Saturday, April 07, 2007

Easter Eggs have been a long standing part of Easter tradition. Their use in the festivals of spring predated Christianity. The Passover Seder, for instance, uses a hard boiled egg as a symbol of new life and the Temple service in Jerusalem. The ancient Persian new year, Nowrooz, featured painted eggs. Similarly the egg featured in Roman, Chinese and Egyptian religion as well. Both the hare and the egg were sacred to the putative Saxon goddess Eostre (many variations on the name), even though there is limited information about this goddess- or even if she was actually worshipped at all. The earliest reference to Eostre is in the Venerable Bede's "On the Reckoning of Time" in which he gives an account of the English months. There is more than a little doubt about Bede's conclusions, and the meaning of the name of the month may be simply "the month of opening" or "the month of beginnings". As with old English there is no surviving textual reference for such a goddess in Old Norse. In 1835 Jacob Grimm (of the brothers Grimm) speculated on the existence of such a goddess in ancient German religion, and he gave her the name "Ostara". Unlike Bede Grimm fully admitted that what he wrote was speculation. Grimm also speculated that there was a connection between the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. Nowadays few people outside of neo-paganism and fundamentalist Christianity take this seriously. The "tradition" that Molly mentioned in an earlier blog about how the goddess Eostre aided a wounded bird by transforming it into a hare (that retained the ability to lay eggs) only dates to 1990 when it was created by the author Sarah Ban Breathnach. It reached a larger audience in 2002 when a version was published under the title 'The Coming of Eostre' in the children's' magazine 'Cricket'.
All that being, said a vast number of legends of the Easter egg have developed in mainstream Christianity as well. In Poland there were two entertaining legends. One concerns the Virgin Mary who was supposed to have given eggs to the soldiers present at the crucifixion. It was said that she urged them to be less cruel and wept. Mary's tears fell upon the eggs and spotted them with bright colours. Another Polish legend says that when Mary Magdalen went to the tomb of Jesus to anoint the body she was carrying a basket of eggs for her meal. When she uncovered them at the tomb they has miraculously turned from white to a rainbow of colours. In the Orthodox tradition Easter eggs are typically coloured red. The legend surrounding this is that a Roman emperor said that the story of the Resurrection was as likely as red eggs. Mary Magdalen supposedly went to the Emperor and presented him with a basket of red eggs as proof of the Resurrection. The traditional colour of Easter eggs in Greece is red while further north the traditional colour was green. In Slavic countries the traditional colours were gold and silver.
The tradition of the Easter bunny and his eggs supposedly came to America with German immigrants in the 18th century. The earliest Easter eggs in Europe were not just chicken eggs but also duck or goose eggs. Easter eggs customs are widespread in not just the Germanic cultures but also in Latin, Slavic and Orthodox countries, making it unlikely that they derive from presumed Teutonic religion. There are a number of customs surrounding egg contests in various parts of the world. In Scotland and North East England there are egg rolling contests where the eggs are rolled downhill. In the USA the races are sometimes held on flat ground, and the eggs are pushed by a spoon. The contest on the White House lawn each Easter is the most famous(MOLLY NOTE:- I intend to look up what has happened to this in the last few years of "the Empire besieged" and the resultant paranoia). There is also a tradition in North-East England and parts of the Balkans of "egg dumping", "egg jarping" or "tucanje" in the Balkans. This is a sort of marbles game where one hits an opponent's egg with one's own, and the intact one wins. In Germany there are egg throwing contests where the winners are judged by both distance and lack of breakage.
Artificial Easter eggs began to be made at the end of the 17th century, and in the early 1800s the first chocolate eggs appeared in Germany and France. The first chocolate eggs were solid, and hollow eggs followed later. Originally these were very difficult to make because the chocolate of that day was not easily worked. By the turn of the 19th century easily worked chocolate had become available and today the chocolate egg is worldwide.
A number of traditional Easter dishes feature eggs as a main ingredient. One example is the Spanish dish "hornazo". In both Catholic and Orthodox traditions eggs were forbidden during Lent, and any eggs produced during this season would have to be hard boiled for preservation. They were consumed at the end of Lent. The weirdest of these is the fact that apparently "deep fried chocolate Easter eggs' are sold in Scottish fish and chip shops around Easter. The stomach turns.
The "Easter bunny" is not an universal tradition. In France and Belgium the eggs are supposed to be dropped from the sky by the "cloches de Paques" (the Easter Bells). The Church bells were silenced on Good Friday and only rang again on Easter Sunday. According to the story the bells (pictured with wings) are supposed to have flown to Rome on Good Friday and come back loaded with eggs on Easter morning. In some jurisdictions in the USA overly politically correct politicians have attempted to ban the Easter bunny, or they have tried to rename it as the "Spring Bunny". In Australia there has been a government campaign to replace the Easter Bunny with the Easter Bilby (a native Australian marsupial) as rabbits are far from popular in Australia.
The Easter Bunny and his eggs have become the subject of many productions in popular culture, from 'Here Comes Peter Cottontail, through the Muppets and on to 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' where the Easter Bunny is mistaken for Santa Claus. A 'South Park' 'Fantastic Easter Special' provides an alternative origin of the Easter Bunny as part of a parody of 'The Da Vinci Code'. In the television series 'The Fairly Odd Parents' the Easter Bunny is the leader of a group of holiday characters that get the child Timmy Turner to unwish his wish of 'Christmas Every Day'. They also "take out" a rather thuggish Santa Claus.
The height of Easter egg production is perhaps the "pysanki" designs produced in Ukraine and Poland. These are produced by successive dips in wax and dye. After each dye dip wax is painted over the area where the preceding colour is to remain.
The famous Faberge eggs were first produced by the French shop of Faberge on a commission by Czar Alexander III as an Easter gift to his wife Maria Fyodorovna. These were like the matryoshka dolls with smaller eggs nestled inside the larger ones. The tradition was continued by the last Czar, Nicolas II, after the death of his father in 1895. Eggs were then made both for the Czar's wife and for his widowed mother. Altogether a total of 56 eggs (two of them unfinished) were made up to 1917. Only 54 of them have been located today. Materials used included silver, gold, copper, nickel and palladium. Local stone was used for general fabrication, and precious stones such as sapphire, ruby, emeralds and diamonds were used only for decoration. Another 12 Easter eggs were commissioned from the Faberge shop by the Siberian gold mine owner Alexander Ferdinanovich Kelch. The largest collection today is housed at the Kremlin Armoury Museum were there are 21 eggs. The present owner of the Faberge brand, Victor Mayer, continues to produce modern imitations to this day. In 1930 Stalin, hungry for cash, sold 14 of the eggs to international dealers, some for as little as $400 US. The Wikipedia site on these artifacts gives a complete listing of the eggs. Look at the other site above for viewing.
Molly on Easter

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