Posted by: oysterculture | April 3, 2009

Easter – A Fresh Start Around the World

beauty in a morning run

beauty in a morning run

Easter is a few short weeks off, but it feels right on time with the cherry blossoms in bloom.  The daffodils and tulips abundant in all their colorful glory, defiantly standing tall despite the blustery winds that streak around corners with surprising force.  But those gusts are required to have the kites streak through the sky like missiles.  What a wonderful time of the year.  Everything seems new and fresh again.

Easter has long been associated with Christian religions, as the day Jesus rises from the dead, a time to celebrate after the solemnity of Lent.  However, many pre-Christian religions also have their own take on this holiday, that while derived from diverse origins have similar meanings — they too celebrate Easter to recognize spring and re-birth.  Why do so many traditions seem to overlap?  One supposition is that Pope Gregory the Great ordered his missionaries to incorporate old religious sites and festivals into Christian rituals to increase acceptance of the faith, resulting in the adoption of similar symbols such as eggs by multiple faiths. 

Many people assoicate Easter with the Christian religion and for good reason as Christians consider Easter is the most holy of holy days.  Easter Sunday is preceded by several solemn holy days including Good Friday, that day Jesus died.  Lent kicks of this holy period, and the last week of lent, is holy week, filled with special days that commemerate the final week of Jesus’s life.

The white Easter lily is the floral symbol for many of this holiday.  Growing up, I remember my mother coming home with a beautiful plant that took center stage on our dining table.  I would adopt that plant, checking daily to see that it was watered, or in my case, very well watered.  The word “Easter” is derived from Eoster, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring.  Every year at the vernal equinox, a festival was held to honor her.  Her animal was the spring hare, hence the association with eggs and hares.  Most European languages use words derived from the Hebrew word for Passover, pasch.

  • Spanish:  Pascua
  • French:  Pâques
  • Dutch:  Pasen
  • Greek, Russian and most Eastern Orthodox countries: Pascha

Some languages, such as Serbian Uskrs, use a term meaning Resurrection.

Easter Eggs – history and symbolism 

Eggs are predominately featured in Easter celebrations, decorations, and food.  My husband’s family has a tradition of making creamed eggs and toast every Easter morning.  If we are in town, we are there without fail, even before the first whiffs of coffee make their way from the kitchen.

Eggs  as a symbol of rebirth that go back to Pagan’s use of  eggs to symbolize the rebirth of the earth.  The Christians adopted this symbology as their own with the eggshell representing the tomb of Christ and the breaking of the shell the resurrection.  Today, we have gone commercial and the humble chicken egg has been replaced with chocolate and plastic.

Easter Baskets (photo by elcivic)

Easter Baskets (photo by elcivic)

Easter eggs have traditionally been dyed or painted chicken eggs, but they have slowly been substituted by chocolate eggs or plastic eggs filled with goodies.  An Easter Sunday morning tradition is the egg hunt to find those eggs allegedly hidden by the East Bunny.  Alternatively, an Easter basket first stuffed with straw and laden with an assortment of chocolate and other candies and goodies can be found placed strategically for little boys and girls to find.

Origin and folklore

Why we decorate eggs is not certain, but theories abound.  In medieval Europe, beautifully decorated eggs were given as gifts.  Religions other than Christianity use the egg as part of their celebrations.  Persians paint eggs for Nowrooz, their New Year celebration, which falls on the Spring equinox.  For the Jewish Passover Sedar, a hard boiled egg dipped in salt water symbolizes the Passover sacrifice offered at the Temple in Jerusalem.

For Orthodox Christians, the Easter egg is more than a food eaten at the end of a fast, it is a declaration of the Resurrection of Jesus. Traditionally, Orthodox Easter eggs are dyed red to represent the blood of Christ, shed on the Cross, and again the egg shell symbolizes the sealed Tomb of Christ—the cracking of which symbolized his resurrection from the dead. 

