Here it is, Easter, and you may have boiled and colored eggs with your children or grandchildren. If so, you’ll be joining in a tradition that goes back hundreds of years.
I was when I first learned about Easter eggs in medieval times. Never would it have occurred to me that more than a thousand years ago eggs were boiled, and even colored, to become a part of what was considered the most meaningful and solemn of Christian holidays.
In fact, eggs have been considered symbols of spring and of rebirth for thousands of years. Ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians and the Romans may have used eggs as symbols of new life and fertility, it is believed.
Even the name “Easter” is thought to have come from Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, according to 8th Century writer, the Venerable Bede. The month coinciding with our April was called “Eostremonat” or Eostre’s month. That name eventually could have been tied to the Christian holiday held in that month. Christian Easter then could have assimilated the earlier symbols.
Yet, how does an egg connect to the death and resurrection of Jesus? It is perceived as the tomb, from which Jesus arose—an empty shell, appearing dead, yet from which comes life. It is a symbol of new life, as mentioned earlier.
Those earliest Easter eggs were called Pace Eggs (or paschal eggs), because the Christian Easter period was first called Pasch, coming from the word Passover.
Lent, which includes forty days of fasting, prohibited consumption of meat and dairy products. Chickens didn’t stop laying during that period, so many eggs were boiled to preserve them. (In reality, I’m not sure how long those eggs lasted—have you ever kept a real hard-boiled egg for several days, especially unrefrigerated? They don’t smell too good. I can’t imagine what they were like after 40 days.)
Nevertheless once Easter arrived, depending upon the country, the eggs were given to guests and/or employed in a game in which the ends were tapped against others’ eggs to see which could last without breaking. In some parts of England, children rolled them down hills, seeing which eggs could reach the bottom with fewest cracks.
Some eggs were painted or dyed, red for the blood of Christ (in some countries); the colors of the local lord, complete with heraldic figures, in others. In some Eastern European countries, they were gilded gold and silver in elaborate patterns.
Less well-off folks could boil them in onion skins, often with string wrapped around to provide a design. Some people used beet juice to impart pink color or spinach water for green. Other means were employed for decorating, as well, such as using wax at succeeding stages of boiling in different colors to produce a multi-colored, marble-looking egg.
Today, eggs are such an ordinary food staple, we don’t consider them symbolic of anything. Yet to medieval folks, they represented new life—in the earth’s cycle of death and rebirth/renewal, in the new life represented by Christ’s death and resurrection. They were an essential part of the Easter celebration.
This year, when my grandchildren and I color eggs, I plan to share this story of the ancient Easter egg.
But I don’t think we’ll try the onion skin method of boiling.
If you’d like a recipe for the old-fashioned Pace Eggs, try this link: www.lavenderandlovage.com
Other sources include: Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Medieval Holidays and Festivals, 1981. Pearson Education publishing as Fact Monster; Jordan, Anne. Christianity. (5 April 2000); Harbaugh, H. The Guardian, Volume 29 (1878); www.medievalisterrant.wordpress.com; www.medieval-life.net; and for quick references, Wikipedia.