The Egg's Promise

We think about eggs more than usual during the Easter season, but eggs are more extraordinary than we may think.

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Decorating eggs at springtime didn't begin with Christianity. The ancient Persians, for example, exchanged colored eggs to celebrate the spring equinox hundreds of years before Christ. But Easter eggs symbolized something new: a mystery even more profound and miraculous than the seasonal rebirth of nature after the long cold winter. This new mystery was Christ's resurrection and triumph over death.

As the Easter egg spread with the new religion it celebrated, new symbolic associations grew up around it. The egg's hard shell now symbolized the old, unredeemed creation, and the chick breaking through it was Christ himself, pushing aside the rock that barred his tomb and leading the way into a redeemed world. This was a triumph that was not destined to fade away come winter. No more did death have the final say, for Christ had overcome it once and for all.

In Russia and Eastern Europe, this new vision was celebrated in traditions of egg decoration that took on tremendous complexity. The craft of pysanky—from the Ukrainian word pysaty, "to write"—uses methods of dyeing and painting that can take up to six days to complete, with family secrets of preparation being passed on over generations.

Contemporary pysanky master Yaroslava Mills gives an example of how intricate the connection between egg decoration and the beliefs that underlie it can be. "During the agony of Christ," Mills explains, "Mary decorated some pysanky to offer to Pontius Pilate when pleading for her son's life. As she prepared them, her tears fell on the eggs, forming dots of brilliant color." So were born the dot patterns that pysanky artists often use.

In other parts of Europe, equally beloved traditions of egg decoration sprang up, along with equally imaginative ways of disposing of the eggs once they were decorated. An Easter egg could become a treasured keepsake, a quickly eaten meal or the object of any number of games.

In England, the tradition of "pace-egging" (from Pasch, the Greek term for Easter) sends children begging door to door for eggs like Halloween trick-or-treaters. Egg-rolling contests also became popular in a number of countries—including America, where the White House Easter Egg Roll continues to be a beloved custom today.

"Hope," wrote Saint Augustine, "in my opinion can be compared to the egg. For hope has not reached its goal; likewise the egg is something, but it is not yet the chicken."

Whether decorated laboriously over the course of days or instantly with a simple dunk in a sky-blue bowl of dye, the eggs we enjoy at Easter all harken back to that first Easter morning when hope was born anew, and the world was reborn along with it. This hope is the secret promise of the egg that Charbonneau-Lassay wrote of, and the real reason why, as my father so memorably showed me, there really isn't such a thing as an ordinary egg.

It's a promise that is echoed in a Latin inscription on a marble egg sculpted by a 16th-century French artist. Post tenebras spero lucem: "After the darkness, I hope for the light." It's also the promise expressed in the traditional exchange that accompanies the presentation of decorated Ukrainian eggs on Easter morning—words that echo those spoken by the angel at Christ's tomb.

"He is risen."

"He is risen indeed."

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