Egg decorating  

a timely exhibit at SF's Legion of Honor

a timely exhibit at SF's Legion of Honor

Easter eggs are a popular symbol of new life in many Slavic folk traditions. A batik (wax resist) process creates intricate, brilliantly-colored eggs, the best-known being the Ukrainian pysanka.  The celebrated Fabergé workshops made exquisite jewelled Easter eggs for the Russian Imperial Court.  Most of these creations contained hidden surprises such as clock-work birds, or miniature ships.

When boiling hard-cooked eggs for Easter, a popular tan colour can be achieved by boiling the eggs with onion skins.  Further color combinations were achieved by tying on the onion skin with different colored woollen yarn, which in Northern England are called pace-eggs or paste-eggs. They were usually eaten after an egg-jarping (egg-tapping) competition, which apparently results in a lot of broken egg shells.

In the United States, there is no limit to the specialty kits that can be purchased, but essentially they remain just food coloring.  Growing up, egg decorating was always a family activity for us, coloring the eggs and customizing them.  I suffered from the “more is better” syndrome and kept trying to add just one more dab of color which  generally resulting in a very unEaster egg color of puke green.  My mother, always incredibly talented, enjoyed making Easter egg candles.  We would “help” blow the egg whites and yolk to provide her with the empty shell that she would fill with brightly colored wax.

Easter egg traditions

A tradition exists in some parts of the United Kingdom, Germany and other countries of rolling painted eggs down steep hills on Easter Sunday.  The game has been connected to the rolling away of the rock from Jesus Christ’s tomb when he was resurrected. 
The Easter egg hunt is a game during which decorated eggs, hard-boiled ones or colorful plastic ones, filled with or made of chocolate candies, of various sizes, are hidden for children to find, both indoors and outdoors.  When the hunt is over, prizes may be given for the largest number of eggs collected, for the largest of the smallest egg,.  Growing up, we visited my grandparents’ farm in Iowa, and on Easter Sunday, after church we had, what in my mind, was the best Easter egg hunt of all.  I think they let the grass grow tall around that old church, so we really had to hunt for those eggs and the squeals of delight rang out across the lawn.  With the tall grass, it was a legitimate Easter egg hunt, with eggs popping up weeks later.

In the North of England, at Eastertime, a traditional game is played where hard boiled pace eggs are distributed and each player hits the other player’s egg with their own. This is known as “egg tapping”, “egg dumping” or “egg jarping“.  (the article has a host of other eccentric English Easter traditions to ponder)   The winner holds the last intact egg, the losers eats their eggs.  The annual egg jarping world championship is held over Easter in Peterlee Cricket Club.  In parts of Austria, Bavaria and German-speaking Switzerland it is called Ostereiertitschen or Eierpecken.  In South Louisiana this practice is called Pocking Eggs, the rewards are reversed, the cajuns hold that the winner eats the eggs of the losers in each round.

photo from allposter

photo from allposter

Germany started the tradition of the Egg dance is a traditional Easter game in which eggs are laid on the ground and the goal is to dance among them without damaging any eggs which originated in Germany. In the UK the dance is called the hop-egg.

The Pace Egg plays are traditional English village plays, with a rebirth theme that take place at Easter.  They feature dramatic combat between the hero and villain, in which the hero is killed and brought to life.

 Eggs as food for Easter

Easter egg popularity may also be attributed to the strict food rituals of Lent, when fasting and strict restrictions on certain foods play a part in the traditions.  Historically, households used up their eggs prior to the start of lent, as eggs were originally forbidden during that period (the tradition continues among the Eastern Christian Churches) with eggs are seen as “dairy” (a foodstuff taken from an animal without shedding its blood). This fasting led to the tradition of Pancake Day being celebrated on Shrove Tuesday (the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday).  Shrove Tuesday is also known as Mardi Gras, a French phrase meaning “Fat Tuesday” and traditionally marks the last day of consumption of eggs and dairy before Lent begins.

In the Orthodox Church, Great Lent begins on Clean Monday, rather than Wednesday, so the household’s dairy products were consumed in the preceding week, called Cheesefare Week

During Lent, since chickens were not stopping their  production of eggs, a larger than usual store might be available at the end of the fast if the eggs had not been allowed to hatch.   So any surplus had to be eaten quickly to prevent spoiling.  Once Easter occurred, regular consumption of eggs resumed.

