European Easter Egg Traditions

Goose and duck eggs from Poland, decorated with paint and colored straw.

By Sharon Hudgins
Photos by the author and courtesy German National Tourist Board

Europeans take their Easter egg traditions seriously.

From Scandinavia and Britain in the north to Italy and Greece in the south, from the Slavic countries to Germany, Romania and Hungary, eggs at Easter time are dyed in many colors, decorated with intricate designs, hung from tree branches, strung onto wires, buried in the ground, featured in games, exchanged among friends, baked into breads and taken to church to be blessed on Easter morning.

Easter egg tree at a Russian Orthodox church.

Although colored eggs are the most salient symbol of Easter today, their association with springtime reaches much farther into the past. Archeologists in Europe have uncovered egg-shaped artifacts with ornate designs made thousands of years before the Christian era.

Etched goose and duck eggs from the Czech Republic.

Folklorists say that decorated eggs were part of pagan spring festivals, for which eggs were painted in bright colors to symbolize blossoming plants. So it’s not surprising that the egg, representing the creation of new life, would also find a place in religious celebrations of the resurrection of Christ. The decorating of Easter eggs is a long-established folk art in many parts of Europe, still practiced today. During the 40-day Lenten fast preceding Easter, many Christians abstain from eating certain foods, including eggs. But the hens keep on laying. Some of these excess eggs are dyed a solid color: red is especially symbolic, representing drops of Christ’s blood as well as the regeneration of life.

Red eggs in basket
Easter eggs in the Czech Republic, with traditional folk art designs.

Others are decorated with intricate floral or geometric motifs. Several countries and regions in Europe—Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Moravia, Slovakia, Bohemia, Hungary, Slovenia, Romania, Germany, Austria—are well known for their production of beautifully decorated eggs, using age-old techniques and designs, many of which are unique to that particular place. The connoisseur of folk art eggs can tell at a glance whether an egg has come from the eastern or western part of the Czech Republic, from Slovakia, from northern Croatia or from central Austria.

Easter fountain in Ginsheim/Rhine near Mainz, Germany. Photo: Eric Eichberger

In many parts of Europe, Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday) is the traditional day for decorating Easter eggs. Up through the 19th century, superstitions from earlier times survived in the belief that eggs laid on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday or Easter Sunday had magical powers: to prevent illness, to bring good luck, to act as an aphrodisiac, to ensure that the next baby will be a boy, to forestall an early death, to foretell the future. In some places, Easter eggs were fed to the livestock to protect the animals, or buried in the fields to help produce abundant crops. And Eastern European bee-keepers put a colored Easter egg under each hive to guarantee a good supply of honey.

Eggs on hutch
Decorated goose eggs from the Czech Republic.

A charming custom that dates from the 19th century is the making of an egg tree at Easter. Long branches of budding pussy willows or yellow forsythia are arranged in a vase, and eggs are hung on the branches like Christmas ornaments on an evergreen tree. Traditionally the eggs are hollow chicken or duck eggs, the whites and yolks first removed through pin holes before the eggshells are dyed and decorated, then a loop of ribbon or yarn pulled through the holes for suspending the eggs from the boughs. Sometimes brightly painted wooden eggs are also hung from the branches, along with little wooden birds. These egg trees are especially popular in Germany (where they’re known as Ostersträusse, Easter bouquets, or Osterbäume, Easter trees) and in several other parts of Central Europe, too.

Easter fountain in St. Wendel, in Germany’s Saarland region. Photo: Amt fuer Stadtmarketing, St. Wendel

In some regions you’ll even see outdoor Easter trees, with real or plastic eggs suspended from the branches of live bushes or trees. In the Franconian Alps of northern Bavaria, the fountain or well in the center of many villages is decorated with garlands of evergreens, colorful streamers, fresh flowers and hundreds of painted eggs. For two weeks beginning on Good Friday, more than 200 of these traditional Osterbrunnen (Easter wells) are on display in Franconian towns.

In Europe today, Easter eggs are made from a wide variety of materials: natural egg shells—chicken, duck, goose—with the egg white and yolk blown out of the shell; uncooked eggs with their shells intact; hard-boiled eggs; edible substances such as sugar, chocolate and marzipan; precious metals, enameled metals, wood, wax, porcelain, onyx, marble, glass, cinnabar, cardboard and papier-mâché.

Close up of Easter Eggs
Czech Easter eggs, with traditional folk art designs.

Decorations range from solid colors to painted, etched or batiked designs. Beads, lace, straw, colored paper and decals are also glued onto eggshells. The designs can be geometric, floral, symbolic—whatever suits the egg decorator’s fancy. And sizes extend from miniature jeweled eggs made with precious stones to the giant chocolate eggs, up to a meter tall, so beloved by Italian children.

An Easter egg tree decorated with eggs from many Central and Eastern European countries.

You can see hundreds of handcrafted eggs at the many Easter markets held in Europe during the spring. Prices range from just a few euros for simply painted hens’ eggs to several thousand euros for large exotic-bird eggs painted by internationally renowned artists. One of the most stunning eggs I saw at a Munich Ostereiermarkt (Easter egg market) was a huge ostrich egg acid-etched to look like lace. It was priced way beyond my budget, but I still came home with some lovely smaller samples of folk-art eggs by local artists. Now it’s time for me to find some pussy willow boughs and start decorating my own egg tree for the season.

Goose eggs from the Czech Republic, decorated with colored straw.


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