Behold, an egg

by Terence MacNamee

As we all know, the major Christian festivals of Easter and Christmas replaced pagan festivals for Midwinter and Spring respectively. Such festivals were ingrained the folk memory before the Christian era. They provided a substratum of folklore which could, with a bit of ingenuity, be incorporated into Christian observance. Today, oddly enough, with the waning of Christianity in the West, the folkloric elements, which are the pre-Christian elements, take centre stage again whereas before they were belonged to the periphery. Many people today will tell you that Easter has something to do with eggs. Well, it has.

The symbolism of eggs is obvious: it means new life. This symbol is universal, but it fits in with the Christian meaning of Easter straightforwardly enough. Yet growing up in the English-speaking world, I had little encounter with eggs at Easter. I mean real eggs. We were quite familiar with the chocolate variety, which, it seems, is entirely a modern invention.

All over Europe, however, the custom of enjoying real eggs, with decorated shells, is still strong. Here in Switzerland, for example. At the end of the Easter vigil in Chur cathedral, baskets of coloured eggs will be brought to the altar and the bishop will bless them. Afterwards, they will be handed out to the faithful as they leave. People will engage in Eiertütschen, which means that you knock them together to see whose egg will crack first. They all get cracked in the end, of course, whereupon you peel them and eat them. After the Holy Saturday fast, they taste particularly good.

Children have great fun in Holy Week painting and decorating the hard-boiled eggs. At Easter itself, or just after, these kinds of eggs, and especially the chocolate variety, are hidden in the garden, supposedly left in nests there by a creature called the Osterhase or Easter Hare, and the children have to find them.

As a child you “believe in” the Osterhase like you do in Santa Claus. Eventually comes the age of disenchantment when you no longer believe in it, but the new-found scepticism is often suppressed in the interest of finding these eggs, whoever is really hiding them.

This year Easter falls on the same date for the Greek Orthodox Church. A Greek friend was telling me that their eggs have to be dyed bright red, and that they bring them to church – each person has an egg and a candle – to be blessed, and the egg does not last long after the end of the fast.

There is a lot to be said for real eggs, apart from chocolate ones. Their symbolism is apparent. They mean new life. But the shells are fragile. In France they say proverbially
pour faire une omelette, il faut casser des oeufs. At Easter, to make the most of the egg, you have to crack the painted shell. New life has to burst upon the world, and our existing arrangements, however decorative they may be, have to make way for it.