Who is that rascally rabbit, the Easter Bunny?

Today on Easter Sunday, many children wake up to find that the Easter Bunny has left them baskets of candy. He has also hidden the eggs that they decorated earlier that week.  Children hunt for the eggs throughout the house. Organizations hold Easter egg hunts, and the child who finds the most eggs wins a prize.

The Easter Bunny is a rabbit-spirit.  Long ago, he was called the “Easter Hare”, hares and rabbits have frequent multiple births so they became a symbol of fertility. The custom of an Easter egg hunt began because children believed that hares laid eggs in the grass. The Romans believed that “All life comes from an egg.”  Christians consider eggs to be “the seed of life” and so they symbolize the resurrection of Christ. 

Easter in the United States

Dolly Madison & Egg Rolling

In the United States, early 1800s,  Dolly Madison, wife of our esteemed fourth President – Dolly Madison, organized an egg roll in Washington, D.C.  She was fascinated to learn that Egyptian children rolled eggs against the pyramids so she invited the children of Washington to roll hard-boiled eggs down the hilly lawn of the new Capitol building.  The custom proved very popular, halted only during the Civil War.  The location was moved to the White House in 1880, and has been held there ever since, after officials complained that the little tikes were ruining the Capitol lawn.  The First Lady hosts the event for the children of the entire country.  I witnessed the spectacle when I lived in the DC area, and can vouch it is a pastel spectacle – the children, decked in their Easter outfits, are very excited or hyper from the candy – I’m not sure!   

Easter Sunday – Traditionally families gather for a large meal after church services.  Common main course consist of ham or lamb.   In my family we never had a specific main course, it was determined by vote.  Mash potatoes and gravy were a given as was some fruity dessert. 

Easter in Sweden and Norway

photo from cache.daylife

photo from cache.daylife

Eggs are also an important feature of Easter festivities in Sweden and Norway, where the emphasis throughout is on humour, bawdiness and fun. Coloured eggs – sometimes dyed with onion skins or coffee grounds – are exchanged, and a game involving the rolling of eggs down roofing tiles is also popular.

In Sweden, regional variations between the north and south abound in terms of what specialities are eaten. In Sweden and Norway, a number of the special festival dishes are eaten at both Christmas and Easter.

  • Easter Saturday – children dress up as ‘nice witches’ giving out letters and cards, and collecting coins, sweets and eggs.
  • Easter Sunday– on this day a feast is centred around a small smorgasbord (‘bread and butter table’) in Sweden, or koldtbord (‘cold table’) in Norway. There’s likely to be a variety of herrings, including sild (raw herrings in a spicy sauce made from vinegar and onions); eggs cooked in a variety of ways; fish dishes, such as cured salmon or smoked salmon with dill; roast ham; and a selection of cheeses – accompanied by white, rye and crisp bread, and beer or schnapps. In some households, Jansson’s Temptation (sliced potatoes baked with anchovies and cream) may show up and, in Norway, lutefisk (rehydrated dried salt cod) might find its way to the table.  (Being from Minnesota, I can say that lutefisk is very common at Christmas)

Other Swedish and Norwegian Easter treats include:  A lemon and almond cheesecake, made with rare ‘new milk’ is considered an Easter speciality in Sweden. In Norway, the meal is accompanied by aquavit (alcohol distilled from potatoes flavoured with caraway) or Paskelbrygg (Easter beer, a blend of the best local beers). 

A unique national Norwegian tradition involves solving crimes during Easter.  Publishers churn out books known as “Easter-Thrillers” or Påskekrimmen.  Even the milk cartons have murder stories on their sides!  As you can see from the picture, everyone gets into the act.

Easter in Eastern Europe

photo from minnpost

photo from minnpost

Easter’s the most important festival in Eastern Europe, and food preparations begin during the week running up to Easter, known as Passion Week. An enormous range of pastries, cakes and cookies (biscuits) are enjoyed during the Easter celebrations.

