Easter Symbols and Food


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Easter Symbols and Food

Easter Symbols and Food

Among the popular Easter symbols, the
lamb is by far the most significant of this great feast.
The Easter lamb, representing Christ, with the flag of
victory, may be seen in pictures and images in the homes
of every central and eastern European family.

The
oldest prayer for the blessing of lambs can be found in
the seventh-century sacramentary (ritual book) of the
Benedictine monastery, Bobbio in Italy. Two hundred years
later Rome had adopted it, and thereafter the main
feature of the Pope’s Easter dinner for many centuries
was roast lamb. After the tenth century, in place of the
whole lamb, smaller pieces of meat were used. In some
Benedictine monasteries, however, even today whole lambs
are still blessed with the ancient prayers.

The ancient tradition of the Pasch lamb also inspired
among the Christians the use of lamb meat as a popular
food at Easter time, and at the present time it is eaten
as the main meal on Easter Sunday in many parts of
eastern Europe. Frequently, however, little figures of a
lamb made of butter, pastry, or sugar have been
substituted for the meat, forming Easter table
centerpieces.

In past centuries it was considered a lucky omen to
meet a lamb, especially at Easter time. It was a popular
superstition that the devil, who could take the form of
all other animals, was never allowed to appear in the
shape of a lamb because of its religious symbolism.

The origin of the Easter egg is based
on the fertility lore of the Indo-European races. To our
pre-Christian ancestors it was a most startling event to
see a new and live creature emerge from a seemingly dead
object. The egg to them became a symbol of spring. Long
ago in Persia people used to present each other with eggs
at the spring equinox, which for them also marked the
beginning of a new year.[58]

In Christian times the egg had bestowed upon it a
religious interpretation, becoming a symbol of the rock
tomb out of which Christ emerged to the new life of His
Resurrection. There was in addition a very practical
reason for making the egg a special sign of Easter joy
since it used to be one of the foods that was forbidden
in Lent. The faithful from early times painted Easter
eggs in gay colors, had them blessed, ate them, and gave
them to friends as Easter gifts.

The custom of using Easter eggs developed among the
nations of northern Europe and Christian Asia soon after
their conversion to Christianity. In countries of
southern Europe, and consequently in South America,
however, the tradition of Easter eggs never became
popular.

The Roman ritual has a special blessing for Easter
eggs:[59]

“We beseech thee, O Lord, to bestow thy
benign blessing upon these eggs, to make them a
wholesome food for thy faithful, who gratefully
partake of them in honor of the Resurrection of our
Lord Jesus Christ.”

In medieval times eggs were traditionally given at
Easter to all servants. It is reported that King Edward I
of England (1307) had 450 eggs boiled before Easter, dyed
or covered with gold leaf, which he distributed to the
members of the royal household on Easter Day.

The eggs were usually given to children as Easter
presents along with other gifts. This practice was so
firmly rooted in Germany that the eggs were called
“Dingeier” (eggs that are “owed”).
The children were not slow in demanding what was
“owed” to them, and thus developed the many
rhymes in France, Germany, Austria, and England, wherein
youngsters even today request Easter eggs for presents.
In England this custom is called “pace-egging,”
the word “pace” being a corrupted form of
Pasch. Here is a little Austrian song of this kind:

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We sing, we sing the Easter song:

God keep you healthy, sane and strong.

Sickness and storms and all other harm

Be far from folks and beast and farm.

Now give us eggs, green, blue and red;

If not, your chicks will all drop dead.

In some parts of Ireland children collect goose and
duck eggs during Holy Week, offering them as presents on
Easter Sunday. Two weeks previous, on Palm Sunday, they
make little nests of stones, and during Holy Week collect
as many eggs as possible, storing them away in these
hidden nests. On Easter Sunday, they eat them all,
sharing with those who are too small to have their own
collection.

The grownups, too, give eggs as presents in
Ireland. The number of eggs to be given away is regulated
by this ancient saying among Irish country folk:
“One egg for the true gentleman; two eggs for the
gentleman; three eggs for the churl [have-not]; four eggs
for the lowest churl [tramp].”

In most countries the eggs are stained in plain
vegetable dye colors. Among the Chaldeans, Syrians, and
Greeks, the faithful present each other with crimson eggs
in honor of the blood of Christ. In parts of Germany and
Austria, green eggs alone are used on Maundy Thursday,
but various colors are the vogue at Easter. Some Slavic
peoples make special patterns of gold and silver. In
Austria artists design striking patterns by fastening
ferns and tiny plants around the eggs, which show a white
pattern after the eggs are boiled. The Poles and
Ukrainians decorate eggs with plain colors or simple
designs and call them krasanki. Also a number of their
eggs are made every year in a most distinctive manner
with unusual ornamentation. These eggs are called pysanki
(from pysac: to write, to design); each is a masterpiece
of patient labor, native skill, and exquisite
workmanship. Melted beeswax is applied with a stylus to
the fresh white eggs, which are then dipped in successive
baths of dye. After each dipping, wax is painted over the
area where the preceding color is to remain. Gradually
the whole complex pattern of lines and colors emerges
into something fit for a jeweler’s window. No two pysanki
are identical. Although the same symbols are repeated,
each egg is designed with great originality. The symbols
used most are the sun (good fortune), rooster or hen
(fulfillment of wishes), stag or deer (good health),
flowers (love and charity). As decorative patterns the
artists use rhombic and square checkerboards, dots, wave
lines, and intersecting ribbons. The pysanki are mainly
made by girls and women in painstaking work during the
long evenings of Lent. At Easter they are first blessed
by the priest and then distributed among relatives,
friends, and benefactors. These special eggs are saved
from year to year like symbolic heirlooms, and can be
seen seasonally in Ukrainian settlements and shops in
this country.

