In the 18th century, German-speaking immigrants were among the first to establish a robust Easter egg tradition in Pennsylvania. By the time of the American Revolution, about 81,000 emigrants from German-speaking regions of Central Europe had made their homes in Pennsylvania before spreading throughout North America. Their distinctive language, customs and seasonal traditions both contributed to and were shaped by the blossoming of a new American identity. This transatlantic immigration gave rise to the popular traditions that many Americans hold dear: the Easter Rabbit, egg hunts, Easter baskets. All of these bring together both sacred and secular elements into the celebration of the holiday. For more than three centuries, these traditions have continued to flourish and diversify throughout Pennsylvania.
Central European expressions such as the Easter Rabbit and Easter egg hunts, though popular today, were once foreign, unfashionable or too secular for the tastes of the Quakers, Puritans, Presbyterians and some sectarian communities in Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, these traditions found their way into all corners of the continent, setting the stage for a new American expression of holiday traditions that would grow and change over many generations.
As a predominantly Protestant culture, the Pennsylvania Germans were deliberately far less liturgical than their communities of origin in Europe, where the history of centuries of Roman Catholic preeminence continued to flavor the folk culture, even in regions under Protestant control. Easter eggs therefore made no official appearance in early Pennsylvania churches but were relegated to the home, where eggs were dyed, scratched to produce elaborate designs, and given as gifts among friends and family on Easter Sunday.
Although roughly one percent of the Pennsylvania Dutch were Roman Catholic, it is uncertain whether eggs were ever brought into the sanctuaries of early Catholic Churches in Pennsylvania as tradition would have dictated in Europe. The Catholic liturgy of the Roman Ritual includes special provisions for the blessing of elements of the Easter meal, where eggs, bread and salt were sprinkled with holy water and received a special dedication: "Lord let the grace of your blessing and come upon these eggs, that they be healthful food for your faithful who eat them in thanksgiving for the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you forever and ever, Amen."
Originally intended to bless food for actual consumption, small samples of such consecrated eggs, salt and bread were kept long after Easter in households across Europe, where the blessings were believed to extend throughout the year. Some of these eggs were inscribed or decorated to enhance their potency as sacred objects.
European Catholic traditions such as these provide insight into New World customs among the Protestant communities in Pennsylvania, where samples of food and other objects are employed during the season of Lent and Holy Week for well-established folk-cultural expressions of blessing the home and promoting well-being for humans, animals and cultivated plants. In the beginning of the Lenten season, on Ash Wednesday, not only were ashes applied to the foreheads of the faithful in church, but they were also dusted on cattle, gardens, and even the perimeter of homes to drive away parasites, pests and snakes. Fat left over from frying Fasnacht donuts on Shrove Tuesday was used to anoint garden tools and plows in preparation for the agricultural year to protect the soil from pests. On Holy Week at the conclusion of Lent, wild greens such as dandelions were gathered on Maundy Thursday for eating to impart the blessings of Grienerdunnerschtag (Green Thursday), which commemorated the Holy Supper, when bitter greens were eaten by Christ and his disciples as part of the Jewish observation of Passover. Eating greens on this day was also believed to prevent lethargy and illness in early spring.
Good Friday was the most important of these Lenten days, upon which no work of any kind was to be done, except for the necessities in caring for livestock. Instead, the Pennsylvania Germans kept busy with a wide range of holiday observances and rituals. If it was rainy on Good Friday, the rainwater was collected for holy water and used to prevent illness and even for the baptism of children in certain parts of Berks County. If the day was clear, dew would be collected in dishes or on bread for curative practices. Eggs laid on Good Friday were believed to be intrinsically holy and were set aside to be eaten for breakfast on Easter morning to prevent illness.
Some of these Good Friday eggs were saved for healing and protective traditions. On many local farms, an egg consecrated by virtue of this special day was hidden in a container in the attic to protect the house from lightning storms, fire and illness. Such an egg also could be employed to relieve a hernia or to reduce a fever.
While most Good Friday eggs were kept perfectly white and only inscribed with the year, some were also dyed along with ordinary eggs on Holy Saturday in preparation for Easter the following day. These colored, decorated eggs generally fell into two categories: those that were eaten and those that featured a wide range of decorative motifs and were presented as gifts. Both types of eggs were hard boiled in natural dyes.
