The History of the Decorated Easter Egg

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The egg may just be nature’s perfect package.  Throughout history,  the egg has represented mystery, magic, medicine, food and omen.  Eggs are also the universal symbol of Easter celebrations throughout the world.  The egg has been, and continues to be, dyed, painted, adorned and embellished in celebration of its special symbolism.

Long before the egg became closely entwined with the Christian Easter, it had a place of honor in the midst of many festivals celebrating the rites of spring.  Many people, including the Romans, Gauls, Chinese, Egyptians and Persians, cherished the egg as a symbol of the universe. Eggs have been dyed, exchanged and shown reverence since ancient times.

In Pagan times the egg represented the rebirth of the earth. After the long, hard winter was over the earth would burst forth with new life and was reborn just as the egg miraculously burst forth with life. Therefore, the egg was believed to have special powers. So strong was this belief that eggs were buried under the foundations of buildings to ward off evil, pregnant young Roman women carried an egg on their persons to foretell the sex of their unborn children and French brides stepped upon an egg before crossing the threshold of their new homes.

With the advent and growth of Christianity, the symbolism of the egg changed to represent the rebirth of man instead of nature’s rebirth.  Devout Christians embraced the egg symbol and likened it to the tomb from which Christ rose.

Old Polish legends went even further as they intertwined folklore and Christian beliefs; some legends firmly attached the egg to the Easter celebration.  One of these legends, which concerns the Virgin Mary, tells of the time Mary gave eggs to the soldiers at the cross. After passing out the eggs she entreated them to be less cruel and she wept. Her tears fell upon the eggs, spotting them with dots of brilliant color.

Another Polish legend says that when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, she had a basket of eggs with her. When she arrived at the tomb and uncovered the eggs, the pure white shells had miraculously taken on a rainbow of colors.

During the Middle Ages decorating and coloring eggs for Easter was a popular custom in England.  In the year 1290, Edward I recorded a household expenditure of eighteen pence for four hundred and fifty eggs to be gold-leafed and colored for Easter gifts.

Undoubtedly, the most famous decorated Easter eggs were those made by the well-known goldsmith, Peter Carl Faberge.  In 1883, the Russian Czar, Alexander, commissioned Faberge  to make a special Easter gift for his wife, the Empress Marie.  The first Faberge egg was an elaborate egg within an egg. It had a stunningly beautiful outside shell of platinum and enameled white which opened to reveal a smaller gold egg. The smaller egg, opened to display a golden chicken and a jeweled replica of the Imperial crown. This special Faberge egg so delighted Czarina Marie that the Czar promptly ordered the Faberge firm to design further eggs to be delivered every Easter.  Nicholas II, Alexander’s son, continued the custom in later years. It is believed that a total of fifty-seven eggs were made.

Ornamental egg designers believe in the symbolism of the egg and celebrate the egg by decorating it with superb artistry and ornamentation. Designers use flowers and leaves from greeting cards, tiny cherubs, jewels and elegant fabrics, braids and trims to adorn the eggs. Decorative eggs are separated, delicately hinged and glued with epoxy and transparent cement, and then when they are completed, the eggs are covered with a glossy resin finish. Although many of the omens regarding the egg as well as the mystery surrounding the egg have disappeared, the symbolism remains, and many artists continue in the old world tradition of adorning eggs.