Eggs were colored, blessed, exchanged and eaten as part of the rites of spring long before Christian times. Even the earliest civilizations held springtime festivals to welcome the sun’s rising from its long winter sleep. Ancient peoples thought of the sun’s return from darkness as an annual miracle and they regarded the egg as a natural wonder and a proof of the renewal of life. As Christianity spread, the egg was adopted as a symbol of Christ’s Resurrection from the tomb.
For centuries, eggs were among the foods forbidden by the church during Lent, so it was a special treat to have them again at Easter. In Slavic countries, baskets of food including eggs are traditionally taken to church to be blessed on Holy Saturday or before the Easter midnight Mass, then taken home for a part of Easter breakfast.
People in Eastern European countries have a long tradition of elaborately decorating Easter eggs. Polish, Slavic and Ukrainian people create amazingly intricate designs on the eggs. They draw lines with a wax pencil or stylus, dip the egg in color and repeat the process many times to make true works of art. Every dot and line in the pattern has a meaning. Yugoslavian Easter eggs bear the initials “XV” for “Christ is Risen”, a traditional Easter greeting.
The Russians, during the reign of the tsars, celebrated Easter much more elaborately than Christmas, with Easter breads and other special foods and quantities of decorated eggs given as gifts. The Russian royal family carried the custom to great lengths, giving exquisitely detailed jeweled eggs made by goldsmith Peter Carl Faberge from the 1880s until 1917.
In Germany and other countries of central Europe, eggs that go into Easter foods are not broken, but emptied out. The empty shells are painted and decorated with bits of lace, cloth or ribbon, then hung with ribbons on an evergreen or small leafless tree. On the third Sunday before Easter, Moravian village girls used to carry a tree decorated with eggshells and flowers from house to house for good luck. The eggshell tree is one of several Easter traditions carried to America by German (Deutsch) settlers, especially those who became known as Pennsylvania Dutch. German immigrants also brought the fable that the Easter bunny delivers colored eggs for good children.
Easter is an especially happy time for children and many Easter customs are for their enjoyment. Hunting Easter eggs hidden around the house or yard is a widespread activity and so are egg-rolling contests.