurrection unless the eggs in her hands turned red, which they did miraculously reforming her doubt.
The red dye associated with Greek Orthodox traditions comes from boiling the eggs with onion peels. Before contemporary commercial dye products, vegetable peelings, fruit juices, tree bark, and flower petals were used to color eggs, but using these natural products is no longer the most popular preparation. Launching its commercial dissolvable capsules in the 1880s, the PAAS Dye Co. was the first to package dye marketed for Easter egg coloring. Currently, the company claims to annually sell upwards of 10 million kits including dyes, paints, glitter, stickers, and more, which decorate nearly 180 million eggs.
The majority of Easter eggs today are not even real eggs. They are made from chocolate. In Scottish fish-and-chips shops sell deep-fried chocolate eggs at Easter time, and the world’s largest Easter egg, so announced by the Guinness Book of World Records, came from Belgium in 2005, weighing more than 2,600 pounds. The most expensive and valued Easter eggs were designed and crafted around the beginning of the last century as Easter presents for the families of Russian czars. They are known as the famous jewel-encrusted Fabergé eggs worth millions of dollars. There are only 65 known to exist.
Another historical account for the exchange of Easter eggs is that eggs were formerly a forbidden indulgence during the season of Lent. Participants of the faith would paint and decorate the vetoed food prior to Easter Sunday, and then eat them to honor the end of their penance and fasting as part of Easter’s feast and festival. In some European countries, a tradition similar to trick-or-treating is practiced where children run door-to-door to collect colored eggs, symbolizing a season of plenty. In Finland, it is common practice for children to beg in the streets with painted sooty faces carrying broomsticks and coffeepots. Scandinavian people also ignite bonfires on Easter Sunday to ward off witches that legend holds fly around between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
There are many other legendary vernal traditions that have nothing to do with decorated eggs. In Poland, there is Smingus-Dyngus. On Easter Monday, young men run around and drench others with buckets of water, squirt guns, or any other appropriate dousing vessel. According to legend, any girl who gets soaked on Easter Monday will be married within the year. The tradition has its roots in an Easter Monday baptism of Polish Prince Mieszko in 966 A.D. In Hungary, they celebrate “Ducking Monday,” or “Sprinkling.” Similar to the Polish tradition, boys playfully sprinkle perfumed water on ladies in exchange for a kiss. People held the belief that beyond having a cleaning or healing effect, the water was also fertility-inducing. Hungary, as well as the Czech Republic, is also known for its men spanking its women with a special decorative willow tree whip. It is only supposed to be a small pat, not intended to hurt. It is meant to bring the women good health in the coming year, and the men are to receive a holiday treat for the favor.
There are many American Easter traditions, but perhaps one that may be unfamiliar to much of the population is the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, which takes place the Monday after Easter. What makes this event unique is that it is the only time throughout the year that tourists are allowed on the presidential lawn. The gathering was started by Dolly Madison in the early 1800s on the Capitol lawn and later moved to the White House in 1878. Rutherford B. Hayes was president at the time. Presently about 4,000 children attend the Easter Egg Roll, and it is expected for the president to participate as well.
Commentary by Stacy Feder
Detroit Free Press