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The Dyeing of Eggs

by Matushka Ioanna Callinicos Rhodes

There are many customs and traditions that pertain to Pascha world-wide, but the most common one is that of dyeing and decorating eggs. Whether you are from London, Jerusalem, or Moscow, this custom is universal.

Egg dyeing and decorating can be dated back to pagan times. There is evidence of the ancients coloring their eggs in the history of Egypt, Gaul, China, Rome, and Persia. The egg was cherished as a symbol of the universe and represented life as a circle, as eternal life. The golden yolk of yellow represented the Sun God, the white shell the White Goddess, and the whole egg, rebirth. Hence, it was linked to spring, a time of rebirth for the earth after a long cold winter. The earth was reborn in much the same way the egg miraculously brings forth life.

It was customary in ancient times to go and gather different colored eggs from the nests of a variety of birds. Some suggest that may be what gave rise to egg hunts and dyeing of eggs, for people were imitating the tinted eggs of wild birds, and mimicking the colors of spring with its array of pastel flowers and blossoms in bloom. During this time there were many spring festivals where eggs were dyed, using flowers, berries, and other forms of natural vegetation. The dyes came from the rebirth of nature, and it was nature that was represented in the multicolored eggs. These eggs were used as talismans and in ritual eating. During this season these special eggs were also given as gifts.

The Jewish people have a history with eggs. Indeed, eggs were taken with them when they fled Egypt. They were the convenient food of the day and had a long shelf life of at least 40 days. These eggs were roasted in the ash of a dying fire for hours or over night. Today on the first night of Passover one will find one hard-boiled or roasted egg on the “sedar plate.” Again, the roasted egg symbolizes the endless cycle of life, its procreation and continuation. Also, this egg stands for additional offerings and sacrifices offered in the Temple in Jerusalem for different festivals and feasts. Therefore the egg, being the initiate of life, dies and is sacrificed.

There is even a visual “pun” on the name for egg, because in Aramaic the word “bea” also means desire. Therefore it represents the desire of the Holy One to redeem the people of Israel. The egg is the first course of the Passover meal, and it is either chopped or dipped into salt water. Jews always have them on the Sabbath, births, and deaths and at all important moments in life’s cycle. It is important in Jewish tradition to have eggs particularly at a funeral, where they represent death and the tomb. At funerals, the egg has been cooked, and therefore there is the absence of life and no possibility of renewal and rebirth, because the life within the shell is dead. It has become the tomb.

For Orthodox Christians, one custom dictates that on Cheesefare Sunday the last thing one eats is a roasted or hard-boiled egg. This particular white hard-boiled egg represents the “Old Adam,” who brought on death. This way the mouth closes with the egg and thus, Lent begins. Then, with anticipation on Pascha night, the mouth is reopened, after the long period of fasting, with the New Egg, the Brilliant Red Egg, which represents the “New Adam,” Christ. So of course, it is the first thing eaten! In this action we acknowledge the Resurrection of Christ, the “New Adam, and the fast is broken. He is the sacrificial Lamb who died and entered the tomb and destroyed death.

Why red? It is the brightest of all colors and it represents joy and happiness. In Russian the word also means beautiful. The early Christians always used red colored eggs to symbolize the Resurrection. This tradition has been passed down to us from them, through St.Mary Magdeline. St. Mary Magdeline was a woman of social status and wealth. After the Resurrection she used her standing to gain an invitation to a banquet given by Emperor Tiberius Caesar. Upon arriving she greeted him with “Christ is Risen!” He laughed and responded, “Christ rising from the dead is as likely as the egg in your hand turning red.” Before he finished speaking, the egg turned bright red in her hand. She then cried, “Christ is Risen; for Jesus has burst forth from the tomb!” For this reason, the icons St. Mary Magdeline often depict her holding a red egg in her right hand. And so, we dye eggs red for Pascha!

The West adopted the multicolored eggs of pre-Christian times, and Christianized the practice to symbolize the Resurrection of Christ. Many other customs have evolved with the egg. One of these is egg tapping. Also known as egg dumping or egg jarping, this is the tradition of one person hitting the egg of another person on the pointy nose side, then the wide side. The winner is the person whose egg is intact. This symbolizes the gates of Hell being smashed. This game is played through out all the Orthodox lands and in England and Scotland. In both England and Scotland people also enjoy an egg rolling game, dropping their eggs down a sloped hill. This is to represent the rolling away of the stone from the sepulcher.

Custom has it that eggs are traditionally dyed on Holy (or Maundy Thursday). In some areas of Europe it was common to dye eggs green on this day as a reminder of the bitter herbs and vinegar that were given Christ while on the cross. Also in Russia, Cyprus, the Balkans, Poland, Scotland and England, eggs are boiled with onion skins for a reddish brownish color. In England and Scotland these types of eggs are known as “pace” eggs or “paste” eggs.