  • Easter Saturday– a basket of food, known as the blessing basket, is indeed blessed by the priest, and only once he blesses the basket is Lent considered over. This beautifully decorated basket is crammed with symbolic foods such as a lamb sugar figurine (as a symbol of Christ, the Lamb of God), decorated coloured eggs (represent resurrection), bread and salt (for prosperity and health – the bread represents hard work, the salt protects from rotting), meats and sausages (for bounty and fertility), and horseradish (which sybolizes the bitterness of Christ’s suffering).
  • Easter Sunday– families break their Lenten fast by sharing a blessed egg, which is cut into small pieces and eaten in silence.  Once this action is complete the feasting begins, and might include: roast ham, roast veal, suckling pig, boiled pork, roast turkey or goose, kielbasa (sausages), pancakes, stuffed cabbage, cwikla (beetroot and horseradish relish), hrudka (sweet Easter ‘cheese’ made from eggs), decorated coloured eggs, and krupnik (honey vodka). A lamb sculpted from butter, white sugar or pastry forms an important centrepiece.  In Poland, people enjoy a special Easter soup made with smoked sausages, horseradish and hard-boiled eggs, using a stock made from soaking oatmeal and rye bread in water (some recipes use vinegar).
  • Easter Monday– in Poland any leftovers are turned into bigos, or hunters’ stew, while in Hungary, a meatloaf made from pork, ham, spices and bread is preferred.

Other Eastern European Easter treats

The most famous is the Russian/Slovenian paskha  or pashka– a rich pyramid-shaped cheesecake with raisins, inscribed with the letters XB, which symbolize ‘Christ has risen’.  The pyramid shape represents the Tomb of Christ.  The Polish have sernik, a cheesecake made with mild lubelski cheese.  A polish bread call paska is also popular, the inside of the bread can be swirled in yellow and white.  The yellow color represents the risen Christ in Christian faith, and the white represents the Holy Spirit.  Christians in many Slavic countries consume this bread at Easter.  Kulich is also popular, it is a tall saffron loaf, and babka, a sweet yeasted cake. Any number of Easter cookies and biscuits are made flavoured with oranges, lemons, almonds, walnuts, figs, dates, raisins, poppy seeds and candied fruit.  Eastern Europeans also have a strong tradition of painting eggs in different colours. 

Easter in Greece

Easter is an important feast for Greeks, who begin their culinary preparations in the last week of Lent, the Holy Week before Easter.  A typical week running up to Easter might include:

  • Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter Sunday) – only fish dishes are allowed.
  • Holy Tuesday– women make sweet, sesame-crusted rolls in the shape of bracelets, called kulurakia.
  • Holy Thursday– eggs are hard-boiled and dyed red on this day. The eggs are a symbol of rebirth, fertility and Christ’s tomb (the shell), and the color red symbolosizes Christ’s blood.
  • Good Friday– this is the day of mourning so sweets are forbidden.  Instead, a simple soup made with lentils, lettuces, tahini (sesame seed paste) and vinegar is eaten.
  • Easter Saturday– after midnight mass the Easter festivities begin. Observant Greeks who have been fasting during Lent will break their fast with the Easter soup, called mageiritsa, made with lambs’ innards, rice, cos lettuce, wild fennel, spring onions and avgolemono base (egg and lemon sauce, which is sometimes turned into a soup).  
  • Easter Sunday – after noon church service, families gather and roast lamb or goat for their meal.  The method depends on the region, in mainland Greece, lamb may be marinated in lemon, marjoram and thyme.  Also on the table, a diner might find a brioche-like Easter torte filled with seasonal cheeses, lamb and cinnamon.  A variety of offal dishes, the best-known of which is kokoresti (spit-roasted lambs’ innards wrapped in intestine) may also be served.

