My wife and I will be decorating eggs this week with our grandkids, using virtually the same method my parents and grandparents used. The smell of vinegar immediately takes me back to my childhood, dyeing hard-boiled eggs with those cheap Paas kits. Even today, you still get the flimsy, copper-wire egg holder that never really worked. That weird crayon. And of course, the magic dye tablets (which any self-respecting older brother would tell his younger sibling were candy, then watch his mouth turn rainbow colors).
On the Saturday night before Easter, we would leave the decorated eggs in a basket on the dining room table. By morning, the bunny had hidden them around the house. Even years later, when we realized the Easter bunny looked a lot like Mom, no one wanted to end the tradition. And it was always real eggs. The plastic ones seemed like cheating. Pro tip: For real-egg families, it’s a universally recognized good idea to count Easter eggs before hiding them. My family never did. Around June, we (or the dog) sometimes would find a sickly green egg stashed under the couch or inside someone’s snow boot.
An ancient tradition
Paas comes from Pasen, the Dutch word for Easter. The concentrated tablets were invented in 1893 by a New Jersey drug-store owner, William Townley. When the idea caught on, he founded the Paas Dye Company. But Easter eggs started long before that. They can be traced to several traditions—some Christian, some cultural, mostly both. Eggs were seen as a symbol of fertility by the ancient Anglo-Saxons during their celebration of the goddess Eostre and the beginning of spring. Christian missionaries later decided that celebrating Jesus’ resurrection at the same time would encourage the people to embrace Christianity.
In medieval Europe, the Roman Catholic church imposed strict rules for fasting during Lent. Christians could not eat meat or any animal product, including eggs. The chickens didn’t know this, of course, so they kept producing eggs. Rather than throw them away, people hard-boiled their eggs and saved them for when Lent ended on Easter. At some point, they began coloring and decorating the eggs for the Easter celebration, and the tradition stuck.
The custom of hiding Easter eggs started with Martin Luther and the early Protestant church in Germany. Eggs were seen as a symbol of new life. Men would hide them around the church property, and then women and children would hunt for them. This symbolized the women who first discovered the empty tomb after Jesus’ resurrection.
And the Easter bunny? Going back to ancient times, rabbits have been associated with fertility and spring. Christian missionaries built on those traditions and began associating rabbits with the Virgin Mary. The Madonna of the Rabbit was painted by the Italian artist Titian in 1530, and today hangs in the Louvre in Paris. The Louvre website says this about the painting: “In antiquity it was thought that the rabbit could reproduce without sexual intercourse. So here the rabbit is an allusion to the Virgin’s virginity and the conception of Christ without sin, its whiteness an assertion of purity.”
The Easter connection came in 17th century Germany, with the Oschter Haws, or Easter hare, who was said to lay colorful eggs for children to find. Pennsylvania Dutch settlers brought the tradition to America in the 18th century.
Finally, the Easter egg roll — still celebrated worldwide including on the White House lawn — began as a symbol of the stone being rolled away from Jesus’ tomb.
Easter eggs in Ukraine
Easter also presents an opportunity to continue to pray for and support our Ukrainian brothers and sisters who continue to endure Russia’s invasion and the horrors of war. Every Easter, Ukrainians celebrate a thousand-year egg decorating tradition called pysanka or psanky. To get the idea, watch this short video.
When Christianity arrived in the 10th century to the region that is now Ukraine, pysanka was already an established practice. In a culture that worshiped the sun, eggs were seen as a powerful symbol of life. Christians adapted the art form and over the centuries eventually connected it with Easter and the resurrection celebration. Each carefully decorated egg is considered a prayer.
This year’s Russian invasion isn’t the first time Ukrainian traditions have been threatened by oppression. In the Soviet era, Russian dictator Josef Stalin was not only intent on eliminating all religion and symbols of faith, but also any memory of a non-Russian, Ukrainian culture. The practice of pysanka was among many forms of folk art that were banned. The Pysanyky for Peace website states: “During this time no evidence of pysanka existed, no exhibits or no books on the subject. Some families still practiced the art in secret, with the knowledge that they could be killed if caught.”
Ukrainians who immigrated to the U.S., Canada and elsewhere also helped keep the practice alive, eventually returning it to their homeland. That is the hope for today as well.