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Friday, 22 March 2013

Easter Traditions

Have you ever wondered why Easter’s Day is on a different date every year?  Well, many years ago the Church decided that Easter Day would always fall on the Sunday following the first full moon after the first day of Spring (21st March).  This meant that Easter could be as early as 22nd March or as late as 25th April on any given year in the West, such as in UK, America, etc., where the Gregorian calendar is used; in the East, where the Julian calendar is adopted, Easter could be as late as May.

Easter is the most important of the Christian religious festivals.
Long before Christianity people in Europe worshipped the Goddess of Spring, 'Eostre'.  They believed that the Sun died in winter and was re-born again in Spring (easy to believe in UK and some Nordic countries!).  They thought that Eostre brought back Spring and that it would encourage the Sun to get stronger.  Some believe that Easter’s name derives from this Goddess.
In most countries though, Easter is called a variation of Pasch (Passover), which remains the name most used in non-English language countries.

Easter is preceded by a period of abstinence – Lent.  Historically, before Lent began, eggs - as well as other rich food - would be eaten in every household before Lent began.   This accounts for Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) or Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day) the day before Ash Wednesday, the day which Lent officially begins.  Both in Western and Eastern Christianity, eggs, meat and dairy products were prohibited during Lent.  Pancake Day originated by the need to use all the eggs in the household before the period of Lent began.
In the Orthodox Church, Lent begins on a Monday, rather than on a Wednesday, to give more time to use up all the ingredients in the house before Lent.  As chickens could not be stopped from laying eggs during Lent – and in the old days it would have been difficult to store eggs for as long as 40 days – any egg that did not hatch would be preserved by being boiled to lengthen its edible life.  This has confirmation in the many recipes containing hard boiled eggs or eggs in general as a main ingredient, that are found in many countries (i.e. Spain-Hornazo, Hungary, etc.) as typical Easter’s recipes.

With the arrival of Easter, eggs could be eaten again.
Before Christianity, giving eggs at Easter was associated with the celebration of new life as well as a practical gesture - as 40 days without eating eggs must have left households with an excess of them and they would have been particularly welcome by people without chickens as well as not eaten eggs throughout Lent.  The egg is traditionally associated as a symbol of fertility and rebirth.  Eggs were thought to be special because although they do not seem alive, they have life within them, especially when chicks hatch out at springtime.

The tradition may also have merged into the celebrations after Lent.  It seems that the custom of Easter eggs originated in Mesopotamia.  And that the Christian Church officially adopted the custom of regarding eggs as a symbol of the resurrection, in 1610.
Parallels between Christianity and the celebration of Passover in Judaism are also notable because of Christ celebrating Passover with his disciples on the evening before Good Friday.

In addition, eggs have been viewed as symbols of new life and fertility through the ages. It is believed that for this reason many ancient cultures, including the ancient Egyptians, Persians and Romans, used eggs during their Spring festivals.  Slowly the tradition of giving eggs developed into a tradition of giving gifts of eggs carved from wood, precious stones, etc.   

Decoration and symbolism

In the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Church, Easter eggs are dyed red to represent the blood of Christ.  Easter eggs are blessed by the priests at the end of the Vigil (the Saturday before Easter Sunday) and distributed among the presents.

Easter eggs are a widely popular symbol of new life in Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, etc.).  Eggs are decorated by using a batik process which is used to create intricate, brilliantly coloured eggs.  The best-known are the pysanka or pisanka from Ukraine and Poland (see further on).
An example of intricately decorated eggs are the Fabergé eggs.  Be-jewelled eggs created for the Imperial Russian Court at Easter.  Most of these creations contained hidden surprises such as clockwork birds, miniature ships, etc. 
Easy to see how the custom to give an egg at Easter has developed into the Easter egg of nowadays.

When boiling eggs for Easter, a popular tan colour was achieved by boiling the eggs with onion skins. A greater variety of colours was often provided by tying the onion skin to the egg with different coloured yarns.  In Northern England these eggs are called pace-eggs or paste-eggs, which derive from the middle-age English: ‘pasche’.

The first sweet eggs to be eaten, were created in the last 100 years, and were made from sugar or marzipan. Since then chocolate eggs have become popular and these are now mainly given on Easter Sunday.
Nowadays around 80 million of chocolate eggs are eaten in Britain each year.

Pysanka or pisanka


The pysanka is an Ukrainian Easter egg, decorated using a batik method with wax.  The word comes from the verb ‘pysaty’ - to write. The designs were written on the eggs with beeswax.
In Ukraine pysanka are typically made to be given to family members. Giving a pysanka is to give a gift of life, and for this reason the egg must remain whole.  Each designs and colour applied to the pysanka has a symbolic meaning and traditionally the designs were chosen to match the character of the person that would receive the pysanka.

Origins of colouring eggs at Easter in England

Decorating and colouring eggs for Easter was a common custom in England in the middle ages. Eggs were brightly coloured to mimic the fresh colours of Spring. The practice of decorating eggs was made even more popular when King Edward I ordered 450 eggs to be covered in gold-leaf and coloured as Easter gifts in 1290.

Easter egg traditions

"Egg tapping", "Egg rolling", "Egg dance" are some of the names of games played with eggs at Easter in different nations across the globe.

In the Mediterranean countries, chicken eggs are boiled and decorated with dye and / or paint and used as decoration around the house or to create Easter trees.  In some countries on Easter Sunday there is also the traditional egg hunt, where eggs are hidden outdoors (or indoors if the weather is bad) for children to run around and find them.

Easter eggs for the visually impaired (I like this)

It seems that since 2008 the 'International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators' have sponsored a charity in US to build Easter eggs for visually impaired children. Each year beeping Easter eggs are built emitting various clicks and noises that visually impaired children can easily find when hunting for Easter eggs.


The Easter Bunny


In the legend, the bunny or rabbit / hare carries coloured eggs in his basket to the homes of children, a little bit like Father Christmas. It was first mentioned in a book 'About Easter Eggs' in 1682. [ "De ovis paschalibus" of Georg Franck von Frankenau.].

The hare was a popular motif in medieval Christian art.

In ancient times it was widely believed (Pliny, Plutarch among others) that the hare was a hermaphrodite (an organism that has reproductive organs normally associated with both male and female).  The idea was that a hare could reproduce without loss of its virginity, led to an association with the Virgin Mary.

Eggs, like rabbits and hares, were fertility symbols in antiquity.  As birds lay eggs and rabbits / hares give birth to large litters in the early spring, these became symbols of the fertility of the Earth at the time of the March equinox.

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