Easter breads include lambropsomo – a sesame-encrusted braided loaf spiced with cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and bay leaves – or tsureki, which is a brioche-style braided loaf, flavoured with rosewater,makhlepi (ground wild cherry stones), black cumin seeds and orange and lemon rind.  Dyed red eggs show up in the makhlepi

Cherry Blossoms at the Legion of Honor

Cherry Blossoms at the Legion of Honor

Paska Bread – Polish Easter Bread

  •   2 (.25 oz) packages active dry yeast
  • 1/2 c warm water (110 °F/45 °C)
  • 1/2 c sugar
  • 3 c warm milk
  • 4 c flour
  • 6 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 c white sugar
  • 1 c butter, softened
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp lemon zest
  • 12 c  flour
  • 1 egg
  • 1 T water
  • 2 Ts butter, melted 


  1. Proof the yeast in 1/2 cup warm water in a large bowl until slightly frothy.
  2. Meanwhile, dissolve 1/2 cup sugar in the warm milk. Cool to lukewarm. Add the milk mixture to the yeast mixture along with four cups of flour. Mix well with a wooden spoon. Cover and put in a dark, warm place until the mixture is bubbly and doubled in size, about 2 hours.
  3. Stir in the beaten eggs, 1/2 cup sugar, margarine, salt, and lemon peel. Stir well to blend. Begin adding the remaining flour a cup at a time to form a very soft dough.
  4. Knead the dough on a floured board until soft and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place the dough in a greased bowl, turning to coat both sides. Allow to rise in a warm place until doubled, about 2 hours. Punch dough down, and allow to rise again for 30 minutes.
  5. Divide dough into three parts. Shape into rounded loaves, and place on greased baking sheets. Let rise until doubled, about 1 hour. Beat 1 egg with 1 T water; brush onto loaves.
  6. Bake at 350 °F (175 °C) for 45 to 50 minutes, or until done. Once done, brush the tops with melted butter for a soft crust.  
photo from incentraleurope

Paska Bread (photo from incentraleurope)

However you celebrate spring or Easter, may you have a wonderful time surrounded by family and friends.


  1. As always, Lou Ann, very interesting. What is the name of your recipe? There isn’t anything posted above it. It sounds good! I love egg dough. I have to make a batch of Julia Child’s brioche from The Way to Cook for Easter this year.

  2. Nice look into the history of Easter.

    I remember when I was young, my mom would always hide the eggs I colored in various places around our tiny one bedroom apartment. (plus, there’s only so many hiding places you can put an egg) Although I never did eat them afterwards. I hated hard boiled eggs at the time. I’ve always wondered how the egg came about to being associated with the holiday. Thanks.

  3. Hi EataBeet – The recipe is called Paska bread. I think it jumped to the bottom of the post (its a traditional Polish Easter bread recipe) – I’ll have to update the post to give it the credit it deserves. I love WordPress but sometimes it gets a bit cranky and takes on a life of its own. =)

    Hey BreadandButter – I hear you, eating hardboiled eggs was not a favorite growing up, but I certainly have no problem with it now. All sorts of yummy combos come to mind.

  4. Great information on so many Easter traditions! You Easter bread sounds wonderful. I hope I have time to make a bread for Easter this year!

  5. No huge Easter bunny or egg decorating tradition in Ireland (though we eat lots of the chocolate variety of Easter egg these days). I do associate Easter with hot cross buns though, as they were pretty commonly made here at this time of year.

  6. I love how tall and regal looking those Polish breads are. What a lovely holiday treat!

  7. Wow, what an incredibly detailed and useful post (how long did it take you to research and write?!). Thank you! Now I look forward to the one on dim sum that we discussed recently…

  8. Thanks Helen,

    It took a while to write, but there are some great sources out there, and the more I dug the more info I found and wanted to add to my post.

    I am working on the dim sum project but I think that one may take a while. I think I might have to call in the experts. =)
    I suspect your posts might be the same way, but I currently have over 30 drafts, and work on each of them as I am inclinded or have interest, I sometimes find myself fluttering from one topic to the other.

