From earliest times and in most cultures, the egg has signified birth and resurrection. The Egyptians buried eggs in their tombs. The Greeks placed eggs on top of graves. The Romans coined a proverb: “Omne vivum ex ovo”, which means “All life comes from an egg.”
By Medieval times, giving decorated hen, goose or duck eggs as gifts was a popular custom, and these eggs were known as ‘Pace Eggs’. In wealthy Medieval homes, the Pace Eggs would have filled a large bowl in the centre of the feast table on Easter Sunday, and were gorgeously decorated. As Madeleine Pelner Cosman says in ‘Medieval Holidays and Festivals’:
“ At their tapered ends are borders of lace, embroidery, and tiny glass jewels. Some eggs are painted with each guest’s family design: four gold lions are on one pace egg, coloured half purple and half red; three black crescents surround a wheel on another egg dyed gold and bright blue.”
In simpler homes, the tinting was achieved by boiling the eggs with certain flowers or leaves, particularly onion skins as these turned the eggs gold – the eggs were first wrapped in onionskins and then boiled, which gave the shells a golden, mottled effect. Today they are most often painted.
The name ‘Pace’ comes from Pasch, from the Hebrew word for Passover. In many European languages the name Easter comes from the word Passover, such as
Pascha in Greek and Latin,
Pasqua in Italian,
Pacques in French,
Pascua in Spanish.
In England, Pace Eggs would be eaten on Easter Sunday, as well as being used to ‘egg roll’, whether that was in straight lines or through hoops and wickets (like croquet!). Some of the eggs would be decorated especially to hand out to ‘Pace Eggers’, the performers who would come round the houses and perform a dance or a fight. Morris Dancers and Mystery Plays are part of this Easter tradition.
Pace Egging was taken seriously. For example, in the household accounts of King Edward I there is an item of ‘one shilling and sixpence for the decoration and distribution of 450 Pace-eggs.’ The Pace Eggers were until recently a common sight in Lancashire villages, where groups of fantastically dressed ‘mummers’ complete with blackened faces, wearing animal skins and festooned with ribbons and streamers, processed through the streets singing the traditional Pace-egger’s song and collecting money as a tribute. The procession usually included various characters… the Noble Youth, the Lady Gay, the Soldier Brave and the Old Toss-Pot! The Old Toss-Pot was a drunken buffoon who wore a long straw tail stuffed with pins. It was not wise to grab the Old Toss-Pot’s tail!
In Preston, the crowds still gather at Avenham Park on Easter Sunday to watch the old traditional egg-rolling contest down the grassy slopes, while at Grasmere in the Wordsworth Museum there can be seen a collection of highly decorated eggs originally made for the poet’s children.
More generally, the custom of decorating hard-boiled eggs survives throughout much of the UK, although it is eclipsed the more recent custom of giving decorated or brightly wrapped chocolate Easter eggs. Wooden and glass eggs are also sometimes exchanged, and custom that dates from the 17th century, when manufactured eggs became available to purchase at Easter as Easter gifts and presents.
Easter eggs continued to evolve through the 18th and into the 19th century, with hollow cardboard Easter eggs being filled with Easter gifts and beautifully decorated. This reached its pinnacle with the fabulous Faberge Eggs, which were made for the Czar’s of Russia by Carl Faberge, a French jeweller. Each was encrusted with jewels and cost several millions of pounds to buy today.
The Chocolate Easter Egg
In the early 1800s the first chocolate Easter egg appeared in Germany and France, and these soon spread to the rest of Europe and beyond. The first chocolate eggs were solid, as the technological production of chocolate was still very primitive, but by the turn of the 19th Century the invention of the modern chocolate making process and improved mass manufacturing methods meant that the hollow chocolate Easter egg came in to being and, by the middle of the 20th century, had become the Easter gift of choice.
© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.