Painted Easter Eggs
Eggs have always been a special type of food and probably became symbolic quite early. What made them special and what symbolic meanings do they possess? How was this symbolic meaning emphasized with the patterns applied on them?
History of Eggs As a Symbol
Since eggs are easy and safe to get, probably they became the part of nutrition of people as early as prehistoric ages. During the course of collecting fruits, herbs, roots or seeds people must have found some nests with a couple of eggs in them. And they did not even have to kill the birds for the eggs. They just had to scare them away or wait until the nest was left unguarded.
Experiencing the special role of eggs – namely that they seem dead but a living creature comes out of them after a period of time – might have lead to the idea to attach symbolic meanings to them. They usually mean fertility and revival. This is how eggs became symbolic gifts in the ancient times and then during the course of Christianity at one of the most important Christian holiday, at Easter.
How the Decoration of Eggs Developed
Painting and decorating Easter eggs also have a long history. The first remains of decorated egg were found in the Carpathian basin, in Hungary in an Avar grave, which is about 1500 years old. The pattern was etched on the coloured egg. This is the oldest form of decorating eggs. When you have dyed the eggs, take a tapering knife and etch the pattern on the surface of the eggshelf.
The other widespread technique of decorating eggs is batik. In this case you paint the pattern on the eggs in hot wax then dip the eggs in the dye. This egg decorating technique is well-known from the Carpathian basin as far as the Urals. The Scythian people, who lived in these territories, were famous for keeping bees for their honey. The spin-off of it was wax, which was also used for many purposes. One of them was preserving eggs for a longer time. If you cover eggs with wax, you fill in the pores of the eggshell and it won’t get oxygen, so it prevents the egg from decomposition. The decoration of eggs probably did not start with elaborate patterns. First people simply coloured the eggs. But later they must have noticed that those parts of the eggshell that had previously covered with wax remained uncoloured. It might have given them the idea to apply wax covered patterns on the eggs. Now it is called batik technique and has widely been used for decorating not only eggs but also textiles in Europe and in Asia.
The Meanings of Patterns
I do not think it needs any proofs or explanations that ancient people did not use patterns only for aesthetic purposes. All of them are signs and have got their own meanings. Probably we just cannot read them. It would be too much effort and time just for simple ‘decoration’. Even modern graffiti pieces have got their messages.
The symbols of Easter eggs are all in connection with fertility, revival, health, fortune, richness and of course love. In Hungary the custom of painting and presenting Easter eggs survived modern times. It is still a living tradition and together with the activity many names of patterns remained alive. Here are some of them:
Sun: it is the symbol of Jesus: Sol Invictus. It is the Sun after the spring equinox, when it defeats the darkness.
Star: When it is alone, it always refers to Venus, which is related to Jesus and his mother Mary.
Rose: Flowers usually symbolize love but a rose may also refer to Mary if it is white.
Lily of the valley: it symbolizes goodness and virginity. It is also the symbolic flower of Mary.
Pine tree: it is the tree of life since it is always green.
Heart: it is the symbol of love.
Oak tree: it has been respected as a saint tree since the ancient times. Later on it became the symbol of Jesus and his mother Mary.
Some Patterns of Painted Easter Eggs
How to Make Decorated Easter Eggs
1. Boil the eggs at least for half an hour. Then the inner film peels off the eggshell and after a time the inner part of the egg will dry out and won’t get rotten. In case you are not going to eat it during Easter but you would like to keep it as a souvenir, it is the only way doing it. In the Ethnographical Museum in Budapest, Hungary dozens of painted eggs are stored. Some are more than a hundred years old, and they have not got rotten. However, these eggs are usually eaten during the Easter holidays because people believe that by eating them they incorporate all the good things and wishes which are painted on the eggs.
2. Put the boiled eggs into vinegary water for a short time. It helps to remove the outer greasy layer of the egg, which prevents dye to colour it. After a short time simply rub this layer off the eggs with your fingers or a piece of soft cloth and rinse them in warm water.
3. Dry the eggs and keep them in a warm place. For example warm a piece of cloth with an iron and cover the eggs with it.
4. Melt some wax – bee-wax or a candle – in a pot. I usually use a cleaned and dried empty can because after that no pot can be used for cooking any longer. Take care that the wax should not be too hot otherwise it will catch fire. Though it should not be too cold either or you won’t be able to work with it – it won’t spread on the eggshell smoothly. And one more thing: don’t heat it on open fire. Use an electric cooker.
5. Dip a special writing tool in the melted wax – long ago feathers were used for this purpose – hold it in a right angle with the egg surface and start drawing the lines.
6. Making the pattern: first divide the surface of the egg into 2, 4 and then 8 parts by drawing circles around the egg. Then fill in the given fields with the patterns. Start with the simplest ones and when you feel comfortable, move onto another pattern.
Painting an Egg With Wax
7. When you have finished the pattern, dip the egg into the dye which should be lukewarm. Warm enough to colour the eggs but not too warm so that it should not melt the wax patterns on them. Traditionally the dye was made from the outer peel of onion. You fill half a pot with the red peel of onion then boil it in water until it gets dark red like the colour of the onion. Then cool it to the right temperature. You might as well use the peel of purple onion and then you will get the colour of coffee with milk. If you want yellow, use saffron. If you would like other colours, you can use chemical dyes as well, but you should know that while you use onion or saffron, you can eat the eggs later on, but if you use chemical dies or poisonous plants to make dye from them, you cannot eat the eggs.
8. If you do not want to use any dye, you still can make a nice decoration. In this case choose eggs with dark shall and after having boiled them paint the pattern on them. Then dip them in vinegary water. After a short time you can rub off the dark outer layer of the egg where the eggshell is not covered with wax. The pattern will remain there in the original colour of the egg. Probably it is not a very colourful piece of work but it is very special with these natural colours. And what more, the eggs can be eaten, because no chemical was added.
9.While dipping the eggs into the dye, it is advisable to use a spoon and not to drop the eggs into the pot or they might crack. While they are in the dye, you should turn them gently several times so that they should be coloured evenly. When you see that their colour is all right, take them out and dry them in a piece of cloth or tissue.
Colouring the Eggs
10. When the eggs are dried, you might decide that they are ready. But you might want to remove the wax from them. Actually they look nicer without it. To remove the wax you need some tissue or a piece of cotton cloth and a candle. Hold the egg next to the flame of the candle for a moment and when the wax melts and starts flowing down, wipe it with the tissue. Turn the egg round until you have removed all the wax from it. Remember to hold the egg to the side of the flame and not onto the top of it or it will get sooty. And don’t wipe it too hard or you might break your piece of work just right in the finishing moments. While removing the wax you give a bit of polish to the surface of your eggs and it will really look nice and ready for presenting it to your beloved ones.
Easter Eggs Coloured in Onion Peel Dye
Making a Writing Tool
In Hungary you can buy special writing tools for decorating Easter eggs in certain folklore shops or DIY shops, but you can make it yourself at home. First you need a little copper tube of about 2-2.5 cm long. You can cut it off from old, empty refills if they are made of copper and not plastic. I usually use small pieces of thin copper plates which I roll on a thick and long needle. Then I take a piece of stick the size of a pencil, cut in one end and insert the tube in the gap so that they make the shape of T. Then I fasten the tube with a piece of thread. When you start writing the patterns with this tool first hold it in the warm wax for a couple of seconds so that the tube could get warm enough. When you take it out of the wax, knock it gently to the edge of the pot to remove the unnecessary wax off or you will have dots and spots on your egg where you did not plan to.
Making an Egg Painting Tool
Have a nice Easter Holiday and enjoy decorating your own Easter Eggs!