The most basic and vital of foods, eggs hold symbolic meaning for almost every culture. Easter in particular is synonymous with eggs, whether chocolate or decorated or Fabergé and the symbolism of giving, decorating and eating eggs at this time of year dates back well before the time of Christ to the most ancient pagan traditions.
The things eggs represent and evoke are tailored to fit the social quirks and religious beliefs of every culture. In Australia, eggs are painted with vegetable dye and piled in bowls to decorate the kitchen, then on Easter Sunday families hide chocolate eggs in the garden, releasing children (from youngest to oldest) to look for them in trees, under bushes and in birdhouses.
Last weekend, in a small southern German village, nearly every house had decorated small trees in their front gardens with painted eggs strung with yellow ribbons. These last few weeks here in Piedmont, Northern Italy, groups have set off every Saturday night, marching from farm to farm in a deeply traditional ritual, known as canté j’euv, singing for eggs and usually receiving an invitation to join the family in their cellar for a glass of wine.
Whether being celebrated because it’s Easter, Passover or simply spring, eggs are everywhere at this time of year. As with all stories surrounding both holy and secular traditions, there are endless threads, twists and ethnographic variations on the origins of Easter, and various explanations of the significance eggs hold for its celebrations.
The myth that the world was hatched from one enormous egg, which cracked and divided to create heaven and earth, is common to several cultures, from the Celts to the Egyptians. In Pagan spring celebrations, eggs were given special powers and significance, and in more modern Anglo-Saxon cultures, they became a symbol of the seasonal renewal of nature and synonymous with Easter.
In Judaism, the egg is symbolic of the renewal and continuity of life. The roasting of the egg on Passover represents, among other things, the destruction of the temple. The egg even made an appearance as an analogy of Christ’s resurrection in early Christian theology.
Dyeing and decorating eggs has long been an important part of the Easter celebration. The Egyptians and Persians had a tradition of dyeing eggs in spring colors and giving them as a symbol of renewed life. In Greece, eggs are dyed red to symbolize the blood of Christ and tucked into plaited Easter breads.
Polish legend has it that, on the first Good Friday, a man was taking a basket of eggs to sell at market. On the way he put the basket down and ran to help Christ carry the cross. When he returned, the eggs were supposedly decorated in exquisite colors and designs.
Throughout Eastern Europe, this tradition of decorating eggs remains strong. Some designs have significant family meanings, others are characteristic of different regions. In the United Kingdom, decorating and coloring eggs for Easter became a custom during the Middle Ages. The household accounts of Edward I for the year 1290 recorded an expenditure of 18 pence for 450 to be gold-leafed and colored for Easter gifts.
The tradition of decorating and giving eggs at Easter was taken to new heights in Russia, where the Easter custom of exchanging them was brought from Byzantium with Christianity.
Catherine the Great celebrated Easter 1738 with a presentation of 373 porcelain eggs of different shapes and sizes painted in landscapes, figures and arabesques and distributed throughout her court. Just over 10,000 decorated eggs were sent to Russian soldiers during WWI along with a special dispatch of white eggs painted with a Red Cross and the date sent to the wounded in the field. On Easter Sunday 1917, the captive family of the Russian Czar, gave porcelain eggs at Easter for the last time, distributing 135 from their reserve stocks.
The egg is one of the most powerful symbols of modern and ancient history, perhaps our most perfect ‘whole food’, celebrated and eaten in thousands of diverse ways. Thanks to the chicken then for
the service she lays. Unless of course, it was the egg that came first…
Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team