Why are Easter eggs painted red? What can be done with consecrated eggshells? How did eggs become part of traditional rituals? Folklorist Andrei Moroz told IQ.HSE about some popular beliefs associated with Easter.
Egg-painting, a prominent part of the Slavic tradition, did not originate in Christianity.
In fact, the egg is a symbolic item for a variety of cultures. The reasons are obvious: first, eggs are a basic foodstuff and always at hand – an important consideration, since folk rituals prefer to use items from everyday life. Second, eggs are inanimate but serve as a source of new life.
And third, whether or not we agree, many cultures find eggs visually pleasing.
In Russian tradition, when a baby is first bathed, various items are placed in the basin for good luck: salt to keep the baby safe from the evil eye, silver coins to make them rich, and an egg to make them good-looking. East Slavic girls used the water left over from boiling red Easter eggs to wash their faces and make them prettier.
Interestingly, tradition itself may at some point seek – and offer – an explanation of its own rites and their origins. While the ritual use of eggs has never really been questioned, tradition refers to various stories to explain why they are painted.
Some of these stories are mutually contradictory, but this does not seem to be a problem. Many existing explanations of egg-painting go back to the Resurrection, albeit reinterpreted and altered. One such story told about pysanky (Ukrainian Easter eggs) is perhaps the least remote from the Gospel text. It says that when Christ was carrying the cross, he met Simon of Cyrene who was holding a basket of eggs. Simon left the basket behind to help Christ carry the cross to Calvary. Upon returning, Simon found the eggs miraculously turned from plain objects into beautiful multicoloured ones, symbolising the transformation of ordinary everyday objects into things of beauty through divine intervention as a reward for good deeds.
According to another story, Following Christ’s resurrection, he was walking through a village accompanied by children. He was making snowballs along the way and giving them out to the children. The snowballs were red from his blood, and this is what red Easter eggs have symbolised ever since.
There are similar stories with varying details, all sharing the symbolism of red as the colour of Christ's blood. Some cultures painted eggs in other colours as well as red. Serbs, for example, used red on eggs to be given to men and yellow on those intended for women. Painting eggs blue or black was reserved for specific days of the Easter celebration. In addition to Easter, many other Orthodox Christian holidays feature painted eggs, including St. Thomas’ Sunday, Krasnaya Gorka, Yuri's (St. George’s) Day, Radonitsa, Provody, and the Trinity.
The first Easter egg in particular has a symbolic meaning. In some cultures, it is shared among family members during the Easter breakfast. In others, such as the Balkan Slavs’ communities, it was not allowed to eat all of the first Easter egg. In Polesie, the first Easter egg was sometimes consumed along with its shell in the belief that this would help farmers avoid thirst during the next harvest season.
The first egg is believed to have special properties since people tend to particularly value the first in a series of objects. In Serbian and Bulgarian traditions, the first egg is called strachnik [the guard] and believed to offer protection from thunder, a major fear in traditional cultures. People would hold on to the strachnik for a year, placing it near icons or in orchard trees to help them grow. The first Easter egg was sometimes marked with a wax cross and carried around the village on St.Yuri/St.George's Day to protect crops from hail.
We all know about egg tapping, but Easter eggs were used in multiple other ways. First and foremost, they were eaten to break the Lenten fast. People would come home from the Easter service preceded by a strict fast to a substantial meal served on the table. While produce from the previous year was perhaps still available by the Orthodox Easter in late spring or early summer, it would have been plain and consisting mainly of potatoes, rutabaga and mushrooms. Being able to tap into their stocks of cottage cheese and eggs for the first time since Maslenitsa/Shrovetide was a welcome addition to the diet for farmers who worked hard and needed energy.
Egg tapping was often a seriously competitive event, a type of gambling with eggs used as the stake, in which the lucky winner could carry home a whole basket of eggs.
Such competitions were held among men: women were not allowed to participate, while children competed separately from adults.
Just as with any gambling, there were cheaters who played with eggs made of wood or stone.
Some other competitions involving Easter eggs have almost been forgotten, such as egg rolling along tracks usually made of boards and placed in pits on the ground or even inside the house. Since an egg is not as round as a ball, its path is random and unpredictable. A player whose egg touched other eggs took all of them. Just as with egg tapping, the idea was to win as many eggs as possible.
Easter eggs were widely exchanged as gifts during Easter greetings or visits. Slovenians believed that if a person collected nine eggs from nine different households during the Easter week, they would be sure of surviving until next Easter. Poles and Slovaks gave Easter eggs to express affection and gratitude, and girls gave them to young men in exchange for services or courtesies. On Easter Monday in Poland, Slovakia and western Ukraine, young men jokingly threw water over girls or whipped them with twigs and received coloured eggs in exchange.
There have been traditions in many cultures of going door-to-door, singing songs for good luck and expecting – or demanding – a gift in return. These include Kolyada (Christmas carolling) and a few Easter practices, such as Vyuniny in Central Russia, where a group of men visit the homes of recently married couples and sing to them, and Volocheba in Belarus, where groups of people walk around the village, sing Christian songs and douse themselves and others with water to bring rain at the right time in summer. In both traditions, the performers are rewarded with Easter eggs.
The eggshell is an important ritual item as well. Today's urban residents who paint eggs and have them blessed for Easter often wonder what to do with the eggshells: throwing them in the rubbish does not seem right, since they are consecrated as well as the egg. Farmers in older times never had this problem: they usually buried or burned the eggshells.
Easter eggshells are part of many practices, some of them quite esoteric. There has been a belief that throwing eggshells down a running stream will take them to the world of the dead who will thus know that the living are celebrating Easter. Eggshells have been used and reused in rituals as a sanctified object capable of bringing positive change. Farmers buried eggshells under orchard trees or on the vegetable plots or added them to chicken feed. Bulgarians mixed the shells of the first Easter eggs with manure and used it to cover the gates to their homes for protection.
In the atheist Soviet times, Easter was a day when families visited cemeteries to honour their dead; this tradition continues, often facilitated by special free buses taking people to cemeteries during the Easter days. However, this practice is absolutely incorrect from the Orthodox Church's perspective, because new life must be celebrated on Easter, while other days are reserved for remembering the dead, such as Radonitsa on the 9th day after Easter.
Folk tradition interprets Radonitsa as the Easter of the dead, who are believed to still receive the good news of Christ risen, albeit with a delay, but will never receive it unless someone visits them at the cemetery on that day. An official holiday in Belarus, most people in the country visit cemeteries on Radonitsa.
Visiting deceased loved ones and sharing a meal with them is important for many traditional cultures. Eggs are part of the ritual, rolled around the grave crosswise or back and forth from head to toe, smashed and left lying or buried, or tied to crosses.
Most traditions are multi-layered and multi-level, including Easter rites and beliefs which include interpretations, symbols and activities outside of the Christian custom. An example is the Easter egg, which is also a symbol of seed planting and new birth in the agricultural cycle – and in a broader sense, a symbol of ever-renewed, eternal and infinite life.
Text author: Andrey Moroz