The History of the Easter Egg

If you celebrate Easter, you’re probably planning to dye Easter eggs this month. But do you know how the egg became a symbol of Easter?

Eggs are often associated with new life. Ancient civilizations believed that the world began with the cracking of an enormous egg. The ancient Egyptians, for example, thought that the sky and the earth produced the egg that created
the universe. People in ancient Persia, Greece, and China gave each other gifts of eggs during spring festivals to celebrate the new growing season.

Since people did not always write things down in ancient times, we can’t know for certain whether the idea of Easter egg came from an older civilization. Supposedly eggs were dyed and eaten at the ancient spring festivals. The first record of the term Easter egg didn’t show up in Western European books until the fifteenth century. Some historians believe that missionaries living in Persia or Greece brought the tradition of coloring eggs to the West.

During the Middle Ages, no one ate meat during the winter. The people were both trying to conserve food and observe the custom of fasting for Lent. In addition to giving up meat, they also didn’t eat eggs. Instead, they saved their eggs and brought them in baskets to church, where a priest blessed the eggs.

When the Easter holiday arrived, people were allowed to eat eggs again. This was considered such a treat that eggs were given as presents. Children sometimes received an egg for Easter from their parents, or they went from house to house begging for eggs like America’s trick-or-treaters on Halloween.


Belarusian Easter Eggs

Decorating Easter eggs became an art, especially in Eastern Europe. Many of the eggs were dyed red to symbolize the blood of Christ, but other colors such as yellow appeared, too. In Poland and Russia, girls made elaborate designs on their Easter eggs. Some popular symbols included a sun for good luck, a deer for good health, and flowers for love and beauty. Other eggs had crisscrossed lines or checkerboard patterns.

Immigrants from Europe brought the art of decorating Easter eggs with them when they settled in America. Games involving Eater eggs that were popular hundreds of years ago are still played today. One games is the Easter egg roll. In this game, the goal is to roll as many eggs as possible without cracking the shells. The White House in Washington, D.C. hosts an annual Easter Egg Roll.

The first White House Egg Roll started during James Madison’s presidency. At the time, it was held on the grounds of the Capital. One account of the event states, “at first the children sit sedately in long rows; each has brought a basket of colored hard-boiled eggs, and those on the upper terrace send them rolling to the line next below…and as the sport warms, those on top who have rolled all the eggs they brought finally roll themselves, shrieking with laughter.”

The game was discontinued in 1878 because of the wear and tear on the Capital lawn, but started again during the presidency of Rutherford Hayes. Hayes’ wife allowed the children to use the White House lawn. With the exception of the Civil and World Wars when the game was not held, the White House Egg Roll became a tradition that remains to this day.

Halloween and the History of Witches

Modern depiction of a witch

Modern depiction of a witch

With Halloween approaching, you’ve probably seen witches decorating people’s houses and yards. Maybe you or a friend will dress up as a witch before going trick-or-treating. But do you know how witches became a symbol of Halloween?

In another blog post, I wrote about the festival of Samhain, which represented the start of winter and the New Year for the Celtic people. Celts believed that the dead roamed the earth on Samhain. The Celtic priests, called Druids, told the people that since spirits knew a great deal about the afterlife, predictions for the future would be more accurate on Samhain. The practices of Druid priests, such as predicting the health of the community or figuring out how to cure an illness, were associated with witchcraft.

The Celts did not view witchcraft or witches as evil. That idea came from the early Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. Though the Church incorporated some elements of Samhain into a new holiday that honored the dead with prayers (All Saints’ Day), witches were excluded. The word witch meant “wise one,” and the male heads of the Church saw witches’ knowledge of the natural world as a threat to the Church’s authority. As one historian put it, women did not fit into the early Church hierarchy of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God in all his forms was referred to as “He.”

To rid the communities of witches, the Church claimed that these women made a pact with the devil and wanted to bring harm to their neighbors. Witch-hunts became popular not only in the Middle Ages but also during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Europe. Most witch-hunts occurred in areas with political and religious turmoil. Accused witches were either burned at the stake or hanged.

Like their European counterparts, American colonists also viewed witches as evil. Colonists blamed witches for their problems, such as illness or poor a harvest. When teenaged girls in Salem, Massachusetts consulted an African slave to tell their futures, they became frightened and appeared possessed by an evil force. The town’s church leaders accused the slave woman of witchcraft, and other colonists used the hysteria to accuse neighbors they disliked of planting spells that caused illness or other problems. The witch trials in Salem sentenced twenty people to death in 1692.

Salem’s residents, along with most colonists, did not celebrate All Saints’ Day because they were Protestants who didn’t believe in saints. Some aspects of the holiday were preserved, however. For example, New England residents celebrated the harvest in late autumn. The Puritan beliefs in the magic of witches and fortunetelling eventually led to our modern day Halloween celebrations, which prominently feature witches.

The Making of a Warrior: The Childhood of Joan of Arc

When most historians write about Joan of Arc, they tell us about her achievements, but don’t focus much on her childhood. Yet her childhood experiences contributed to the brave warrior she later became.

Joan was born around January 1412 to a farmer and his wife in northeastern France. Both of Joan’s parents, Jacques and Isabelle, earned the respect of the village of Domremy. Joan’s father was the local sergeant with a reputation for fairness. Villagers admired Isabelle because she completed a religious pilgrimage to Rome. Bad roads and bands of robbers made traveling in the Middle Ages dangerous for anyone, but especially for women. Considering her reputation, it is not surprising that Isabelle raised at least one adventurous daughter.

Most children during the Middle Ages did not go to school. As a farmer’s daughter, Joan learned to spin wool and do household chores from her mother. Sometimes she helped her father with the livestock. The most important lessons Joan learned were her prayers. She later said, “From my mother I learned ‘Our Father,’ ‘Hail Mary,’ and ‘I believe.’ And my teaching in my faith I had from her and no one else.”

The religious instruction she received from her mother made a great impact on Joan. Other children in the village played games when they finished their chores, but Joan usually went to church instead. She liked to visit the village’s shrine of the Virgin Mary and she prayed a lot. Her friends teased her about going to church so much, but Joan didn’t mind. Even as a girl, Joan decided to do whatever she thought she should without worrying about other people’s opinions.

The simple life Joan had as a farmer’s daughter changed in 1425 when some English foot soldiers and their allies, the Burgundians, attacked her village. Joan’s family was spared, but much of the village was set on fire. Domremy lay in an area of France that both the English and French wanted to control. At the time, the English were winning most of the skirmishes while the French Dauphin [heir to throne] Charles was pushed aside.

Soon after the raid, Joan started to hear voices that she believed came from Catholic saints. She said when she first heard the voices, she “was terrified.” At first, St. Michael told her only to be good and pray. Eventually, however, St. Catherine and St. Margaret also spoke to her and they told her to do something medieval women never did. They said that she must “go to succor [help] the King of France” by “raising a siege.” She protested that she was only a girl who knew nothing about warfare, but the voices insisted. Determined to listen to God’s will and help her country, Joan decided to visit her local lord. She needed to convince him to give her soldiers so she could plan her siege and restore the French king to power.