The Incredible, Eatable Easter Egg
Dr. Jay Worth Allen
The world is plagued by old wives’ tales, queer traditions and folklore. Most are harmless, and the bulk of them are never questioned. But, being a curious sort, I have to know why people “knock on wood,” or why a Sports-Jock wears the same pair of un-washed socks his entire Professional career. In like fashion, I had to know what’s-up with the Church’s time-honored Easter Egg. Specifically, when, where and why the Egg? Well, I’ve found out . . . from various folktales, urban myths, time-honored legends & Canon V of the first Nicene Council.
The use of Eggs in all sorts of Pagan festivities dates back to antiquity, when the Egyptians and Romans, among others, saw its shape as an emblem of the Universe. But our Easter Egg didn’t get its start until around 325 A.D. - after Constantine crowned himself the first Roman Pope and summoned the first Church-Council. Easter, Lent, Christmas, and the like, were dated, deemed and dictated Holy Festivals - all set and settled by the end of Constantine reign. As the feast of Easter developed in the early Roman Church, so did the festival’s preparatory period, known as Lent. This 40 day precursory involved fasting and abstinence from certain foods, including Eggs. Canon LVI of the Council in Trullo, 692 A.D., again, urged Egg abstinence: “It seems good therefore that the whole Church of God which is in all the world should follow one rule and keep the Fast perfectly, and as they abstain from everything which is killed, so also should they from Eggs and cheese, which are the fruit and produce of those animals from which we abstain.”
Biblical or not, that was the verdict.
By the time of the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Eggs, milk, and meat were all strictly forbidden during Lent: “Eggs and milk foods are forbidden to those who Fast, for as much as they originate from animals that provide us with flesh . . . the eating of flesh meat is forbidden in every Fast, while the Lenten Fast lays a general prohibition even on Eggs and milk foods.”
In pre-refrigeration days, it was difficult to preserve milk and meat for 40 days until Easter, but that was not necessarily true of Eggs. Eggs, which unlike other foods do not perish quickly, was a natural way to Break the Lenten Fast on Easter Sunday. So, presenting gifts of Eggs at Easter became a long and culturally diverse Church lineage. Practicality was one factor, given that hens would be laying Eggs throughout Lent, a surplus would exist by Easter, probably at lower prices. (Notably, the Jewish Passover Seder meal includes a hard-boiled Egg symbolizing the sacrifice at, and subsequently the destruction of, the Jerusalem temple. Whether this had any influence on the development of the Easter Eggs, I really don’t know.)
Okay, that’s where Constantine’s Easter Egg came from, but why do we dye them? Again, folktales, legends . . . yada, yada, yada.
There’s an ancient story about Mary Magdalene being summoned to the Roman Emperor Tiberius. After telling him that Christ had been resurrected, the skeptical Caesar pointed to an Egg and exclaimed, “Christ has not risen, no more than that Egg is red” - after which, according to legend, the Egg in question miraculously turned blood-red.
One Eastern Orthodox myth tells the story of either Mary Magdalene or Mary, the mother of Jesus, placing a basket of Eggs under the Lord’s Cross. Why she did this is not explained, but, according to lore, the blood of Christ fell on the Eggs, turning them blood-red.
According to an oral wives’ tale, Simon of Cyrene (Luke 23:26) was, in fact, an Egg merchant, who was forced to leave his Egg Kiosk to help Jesus carry the Cross. Miraculously, when Simon returned, he found that all his Eggs had changed color. Yep, blood-red.
These, and other identical sagas, have traditionally been taken as the basis for why we dye Easter Eggs. Why we ask children to hunt them is story for a later date. But, we’ve been dyeing Easter Eggs for centuries. “O, when will Easter come,’ runs an ancient Macedonian children’s rhyme, ‘bringing with her red Eggs?”
As expected, Red was the favored Easter color until pastels became Vogue in the mid-1970’s. In the early 1980s, M&M’s became available in pastel-spring colors. Reese’s now makes peanut butter Easter Eggs, and Smucker’s produces Easter jellybeans.
In 1290, the English King Edward I collected a bunch of Eggs, had them “boiled and stained, or covered with leaf gold, and distributed to the royal household at Easter” (William Hone, William, The Every-Day Book). An Egg in a silver case was sent from the Vatican to King Henry VIII (1491 –1547 A.D.). The most famous modern counterpart of this is the renowned Fabergé Egg, first made in 1885 for Tsar Alexander III as an Easter present to his wife, Tsaritsa Maria. People were dying Easter Eggs by one method or another in various parts of Britain, especially northern England in the 18th century, which they called “Pace-Eggs,” from the Greek word paschal - relating to Easter or Passover. Chocolate Easter Eggs emerged in the 19th century and, because they could be mass-produced, took over the Easter market by the following century. The Church hasn’t been the same since.
So, in conclusion, why the Easter Egg? Tevye the milkman in Fiddler on the Roof said it best: “Tradition!”
The Incredible, Eatable Easter Egg
Published: 17 April 2011 on Freed In Christ! blogsite.
Published: 14 April 2011 in Dr. Jay's Opinion Column of The County Journal.
© 1998-2012 dr. jay & miss diana ministries, inc. all rights reserved
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