Decorated Easter eggs? It’s no yolk!

With Easter just around the corner, we thought we’d take a look at the history of the Easter egg, and in particular the tradition of dyeing, painting and decorating eggs.

Nowadays many of the eggs which are given are chocolate, but one of the oldest traditions is to use dyed and painted chicken eggs.

Long ago people gave gifts of eggs carved from wood or precious stones. The first sweet eggs were given around 100 years ago and were made from sugar or marzipan.

However, the practice of decorating eggshell is ancient, predating Christian traditions. Incredibly, ostrich eggs with engraved decoration that are 60,000 years old have been found in Africa. Decorated ostrich eggs, and representations of ostrich eggs in gold and silver, were commonly placed in graves of the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians as early as 5,000 years ago.

Eggs are a traditional symbol of fertility and rebirth.The custom of giving eggs at Easter celebrates new life. For Christians the egg is a symbol of Jesus’ resurrection, as when they are cracked open they stand for the empty tomb. The Christian tradition of decorating eggs can be traced as far back as the early Christians of Mesopotamia, who stained eggs red in memory of the blood of Christ.

Easter - Chocolate Egg (small)Easter eggs are a widely popular symbol of new life in the folk traditions of many European countries, including the tradition of concealing them in the garden for children to find, and making artificial eggs out of porcelain to give as gifts. A batik (wax resist) process is used to create intricate, brilliantly colored eggs, the best-known of which is the Ukrainian pysanka and the Polish pisanka. The word pysanka comes from the verb pysaty, “to write”, as the designs are not painted on, but written on with beeswax.

Some of the most famous eggs are those created by Faberge. The famous Faberge workshops created beautiful jeweled Easter eggs for the Russian Imperial Court. Many of them contained hidden surprises such as clockwork birds, or miniature ships. These jeweled eggs were created by Peter Carl Faberge and his company between 1885 and 1917.The most famous are those made for the Russian Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II as Easter gifts for their wives and mothers, often called the ‘Imperial’ Fabergé eggs. The House of Fabergé made about 50 eggs, of which 43 have survived. Two more were planned for Easter 1918, but were not delivered, due to the Russian Revolution.

There are many other decorating techniques and numerous traditions of giving eggs as a token of friendship, love or good wishes. A tradition exists in some countries of rolling painted eggs down steep hills on Easter Sunday. In the United States an Easter egg roll is often done on flat ground, pushed along with a spoon.

The White House hosts an annual Easter Egg Roll on the lawn, with the 2015 event apparently being joined by over 35,000 people. This year’s White House Easter Egg Roll features five souvenir eggs. Four of the eggs are painted in festive colors – sea breeze blue, sunburst orange, petunia purple, and spring green. These eggs feature the stamped signatures of the President and First Lady on the back. The fifth egg, the “Bo and Sunny” egg, is a natural American Birchwood egg that is included only in the 2015 five-pack Collector’s Egg Set. This egg has the stamped “signatures” and “paw prints” of Bo and Sunny on the back. And in case you were wondering, Bo and Sunny are the Obama family’s pet dogs.

These days, a quick glance at the internet throws up some weird and wonderful techniques for dyeing eggs, but for a more natural approach, a reddish/tan colour can be achieved by boiling the eggs with onion skins. You can attach leaves prior to dyeing to create leaf patterns. The leaves are attached to the eggs and then wrapped with a transparent cloth like muslin, leaving patterns once the leaves are removed after the dyeing process. A greater variety of colour can be obtained by tying coloured woolen yarn to the onion skin. Or you could experiment with achieving other natural colours by using various plants such as:

  • brown:  onion skin/peel
  • black:  oak or alder bark or the nutshell of walnut
  • golden: the bark of young apple tree or the marigold flower
  • violet: petals of the mallow flower
  • green: shoots of young rye or leaves of periwinkle
  • pink: beet juice.

Or you could experiment with your own colours. Who would have thought the humble egg would lend itself to so many colourful variations?easter_dye

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