Easter Eggs: Their Colorful History and Symbolism

eastereggs

This is the time of year for egg hunts, Cadbury Crème Eggs, and multicolored plastic eggs filled with jellybeans. Yet beyond the dye, chocolate, and sugar, a deeper meaning lies in one of Easter’s most cherished traditions.

No scriptural basis of course exists for having Easter eggs, just as no accounts in the Gospels report that several winged favorites tended to Jesus during the Crucifixion (e.g., a swallow pulling at the crown thorns and a red crossbill at the nails).1 However, the impulse to incorporate birds with an important event and their eggs with a major recurring holiday seems natural enough. After all, the dove is a symbol for the Holy Spirit and for Christianity as a whole. Why wouldn’t birds have a role in Easter? Also, birds in general are much loved, and eggs hatch to create more birds.

Overall, many factors are crucial to the Easter egg tradition, and these include associations with the time of year in which the holiday falls, social and religious developments arising from Lent many centuries ago, and even the possible assimilation of earlier non-Christian customs.

The Egg as Symbol

Always celebrated on the first vernal Sunday following a full moon, Easter has an apparent connection with spring. Since this is the season when migrating birds are returning and mating, the holiday’s association with eggs is not surprising. Besides the many nests potentially visible this time of year, eggs also share some similarities in shape and color to the moon. However, despite the satellite’s role in determining Easter’s annual date, any lunar connection to Easter eggs is probably marginal at best. The egg’s popularity rests primarily as a potent symbol of life. In the case of Easter, it represents Jesus’s Resurrection2 and the potential of eternal life for his followers.

Throughout the world, from antiquity to today, eggs traditionally have signified birth/creation and rebirth/revival.3 They have served this function in several creation myths, as well as in funeral practices, both as iconography and as objects buried in human graves.4, 5 As a result of practices centuries ago, Islamic mosques and some Christian churches still hang preserved eggs from ostriches as decorations.6 The Montefeltro altarpiece painting by Italian Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca famously depicts such an egg above Madonna and child.7 The most extravagant examples of egg-inspired art came several centuries later when Peter Carl Fabergé created his ornate Easter egg designs for the Russian imperial family.

The symbolic power of the egg extends to its use as a ceremonial food by Christians and non-Christians alike. A hard-boiled egg is part of the Jewish Passover Seder. The custom of decorating eggs, which originated in ancient Persia, survives today in Iranian New Year (vernal equinox) celebrations.8 In addition, the elaborate beeswax-resist designs (e.g., pysanky, kraslice) of Eastern Europe’s Slavic peoples may have predated their conversion to Christianity.9 By the thirteenth10 or fourteenth centuries,11 Christians in Europe began coloring eggs for Easter using red dye to symbolize Christ’s blood.12 Whether this practice involved outside influences is not necessarily important to appreciate and enjoy Easter eggs today, for any religion can absorb preexisting customs and imbue them with new meaning.

The Influence of Lent

At least in part, the painting of Easter eggs more than seven hundred years ago appears to have developed in response to Lenten restrictions and farmyard realities.13, 14 Eggs were among the foods regularly given up during the fasting period, but those laid by domesticated chickens and geese could be collected and decorated. With the arrival of Easter Sunday, the eggs were eaten to mark the end of the fast and celebrate the holiday.15

By the early 1800s, chocolate versions of these eggs debuted in Western Europe.16, 17 Playing off of this Easter candy theme, the American confections company Just Born took the next step, popularizing its marshmallow-shaped chicks—called Peeps—back in the 1950s.18 So today, along with chocolate egg-shaped candies, we have all sorts of bird-inspired Easter candy.

Sources:

  1. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. pp. 112–115.
  2. History.com. “Easter Symbols and Traditions.” History.com: http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/easter-symbols.
  3. Killgrove, K. “The Curious History of Easter Eggs from Birth to Burial,” 3/26/2016. Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2016/03/26/the-curious-history-of-easter-eggs-from-birth-to-burial/#6ebea03a16af.
  4. Killgrove, K.
  5. Green, N. “Ostrich Eggs and Peacock Feathers: Sacred Objects as Cultural Exchange between Christianity and Islam”. Al-Masaq, Volume 18: No. 1, March 2006. p. 30.
  6. Green, N. pp. 35–39.
  7. Green, N. p. 36.
  8. Killgrove, K.
  9. Lesiv, M. The Return of Ancestral Gods: Modern Ukrainian Paganism as an Alternative Vision for a Nation. Montreal, CA: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013. pp. 126–133.
  10. History.com.
  11. Green, N. p. 36.
  12. D’Costa, K. “Beyond Ishtar: The Tradition of Eggs at Easter,” 3/31/2013. Scientific American: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/beyond-ishtar-the-tradition-of-eggs-at-easter/.
  13. McRoy, A. “How the Fast of Lent Gave Us Easter Eggs,” 2/2010. Christianity Today: http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2010/february/how-fast-of-lent-gave-us-easter-eggs.html.
  14. D’Costa.
  15. McRoy, A.
  16. Godiva Chocolate. “The History of Chocolate Easter Eggs.” Godiva Chocolate, Inc.: http://www.godivachocolates.co.uk/The+History+of+Chocolate+Easter+Eggs.html.
  17. BBC Newsround: “Why do we have Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny?” 3/27/2016. BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/17597617.
  18. History.com.
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Look but Don’t Touch: Watching out for Nesting Birds

nest_JMLandin

Look but don’t touch. This was a lesson I learned early on as a young boy, staring intently along with my grandmother at a bird nest. Inside a shrub-like tree, a bowl of straw lay almost hidden. Within it, several nestlings, their mouths wide open, were awaiting their next meal.

