The last several weeks, stores across the nation have been hazardous to chocoholics and persons attempting to whittle off those last few pounds before summer. The “seasonal” and “candy” aisles have been brimming with Easter specialties in the shapes of eggs, rabbits and chickens. As with many of our traditions, the use of such to celebrate Easter is shrouded in myth, legend and time.
Eggs have had a place in the lore of humanity since the earliest times. In some cultures, it was believed that heaven and earth were halves of the same egg. In others, the deity shared characteristics with birds and was believed to have hatched. Whatever the belief, eggs seem to be associated with spring, rebirth, and hope. Long before the advent of Christianity (or even Judaism, which still uses eggs in several of their traditions), the Greeks, Romans and Chinese exchanged eggs as signs of good will and symbols of blessings.
Early Christians adopted the egg as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection. Even as early as the middle ages, eggs were being exchanged as symbols of new life and fertility. Considered a luxury, eggs were forbidden food during the season of Lent, but appeared to grace the table for Easter feasts and as Easter gifts to friends and family. It was in their role as gifts that the eggs began to be adorned with etchings, color, gold and silver.
The earliest eggs seem to have been painted with brilliant colors to represent the vibrancy of spring. Each egg was painstakingly decorated and etched for the festivities. Some would be used in egg hunts, a game not limited to children but enjoyed by the entire community. Some were fated for egg rolling contests, to see who could roll a fresh egg the farthest without it breaking. Yet others were gifts between special friends and betrothed couples.
Various cultures have made their decorating of eggs a national art. Artists in Austria perfected the art of attaching ferns, leaves, and small flowers to the eggs before coloring them. When removed, the white pattern of the foliage would stand out in sharp relief against the brilliantly colored geometrically patterned eggs. They would carefully cover a portion of the egg with beeswax, leaving a strip of shell exposed. The egg would be dyed, the wax scraped off, and more wax applied, leaving another section of the shell vulnerable to the dye. After several sessions, the egg would be covered with concentric, often geometrically complicated, rings of contrasting color.
Frugal households were in quite a quandary. Once the time was used to decorate an egg, it seemed wasteful to break it for eating, but then again not using it was wasting food. The answer was to “blow” the egg, using a needle to pierce the shell yet leave it sufficiently intact to decorate. Using these hollowed shells, the Armenians became masters of cutting the shell in half and decorating the interior with religious pictures and symbols. Their exteriors brightly colored and interiors depicting scenes appropriate to the season, the eggs were then hung in trees and bushes around the home.
Our tradition of rabbits at Easter is also courtesy of the European continent. Hares, the continental colleague of our rabbits, are as prolific as the West Texas cottontail. As with our rabbits, they are one of the first animals to have young in the spring, then they continue to propagate through the summer. It is not surprising that the presence of rabbits and their young would be considered a sign of spring.
The first Easter rabbits appear in German literature of the 1500s. By the 1800s, there are writings to indicate that confectioners had started making bunnies of pastry and sugar. The idea didn’t take long to travel through Europe and Great Britain. German settlers in the Pennsylvania Dutch country introduced the Easter Bunny to the United States. His arrival was considered to be second only to that of the Christ-Kindel. The night before Easter, boys would take their hats and girls their bonnets to secluded places in the barn, home or garden. There they would prepare a “nest” in hopes that the Easter Bunny would see fit to leave eggs or other treats there. The nests were decorated as an inducement to the rabbit.
Children all over the nation awoke this morning to find small gifts, candy, and other evidences of affection, purportedly courtesy of the Easter Bunny. Little do they realize that this exchange of gifts has a history that may reach farther back in time even than Christmas!
Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org .