Decorated egg (1901/1950) by UnknownNational Museum of the Romanian Peasant
To the relief of dentists in places like the UK, the US, and France, not all Easter customs involve eating copious amounts of sugar. In fact, in many places around the world it’s far more common to decorate a real egg than eat a chocolate one.
Although this might be a less delicious way of celebrating, dyeing and painting eggs is a much-beloved way for families and communities to spend time together and share traditions unique to their culture.
Why eggs? Eggs have long been associated with springtime because they signify new life, fertility, and rebirth. Eventually, Christianity also adopted them as a symbol of Easter, as they provided a fitting metaphor for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The shells represent his tomb, and cracking them open represents his return. Historically during Lent, the period of fasting just before Easter, Christians would abstain from eating eggs for 40 days (today, it’s more common for individuals to choose what they’d like to give up themselves). Given this, any eggs that were laid during the Lenten season were hard boiled so they could either be kept or decorated and given as gifts to others.
Different countries have their own ways of decorating their Easter eggs and even find different uses for them once painted/dyed, particularly in Eastern Europe. The Slovenian eggs known as pihri were traditionally made by girls and given as a token of love to their sweethearts. In parts of Greece, eggs are dyed red and sometimes baked whole into loaves of bread. The decorated eggs of Lithuania (called margučiai) were given as gifts to bring their bearer good luck. In Romania, friends and family will tap their painted eggs together and whomever’s egg doesn’t break will supposedly enjoy the longest life.
While some cultures simply boil an egg with food coloring or a natural dye such as onion skin, some processes require a high level of skill and patience to complete intricate designs. In Poland, there are many different techniques for decorating eggs, such as carving directly into the shell (drapanki eggs) or crocheting pouches that can be used to hang them (dzierganki eggs). One of the most advanced methods is batik, where markings are added using wax and then the egg is submerged in dye to color the exposed shell (pisanki eggs). The process is repeated, with the motifs in the lightest color done first and the darkest dye done last, resulting in vibrant layers of pattern.
Polish pisanki traditional Easter eggs (2016) by Artur Widak/NurPhoto
In Slovenia, the type of designs drawn on the egg varies from region to region. The traditional patterns used in the southerly region of Bela Krajina are geometric, incorporating crosses, spirals, shapes, dots, and straight, wavy, and zig-zag lines. These iconic black and red patterns are passed down from generation to generation and can take up to two hours to complete. Further west, the patterns are more nature-themed and include clover, daisies, grapes, and birds.
Easter egg by Suzyco
However, the prize for the most ornate Easter egg goes to the Fabergé eggs of Russia. These bejeweled creations were made by the House of Fabergé between 1885 and 1917 for the Russian Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II to give to their wives and mothers at Easter. The elaborate eggs were often made from gold with each separate one containing a unique surprise – the first ever Fabergé egg contained a tiny diamond replica of the crown and a small ruby pendant. Just don’t expect the Easter Bunny to bring you one of those…
Gatchina Palace Egg (1901) by House of FabergéThe Walters Art Museum