Among the Pennsylvania Germans, like their relatives in Old Europe, the most common way to dye eggs was to hard boil them in onion skins and vinegar to produce a limited range of colors from orange to deep red or brown depending on the concentration of the dye and whether the hens laid white or brown eggs. Red was popular not only because of the availability of onion skins but also because of its association with the blood that Christ shed on Good Friday.
Other colors were produced from black walnut hulls or oak bark for shades of deep brown to black; hickory bark for yellow; red cabbage, which if allowed to oxidize, formed a deep green; reconstituted juices of elderberries, currants or poke for shades of magenta; and a wide range of herbs and roots such as turmeric or beets for yellow and pink.
Shredding of plant matter for natural dyes produced mottled colors, especially onion skins, which created a variegated appearance if left in close contact with the eggs. If the dye plants were boiled and strained, the dye then produced a uniform color. Goose, duck, turkey, guinea and peahen eggs were also used.
Eggs that cracked in the boiling process were saved for eating, while only the best were selected for decoration. Deep colors, especially reds, greens and browns, were favored for high-contrast traditional decorations made with a technique known as oier gritzel, or egg scratching. A pen knife or a pin with the head firmly pressed into a cork worked perfectly to remove portions of the dyed surface, revealing the white of the shell underneath.
Men, women and children participated in this delicate art form, often inscribing the eggs with names, initials, dates and artistic renderings to give as gifts for family and friends. Decorative inscriptions varied considerably from person to person including a wide range of representational and abstracted forms. Although geometric, floral and bird patterns were among the most numerous, other images included houses, grandfather clocks, agricultural implements, angels, people and animals.
In addition to scratching, several other techniques were employed, including the use of applied patterned fabrics or the pith carefully removed from binsegraas, the common bulrush. Strands of binsegraas pith could be applied in two basic techniques, either by wrapping the entire egg in tight spirals and applying fabric to the surface or by using the pith to outline cut out pieces of fabric, a technique favored in the 20th century by the Old Order Amish of Lancaster County.
Although thousands of Easter eggs would have been decorated each year throughout the centuries, very few of these fragile eggs have survived from one generation to the next. As a result, many of the earliest eggs preserved by families, private collectors and institutions are from the first few decades of the 19th century, though some rare 18th-century examples do exist. This ephemeral nature of the tradition was the subject of much attention in late-19th-century newspapers throughout southeastern and central Pennsylvania, where editors queried their readers about the oldest of such eggs found in local communities.
The Lancaster Daily Express on March 27, 1875, reported the survival of an Easter egg scratched 100 years prior, when Easter was celebrated just three days before the Battles of Lexington and Concord at the start of the Revolutionary War in 1775. In 1884 the Mount Joy Herald included an account of yet an older egg. Jacob N. Brubaker (1832– 1913), bishop of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference and member of the Landisville Mennonite congregation, described an egg formerly owned by Mara Brubaker, bearing the initials “M. B.” and the year “1774.” This egg survives today as part of the Pennsylvania Folklife Society Collection at the Berman Museum, Ursinus College.
Another story can be traced to the Schwenkfelder community of the Upper Perkiomen, where a master stonecutter and painter, Enos K. Newman (1832–1910), had preserved an extensive collection of eggs scratched by several generations in his family. The oldest of these was scratched by his grandfather Christopher Newman in the first few decades of the 19th century. Enos continued the tradition well up to the turn of the century. He later moved to Manassas, Virginia, but returned briefly to Pennsylvania and eventually spent his final years in Washington, D.C.
The Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center in Pennsburg has some of the Newman family’s Easter eggs, including one bearing an elaborate rendering of an angel blowing a trumpet, surrounded by flowers and a banner reading "Trust."
In the late 1800s, William Townley, who owned a drug store in Newark, New Jersey, came up with a recipe for Easter egg dye tablets that tinted eggs five cheerful colors. Neighborhood families started buying Townley’s Easter Egg Dye packets in 1880 for only five cents and mixed them with water and white vinegar to create the perfect egg dye. Soon, Mr. Townley renamed his business the PAAS Dye Company (PAAS comes from "Passen," the word that his Pennsylvania German neighbors used for Easter). Today, Americans purchase more than 10 million PAAS Easter Egg Color Kits during the Easter season, and use them to decorate as many as 180 million eggs. Definitely a lot easier than the traditional method.
HAPPY EASTER 2023!