  9. Another informative and fun post!

    I never decorated eggs growing up because my parents weren’t huge on celebrating holidays. My only memory of dyeing eggs was in grade school when we used onion skins to dye eggs yellow. So I’d never heard of PAAS kits till I moved to the Northeast US, but I now know that my mother-in-law uses PAAS to color the hard boiled eggs she gives us for Easter every year.

    A few years ago I learned about pysanky classes being held at the Ukrainian Museum in NYC’s East Village. I’d always wanted to try it – one of my earliest childhood memories was a tv segment on Sesame Street featuring Ukrainian egg decorating. The $15 cost of the class included admission to the pysanka museum. At the beginning of the class we watched an ancient video of pysanka technique and then proceeded to decorate our own Easter egg with kitskas, dye, beeswax etc. I horrible at pysanky that first time and really slow -I was the last one left in the class and didn’t even make it to the museum before it closed.

    I was so enamored with the art of pysanky after that first encounter that I ordered my own supplies and pattern books online from the Ukrainian Gift Shop and spent entire weekends that spring just decorating eggs. Given my shaky start, I was shocked that it didn’t take too long to learn some complicated patterns. I even got my hubby interested – he went the non-traditional route and made a Andy Warhol-esque creation on day.

    My absolute favorite part of the pysanky process is when you melt and wipe off all the wax, revealing your intricate creation. The scariest part is blowing out the raw egg inside and varnishing it without breaking the empty shell. I exploded several eggs by accidentally pumping them full of air with my state-of-the-art Blas Fix egg blower.

    By the following year the novelty of pysanky had worn off. I was too lazy to do it again – the process is time consuming and you had to be really careful not to stain anything with the dyes. I’m sure I’ll try it again one day; I still have all my supplies, pattern books, and 12 mason jars filled with liquid pysanky dye in a box hidden in our basement. Apparently the dye lasts forever – just skim off any mold floating on the surface (After the several years in a dark basement, I’m pretty sure the dyes have turned into a science experiment by now).

    b/t/w CAN’T WAIT for the dim sum project (my favorite food/tradition)

  10. I’m happy to be in the land of cadbury eggs and hot cross buns for Easter! Last year we went to Cornwall and indulged in all sorts of wonderful clotted-cream-including goodies. 🙂 Thanks for the interesting post!

  11. Hi Phyllis, you sound like me – so much to try so little time. When I finished grad school one of the first things I did was buy a drafting table so I could get back to my drawing and other crafts. Its vastly underused except as a storage space right now, but as its to my immediate right, its alway there to remind me.

    The dim sum project is just that a work in progress – I am developing an education program and one of the first cuisines I looked into was Chinese – I could right a book – but its given me a lot of material for some upcoming posts. Happy Monday!

  12. As Italy is a country where large part of population is catholic, Easter is very important.

    We do not have any Easter bunny, but, as in Greece, Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Saturday are celebrated, but from catholics only (and I cannot help that much) with processions and religious festivals.

    They are more common and “traditional” in Southern Italy (especially in Sicily), but also in Florence you have something peculiar:
    Scoppio del Carro. A huge, decorated wagon is dragged through Florence by white oxen until it reaches Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence’s historic center. Following mass, the Archbishop sends a dove-shaped rocket into the cart, igniting the fireworks held in the cart. This spectacular display is followed by a parade in medieval costumes.

    For Easter Sunday lamb or baby goat is THE meal, cooked in several methods, depending on on the region. Apart from chocolate eggs that usually come with a surprise inside, easter cake is COLOMBA (dove):

    Another tradition that everyone enjoys is EASTER MONDAY, aka PASQUETTA. Easter Monday is a time to gather with friends and have fun, usually you go to have a pic nic with eggs (of course!), salami, insalatina.


  13. Simone,

    Thanks so much for sharing – I knew I could continue and look into other countries but I was a bit nervous that I would do one of my monster posts. I think that for next Easter, I’ll do a part II and pick up with Italy and a few others to explore the culture. With Catholism and the Vatican in Rome, Easter has to be huge.


  14. Dear LouAnn,
    you can tell it! I am from the north, so never seen these processions in person, but have a look at what they do in Sicily:


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