After a quick look, we hurried away, soon noticing that the mother robin returned with sustenance for her young. Folklore, of course, advises people to not harm bird nests, for doing so was commonly thought to bring bad luck (1). However, for many children, superstitious appeals are not necessary, as a simple reverence for nature may be more persuasive. Why disturb a nest? Instead, by just watching, all people, no matter their age or occupation, can spend days learning about the behavior of our winged neighbors.

A Few Famous Nest Watchers

Such appreciation is expressed eloquently in the beginning of Walt Whitman’s poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”, which notes his frequent engagement afar with a pair of nesting mockingbirds: “… every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them, / Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.” (2)  The perils of nature may have eventually laid claim to one of the birds, but the poet’s powerful connection to them, especially the surviving bird, is undeniable.

As a few literary examples demonstrate, birds do sometimes choose risky locations for their nesting spots. Robert Frost’s poem “The Exposed Nest” relates an amazing find within a freshly cut hayfield—a nest of young birds somehow surviving untouched by a passing blade (3). In John Clare’s “The Pettichap’s Nest”, a narrator marvels at a warbler’s eggs precariously placed by a well-traveled horse-and-wagon road. “Yet,” he remarks in the poem, “like a miracle, in Safety’s lap / They still abide unhurt, and out of sight,” housed in a nest “Built like an oven.” (4)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Emperor’s Bird’s-Nest” presents perhaps what may be the worst place imaginable for most birds—the outskirts of a battlefield. However, in this poem, the 16th-century Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, while planning a military campaign, decides to protect a swallow nesting on the ruler’s makeshift dwelling. Even when his army finally packs up its belongings, the tent is ordered to remain, “Loosely flapping, torn and tattered, / Till the brood was fledged and flown.” (5)

Birdhouses and Backyard Birding

People, having an affinity towards nesting birds, usually desire to offer some form of protection to the winged caregivers and their offspring. This is a big reason for the introduction and success of birdhouses. We enjoy watching and hearing bluebirds, cardinals, chickadees, finches, wrens, and many other of our feathered friends. In fact, it’s not uncommon for folks to have several nest boxes set up near their home, a practice commonly referred to today as “backyard birding.”

The use of human-made birdhouses actually goes back at least five centuries to parts of Europe, Asia, and North America. These structures were often, and still are, freestanding entities placed near human residences. They’re typically constructed out of wood, but materials over time have varied, including clay, gourds, and, most recently, concrete (6). Designs tend to be simple and box-like for housing one bird nest. Ornate assortments also exist, consisting of decorative models with multiple nesting compartments made to resemble castles, palaces, ships, and other elaborate abodes.

Not all birdhouses are built as isolated units. Enclosures for nesting birds are sometimes constructed as part of a building’s façade. The country of Turkey, especially the city of Istanbul, is renowned for such architectural structures (7). Of course, several kinds of common birds are notorious throughout the world for nesting in parts of human dwellings not intended as “birdhouses.” Pigeons display a fondness for ledges, for instance, while certain swifts like to use chimneys.

Some Quick Guides for Getting Started

Birds generally don’t require fancy amenities, but they do need a dry, well-ventilated space that’s just the right size for a particular species’ entry and residence. Using the interactive tools on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch’s site, you can quickly determine which types of birds, based on region and habitat, are found in your area. Out of those, think about which ones you’d like to attract.

Also, to help you offer a safe, sturdy, and accommodating home for your avian guests, an illustrated guide with tips and information on birdhouses is available, as are step-by-step instructions on the proper way to install a camera within a nest box and monitor nesting activity.

Teachers can even download a NestWatch lesson plan packet for their students. Course information includes how to identify local birds by their song and type of nest, guidelines and legal requirements for observing nests, and methods for collecting and reporting data.

With the lesson plan packets and latest technology, you can look all you want. But still, no touching.

Happy watching!

Note: This post first appeared a few weeks ago on the Your Wild Life science website.

Sources:

  1. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. 8, 114, 115.
  2. Whitman, W. “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”, Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178710.
  3. Frost, R. “The Exposed Nest”, Mountain Interval. New York: Henry Holt, 1920. New York: Bartleby.com, 1999: http://www.bartleby.com/119/21.html.
  4. Clare, J. “The Pettichap’s Nest”, John Clare Info pages: http://www.johnclare.info/sanada/4Rm2.htm#PETTICHAPS.
  5. Longfellow, H. W. “The Emperor’s Bird’s-Nest”. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, A Maine Historical Society Web Site: http://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=134.
  6. Cranmer, T. “Nesting Cavities and the History of the Birdhouse”, Cranmer Earth Design: http://www.earthdesign.ca/bihi.html.
  7. “Bird Houses in Turkey”, Turkish Cultural Foundation: http://www.turkishculture.org/architecture/bird-houses-104.htm.