Easter eggs

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Eggs have been linked to Easter for centuries throughout Europe, partly to symbolize new life, and partly because of their seasonal abundance; they must not be eaten during Lent, so those not used for hatching were available, preserved or hardboiled, as Easter food. In northern England they were called ‘pace eggs’, ‘peace eggs’, or ‘paste eggs’, corruptions of pasche, the Latin-based medieval word for Easter, here confused with pax = ‘peace’,Aubrey described how children from poor families went from house to house asking in rhyme for eggs to celebrate the death of Jack o' Lent. The custom was called pace-egging, and persisted until late in the 19th century; in the Wirral (Cheshire), one of the rhymes was still remembered in the 1930s (Hole, 1937: 77–8).

Also in the north, Easter eggs were decorated by various techniques, the simplest being to dye the egg a single colour by hardboiling it with onion peel (dark yellow, golden brown), gorse blooms (light yellow), cochineal (red), spinach or grass (green), or coffee grounds (dark brown), and then scratch the dye away to leave a white patterns or an inscription. Alternatively, the pattern or writing could be applied in melted wax, which resists the dye. The most subtle method, still practised in Northumberland and Cumberland, is to collect small leaves from wild plants, press them against the egg, wrap it in bits of old cloth whose dye will run, and boil; the leaf patterns stand out white against the softly coloured ground.

At Carlisle on Easter Monday crowds of children gathered in a field to play a game like conkers: two eggs would be tapped together, end to end, till the shell of one cracked, where upon it was forfeit to the owner of the uncracked egg. There were many places where children would roll coloured hardboiled eggs down a hillside, a sloping path, or the beach, until they cracked, and then eat them; the custom is still kept up on a large scale at Preston (Lancashire), and Derby, but elsewhere died out after the Second World War. Some families attached religious symbolism to these customs, saying eggs were dyed red to honour the blood of Jesus, or rolled because of the stone rolled away from the tomb, or hidden in gardens because Mary Magdalen searched for Jesus in a garden (Sutton, 1997: 75–7).

A more domestic game was for parents to hide eggs in the garden for children to discover; this is still done with chocolate eggs (a major feature of the festival throughout the 20th century). The ‘Easter Bunny’ is a recent arrival, probably due to American influence. In several German-speaking regions of European ‘Easter Hare’ comes by night to lay eggs for which children search; the first German reference is from 1572. In America, settlers of German descent kept the tradition alive, and hence spread it to a wider American public; they also made Easter cakes in the shape of a hare, which reveal the underlying joke—the hare is shown ‘laying’, i.e. excreting, its egg-shaped droppings (Newall, 1971: 323–6 and ill. 13a).


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