If you’ve ever traveled the Yellowhead Highway to Edmonton or Jasper, you’ve seen the biggest Easter egg in the world. This egg, or pysanka, was erected in 1975 in Vegreville, Alberta, following input from physicists, mathematicians, aeronautical engineers and artists.
It’s a huge tourist attraction. If you stop to take pictures — and you will — you’ll encounter visitors from around the world, winter or summer.
Pysanka is the Ukrainian word for “Easter egg.” Pysanka (plural pysanky) is rooted in the Proto-Slavic pisati (to write, paint, draw). This word illustrates the close relationship among Slavic languages. The Polish for Easter egg is pisanka. Croatians and Serbs say, pisanica.
Ukrainians are famous for their beautiful eggs. To apply the dyes, they use the wax-resist (batik) method. An egg-artist at Dauphin’s Ukrainian Festival told me it takes at least four hours to produce a good pysanka.
Ukrainians aren’t alone in viewing eggs as part of Easter. But where did such a custom arise?
As early as Pope Gregory the Great (590-604 AD), Christians considered eggs an Easter treat because eggs were forbidden during Lent. As well, they’ve always been considered symbols of new life, thus of the Resurrection itself.
One legend, not remotely based in fact, claims the custom of giving eggs began with Mary Magdalene.
More likely, the Easter egg is yet another Christian adaptation of a pagan ritual, just as Christmas is.
Primitive Egyptians, Hindus, and Phoenicians thought the world began with a gigantic egg — that all life was hatched from this egg. Accordingly, most cultures see the egg as symbolic of new life.
Some pagans connected eggs with a cult of the dead. Christians carried this further by using them to symbolize resurrection. Eggs were often buried in coffins of the dead in Balkan countries to ensure the deceased gained entry to Heaven. Painted eggs from about 320 AD were found in a grave in Worms, Germany, leading scholars to surmise that Germans shared this belief.
Many newer ideas and superstitions surrounding eggs have entered Christian tradition over the years. Some still remain with us.
Poles believed only women should decorate eggs because a man might put a spell on an egg and bring bad luck to the household. Balkan Christians thought an Easter egg could keep away evil spirits and so eggs were buried in fields to protect the crops.
Red is the dominant colour on eggs produced in Orthodox countries. Rumanians explain this by saying that the Virgin Mary left eggs for the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross on the original Good Friday to encourage them to be kind to her Son. When the soldiers ignored the gift, the blood of Jesus poured down and stained the eggs.
The blue dots found on Ukrainian eggs represent Mary’s tears.
In England, Easter eggs are still sometimes called “pace” eggs. Pace, a corruption of pasche, means paschal (of, or pertaining to, Passover or Easter). Paschal is from the Greek form of the Hebrew Pesach (Passover). As we’ve seen before, Easter is inextricably connected to the Jewish Passover.
And eggs are forever connected to Easter.