Why Do We Give Easter Eggs?
The egg is synonymous with Easter. While the gaily colored cardboard ones and rich chocolate ones that we enjoy are quite recent in origin, the real egg, decorated with colors or gilt, has been a symbol of continuing life and resurrection since pre-Christian spring celebrations. Given as gifts by the ancient Greeks, Persians, and Chinese at their spring festivals.
The exchange of eggs in the springtime is a custom that was centuries old when Easter was first celebrated by Christians. From the earliest times, the egg was a symbol of rebirth in most cultures. Eggs were often wrapped in gold leaf or, if you were a peasant, colored brightly by boiling them with the leaves or petals of certain flowers. The egg is nature's perfect package. It has, during the span of history, represented mystery, magic, medicine, food and omen. It is the universal symbol of Easter celebrations throughout the world and has been dyed, painted, adorned and embellished in the celebration of its special symbolism.
Before the egg became closely entwined with the Christian Easter, it was honored during many rite-of-Spring festivals. The Romans, Gauls, Chinese, Egyptians and Persians all cherished the egg as a symbol of the universe. It has been a symbol of life and fertility for many cultures.
With the advent of Christianity the symbolism of the egg changed to represent, not nature's rebirth, but the rebirth of man. Christians embraced the egg symbol and likened it to the tomb from which Christ rose. The shell can be seen as a nurturing, life giving tomb. The hatching chick represents Christ emerging from the tomb. Even as early as the Middle Ages, eggs were colored to be given as gifts at Easter.
Forbidden during the solemn fast of Lent, eggs were reintroduced on Easter Sunday, both as part of the feasting and as gifts for family, friends, and servants.
In France, the custom of offering eggs as Easter gifts began in the 4th century A.D. Church law dictated that Christians must abstain from eating meat or eggs during the 40 days of fasting (carême) that preceded Easter Sunday. This was a tough time for farmers, hens continued to lay eggs , but no one was eating them! On Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, organized groups of children would follow choirboys through the streets, collecting eggs. On Easter Sunday, the eggs were used to make an omelet. Legend had it that if on Easter Day, the first thing eaten was an egg that had been laid on Good Friday, you would be protected from illness until the following Easter.
During the reign of Louis XIV, a tradition evolved where the King was entitled to the largest egg laid during the week preceding Easter Sunday. On Easter, colored eggs painted with gold leaf were blessed. Then, the king would ceremoniously distribute the eggs to his courtisans and valets. The custom was abolished in France after the Revolution, but it continued to be practiced by royals in other countries.
For a time, eggs were also used as a form of currency. Once a year clerics and students, many who were living in poverty, would trudge through the streets of Paris, carrying an egg basket, and collecting what they could.
Eventually, these customs evolved and people began to offer chocolate eggs instead. Other traditions emerged, such as hiding colored and decorated eggs and organizing Easter egg hunts.
Originally Easter eggs were painted with bright colors to represent the sunlight of spring and were used in Easter-egg rolling contests or given as gifts. After they were colored and etched with various designs the eggs were exchanged by lovers and romantic admirers, much the same as valentines. In medieval time eggs were traditionally given at Easter to the servants. In Germany eggs were given to children along with other Easter gifts.
Easter Egg Decorating
Different cultures have developed their own ways of decorating Easter eggs. Red eggs, to honor the blood of Christ, are exchanged in Greece. In parts of Germany and Austria green eggs are used on Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday). Slavic peoples decorate their eggs in special patterns of gold and silver.
Austrian artists design patterns by fastening ferns and tiny plants around the eggs, which are then boiled. The plants are then removed revealing a striking white pattern. The Poles and Ukrainians decorate eggs with simple designs and colors. A number of eggs are made in the distinctive manner called pysanki.
In Germany and other countries eggs used for cooking were not broken, but the contents were removed by piercing the end of each egg with a needle and blowing the contents into a bowl. The hollow eggs were died and hung from shrubs and trees during the Easter Week. The Armenians would decorate hollow eggs with pictures of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other religious designs.
Easter Egg Games
Eggs play an important role in Easter sports. Two traditional Easter egg games are the Easter Egg Hunt and the Easter Egg Roll. The Romans celebrated the Easter season by running races on an oval track and giving eggs as prizes.
On Easter morning the children join in a search to locate the eggs that the Easter Bunny had hidden while they where asleep. The eggs may be hidden throughout the house in places with poor weather, or in the yard if the weather is fair. Sometimes prizes are given to the child who finds the most eggs.
Some communities also celebrate Easter with a public hunt. The eggs are hidden in a park or other location and the children of the community are invited to find them. Sometimes a special egg is hidden and the child who finds it receives a prize.
The Egg Roll
The point of an Easter Egg Roll is to see who can roll an egg the greatest distance or can make the roll without breaking it, usually down a grassy hillside or slope.
Probably the most famous egg rolling takes place on the White House Lawn every year. Hundreds of children come with baskets filled with brightly decorated eggs and roll them down the famous lawn, hoping the President of the United States is watching the fun.
The United States White House Easter Egg Roll
Tradition says that Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison (1809-1817) was responsible for the first Egg Roll, which was held not at the White House but on the grounds of the Capitol. An old description of that first celebration reads:
At first the children sit sedately in long rows; each has brought a basket of gay-colored hard-boiled eggs, and those on the upper terrace send them rolling to the line next below, and those pass on the ribbon-like streams to hundreds at the foot, who scramble for the hopping eggs and hurry panting to the top to start them down again. And as the sport warms, those on top who have rolled all the eggs they brought finally roll themselves, shrieking with laughter. Now comes a swirl of curls, ribbons and furbelows, somebody's dainty maid indifferent to the bumps and grass stains. A set of boys who started in a line of six with joined hands are trying to come down in somersaults without breaking the chain...
As might be imagined, not everyone was pleased with this kind of activity (not to mention the effect it had on the Capitol lawn) and it was discontinued in 1878. There's an old, unproven, story which claims that this caused unhappy children carrying their Easter baskets to march to the White House in protest. They were invited to use the White House lawn by a sympathetic President Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife.
The White House Egg Roll is now a tradition. Adults are admitted to the usually private White House grounds only if accompanied by a child. Eggs and candy are hidden for the children to find, and eggs are rolled down the slight slope of the south lawn off Truman balcony. When in town, the President and First Lady take part in the celebration.
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