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In Germany and other countries of central Europe eggs
for cooking Easter foods are not broken but pierced with
a needle on both ends, and the contents to be used are
blown into a bowl. The empty eggshells are given to the
children for various Easter games. In parts of Germany
such hollow eggs are suspended from shrubs and trees
during Easter Week much like a Christmas tree. The
Armenians decorate empty eggs with pictures of the Risen
Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and other religious designs,
to give to children as Easter presents.

Easter is the season for games with eggs all over
Europe. The sport of egg-pecking is practiced in many
forms, in Syria, Iraq, and Iran, as well. In Norway it is
called knekke (knock). In Germany, Austria, and France,
hard-boiled eggs are rolled against each other on the
lawn or down a hill; the egg that remains uncracked to
the end is called the “victory egg.” This game
has attained national fame in America through the annual
egg-rolling party on the lawn of the White House in
Washington.

Here is a description by a visitor to Washington of
such a contest several generations ago, when this Easter
sport took place on the terraces below the Capitol, and
not as in later years on the White House lawn:

“At first the children sit sedately in long rows;
each has brought a basket of gay-colored, hard-boiled
eggs, and those on the upper terraces send them rolling
to the line on the next below, and these pass on the
ribbon-like-streams to other hundreds at the foot, who
scramble for the hopping eggs and hurry panting to the
top to start them down again. And, as the sport warms,
those on the top who have rolled all the eggs they
brought finally roll themselves, shrieking with laughter.
Now comes a swirl of curls and ribbons and furbelows, somebody’s dainty maid indifferent to
bumps and grass-stains. Over yonder a queer eight-limbed
creature, yelling, gasping, laughing, all at once shakes
itself apart into two slender boys racing toward the top
to come down again. Another set of boys who started in a
line of six with joined hands are trying to come down in
somersaults without breaking the chain. On all sides the
older folk stand by to watch the games of this infant
Carnival which comes to an end only when the children are
forced away by fatigue to the point of exhaustion, or by
parental order. No one seems to know how the custom
began. The observation is also made that “when the games
proved too hard a test for the grass on the Capitol
terraces, Congress stopped the practice, and the
President opened the slope back of the White
House.”[60] In recent years, it might be added, the
grass there has received the same sort of treatment as
the

Capitol terraces a few generations ago. The custom of
egg-rolling in Washington is traced back to Sunday School
picnics and parades at Easter in the years before the
Civil War. At these picnics the children amused
themselves with various games, and egg-rolling was one of
them.

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Another universal custom among children is the egg
hunting in house and garden on Easter Sunday morning. In
France children are told that the Easter eggs are dropped
by the church bells on their return from Rome. In Germany
and Austria little nests containing eggs, pastry, and
candy are placed in hidden spots, and the children
believe that the Easter bunny so popular in this country,
too, has laid the eggs and brought the candy.

In Russia and among the Ukrainians and Poles people
start their joyful Easter meals after the long Lenten
fast with a blessed egg on Easter Sunday. Before sitting
down to breakfast, the father solemnly distributes small
pieces cut from an Easter egg to members of the family
and guests, wishing them one and all a holy and happy
feast. Not until they have eaten this morsel in silence,
do they sit down to the first meal of the Easter season.

The Easter bunny had its origin in pre-Christian
fertility lore. Hare and rabbit were the most fertile
animals our forefathers knew, serving as symbols of
abundant new life in the spring season. The Easter bunny
has never had a religious symbolism bestowed on its
festive usage, though its white meat is sometimes said to
suggest purity and innocence. The Church has never
performed special blessings for rabbits or hares, and
neither in the liturgy nor in folklore do we find these
animals linked with the spiritual meanings of the sacred
season. However, the bunny has acquired a cherished role
in the celebration of Easter as the legendary producer of
Easter eggs for children in many countries.

What seems to be the first mention of the Easter bunny
and his eggs is a short admonition in a German book of
1572: “Do not worry if the bunny escapes you; should
we miss his eggs, then we shall cook the nest.” In a
German book of the seventeenth century the story that the
Easter bunny lays eggs and hides them in the garden, is
called “an old fable.”[61]

In many sections of Germany the Easter bunny was
believed to lay red eggs on Maundy Thursday and eggs of
other colors the night before Easter Sunday. The first
Easter bunnies made of pastry and sugar were popular in
southern Germany at the beginning of the last century.
They are now a favorite delicacy for children in many
lands.

Let us not forget the pig, which offers its meat as a
traditional Easter dish. This animal has always been a
symbol of good luck and prosperity among the
Indo-Europeans. Many traces of this ancient symbolism are
still alive in our time. In some German popular
expressions the word “pig” is synonymous with
“good luck” (Schwein haben). In Hungary the
highest card (ace) in card games is called
“pig” (diszno). Not too long ago it was
fashionable for men to wear little figures of pigs as
good luck charms on their watch chains. More recently
charm bracelets for teen-agers contained dangling pigs.
Savings boxes for children in the figure of a pig (piggy
banks) carry out the ancient symbolism of good luck and
prosperity.

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