Easter and the Egg by Denise Malmquist-Little

 

      When he was a little boy, did the kids in Jesus’ time dye Easter Eggs? This is one of my all-time favorite questions asked in a junior high religion class. Hmm. If you don’t know the answer to that question, perhaps some basics will help you find it. First, let’s look at the origins of the word Easter. To do so, we have to go back a bit farther into history than the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Pagans venerated the Anglo-Saxon goddess named Eostre or Ostara, the goddess of dawn or Spring. She was venerated at the vernal equinox, around March 22, the first day of the season of Spring. From Eostre’s name came the English word Easter. The Latin variation, Pascha, is from Hebrew antecedents derived from the Passover.

Easter is a moveable feast celebrated since the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD on the first Sunday after the vernal equinox and falling on a different Sunday in about a twelve-year cycle.

Rabbits symbolized Eostre's physical presence on Earth (hint: Easter bunnies!). This is because folklore has it that she saved a poor bird whose wings had frozen during the Winter. She melted them with the dawn sun of Spring. Then she turned the bird into a hare so its wings wouldn’t freeze again. This was an unusual hare ... it laid eggs. So much for which came first--the chicken or the egg!

Anyway, rabbits tend to reproduce rapidly and Spring is the natural season of new life. Eggs are usually meant to lead to new life, so it all kind of tied together for this goddess. Along the way a few pagans and a few Christians seem to have shared a few symbols.

Now about the Easter eggs... generally speaking, rabbit eggs are a rarity. However, duck eggs, goose eggs, and chicken eggs, are not. Many cultures use the egg as a life symbol. Ancient Greeks and Persians celebrated with eggs at their Spring festivals. The Chinese use the egg not only in the Spring, but also at the 1-year-old parties given to celebrate a birth in the family - red eggs are part of the feast. Some lore tells us the great Sun Bird, and others the Great Phoenix, hatched from the Earth or World Egg. There are ancient depictions of Heaven and Earth each being half of the same egg.

Eggs, Spring, new life, conquering death with new life - the egg fit right in with the Christian celebration of Easter--the Resurrection. Mind you, not everyone celebrates with the egg in the same way. From the earliest times, people wanted the egg symbol to be special. Sometimes the egg was wrapped in gold leaf, or painted by boiling the egg with leaves or petals for color. In a culture or two, eggs are given as gifts - as wishes for good life and happiness. Still others greet one another by each holding an egg, then smashing them together!

Well, whatever, Faberge wasn’t worried about the source of the custom of egg gifts, just pleasing his client. Faberge created beautiful jeweled and sculpted eggs, each containing a treasure for the wife of the Czar. These were given as gifts of love.

The Ukrainians weren’t too worried about source either. Their wax and dye eggs are among the most beautiful and detailed in the world! It can take a whole year to create a single breath-taking egg. Each is unique; many are family heirlooms.

See’s Candies and competitors haven’t slowed to concern the question about the source either. They mass-produce chocolate eggs - milk, dark, hollow, filled - however you like!

My grand-father, who was one of the 4 sculptors for the 1939 Treasure Island Fair--The Rainbow Girl Fountain, the Phoenix on the Tower of the Sun, The Forty-foot Fauna and her sister, Flora, also hand painted blown eggs with little cherry blossom trees and birdies, and little blades of grass and with chicks. They are our family heirlooms.  (As a side note: Grandpa Malmquist’s artistry work includes St. Brendan’s school & church, St. Gabriel’s school & church, Mercy High School SF, the Carmelite chapel and convent over by Saint Ignatius Church, the life-sized Last Supper at the seminary, the San Bruno Library, the old Physical Science building at SFSU, and all of the architectural sculpture on our State Capital Building, and more.)

My brother & I added to the family egg collection with flowers in the 70’s, with futuristic 3-D textured eggs in the 80’s, and detailed geometric patterns in the 90’s. Ahh. What will the next decade bring!

So, whether you pull out the vinegar and food coloring to dye your eggs, or feel ready to mix a few oils and marbleize a few eggs, or maybe a dab of paint here and there, or even a bit of crayon for wax relief, decorating eggs is a neat and fun family tradition. Doesn’t matter if you used blown eggs and keep the masterpieces, or if you enjoy them for the moment, then feast on egg salad sandwiches. It’s the being together and sharing the moment that’s important.

No, Jesus and his family didn’t dye eggs for Easter for obvious reasons. However, his family had traditions and things that they did together. Family is important.

Remember that Joseph sacrificed much by moving to Egypt to save Jesus and keep his family together. Where did Jesus learn all the traditions, readings, prayers, & prophecies of his faith, but from his family. How was it that Jesus was so tolerant and accepting of others? The same way we learn--in our families. Jesus learned a trade at his father’s hand. What was Jesus’ dying wish - that his Mother be cared for - be taken in as family by his friend. Think of these questions: Whom did Jesus hang out with? Who did he entrust his legacy to? Remember that it was the twelve he saw as his brothers and as family.

This Easter season, remember that the Resurrection is central to our faith, that the Eucharist is central to our community of Church and to our oneness in Christ. Most of all remember your family this Easter. Whether your family is blood bond and/or love bond, whether they are near or far, take time to share with them--in person, by letter, in thought, and in prayer. And may each egg you see and each egg you enjoy to color bring back happy memories of the times of sharing with family, and gives you another reason to say, "I care!" with the type of care for others that brought about the first Easter.

Denise Malmquist-Little teaches at St. Cecilia’s School, San Francisco.

          

 
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