In the early Middle Ages (5th-8th centuries AD), Anglo-Saxons held a spring pagan festival called Eostre to worship a goddess of fertility, who was aptly symbolized by the prolific-breeding rabbit. This festival of rebirth was adopted by early Christians to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.
During Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter as spring approaches, Christians were forbidden from eating animal products, so farmers would hard-boil eggs for preservation until Easter. The egg, an ancient symbol of new life, represents both spring as well as the resurrection of Jesus. That’s why so many traditional Easter foods contain hard-boiled eggs.
The idea of coloring them for Easter began in the 13th Century in Germany. People would paint and decorate them to mark the end of the Lenten period of penance and fasting, then eat them on Easter. On this day, a legendary “Osterhase” (Easter hare), originating in western Germany, hatched and hid colored eggs in homes and gardens for children to find.
In spite of their connection to Easter, mythical, egg-bearing rabbits were not mentioned in the Bible. But oddly, they were in medical literature. In 1682, the Osterhase was first cited in a 16-page dissertation on the health hazards of Easter eggs written by a German doctor who was a theology enthusiast. Note that the hazards were not because of colorants, rather consumption of eggs without butter or salt, which was thought to upset the stomach.
Osterhase and egg dyeing likely came to America with German immigrants in the 1700s. Children made nests for the Easter hare to lay its colored eggs. His deliveries extended to chocolate, other candy and gifts, while decorated baskets replaced nests. Enter chocolate eggs and jellybeans. (As a child, I distinctly remember my older sister, Melanie, trading me “magic black jellybeans” for my colorful, fruity ones.)
The celebration of Easter spread around the world with the adoption of Christianity. Today it is the most widely practiced religion in the world, with about 2.4 billion followers – one-third of the global population – half of which are Catholic. While the United States has the largest Christian population in the world, it ranks 85th per capita (71 percent).
Number one per capita is unsurprisingly the city-state Vatican City, which is 100 percent Catholic with a population of about 1,000. Number two is surprisingly the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (East Timor) in Southeast Asia, which is 99 percent Christian. Tied for number three are Romania (mostly Orthodox), Greece (almost all Greek Orthodox) and Armenia. The rest of the top 10 in order of percentage are Grenada, Papua New Guinea, Greenland, Haiti and Paraguay.
In Armenia, almost all belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, which was founded in the 1st century AD. This country was the first to declare Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD. No wonder it is full of ancient monasteries and churches and Easter is well celebrated there!
My friend, Lauren, and I can attest to that as we spent Easter in Armenia in 2014. When visiting a monastery on Easter Sunday, we heard the most beautiful singing by monks inside a dark-stoned, centuries-old church. Candles were lit everywhere and their vocals echoed in the sacred space. Minutes later, the monks emerged, singing in an Easter procession. It was magical.
By evening, we were in Yerevan, the country’s capital and largest city as well as and one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities dating back to the 8th century BC. Yerevan is also the seat of the Araratian Pontifical Diocese, the largest diocese (district) of the Armenian Apostolic Church and one of the oldest dioceses in the world. Surprisingly, the first Republic of Armenia was established in 1918 but it did not gain independence until the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.
Central Yerevan is lively with a 1,000-step staircase called The Cascade as its centerpiece flanked by the Yerevan Opera Theater, Hraparak (Republic Square) and modern sculptures. The Armenian wine was divine and Turkish-influenced cuisine delicious. (The oldest winery in the world was discovered in Armenia and the country’s brandy is widely exported due to excellent quality.)
Naturally dyed red Easter eggs were on display in honor of the blood of Christ shed during his crucifixation. Armenians place flowers and/or leaves on eggs, then wrap them in red onion layers and put them stockings to boil. Afterwards, the imprint of flora stand out on red-colored eggs. (Romania wins the prize, however, for the best Easter eggs as they are painted with elaborate motifs.)
Armenians play a game with their Easter eggs, tapping the ends on others’ eggs, to see whose cracks last. In early Christianity, the hard-boiled egg symbolized the tomb where Jesus was laid to rest after his crucifixion and cracking the egg signified “opening” the tomb on Easter.
No matter where in the world you are today, may Easter bring you magic, whether from cracked eggs or black jellybeans …
Dad Dansby’s Perfect Hard-Boiled Eggs
My father, a self-taught home cook, is a master egg boiler. Here’s his recipe for success:
- In a small pot, place 3-4 eggs (or large pot for a dozen). Add enough water to just cover eggs.
- Place pot on a high-heat stove until water boils. Then turn down heat to medium and boil eggs another 5 minutes. Turn off heat and cover, simmering for 5 more minutes.
- Run eggs under cold water to cool them enough to handle. To serve, crack them open by tapping on a hard surface and peel shells and membranes. Or keep shelled eggs in fridge until ready to eat.
- To reheat, peel, then cut eggs in half and punch holes with a fork in white parts to aerate when heating. Put a paper towel on top of egg halves and microwave for 20 seconds.