Czech Egg Decorating
The Egg in Folklore
The egg is a popular symbol in many cultures. This ancient symbol is often associated with rebirth or fertility and new life. Legends involving the egg exist in almost every culture. Many of these stories focus on the egg as an instrument for the creation of the earth. In ancient Egypt a story was told about the creation of the universe from an enormous egg. Hindu mythology believes that a golden world-egg was formed before time and the universe began. The Kalevala, a well-known Finnish epic, attributes the creation of the world to the broken eggs of a duck. Hawaiians once believed that the bursting of an egg laid by a large bird led to the formation of their largest island.
Among many people the egg symbolized fertility. Because of this belief eggs were used in rituals related to agriculture. Germans and Slovenians, in order to guarantee a good harvest, smeared an egg mixture on their plows on Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter). On St. George's Day, which is celebrated in early spring, Ukrainians rolled dyed eggs in green oats. The eggs were then buried so that they would bring a rich harvest.
It was also a common belief that eggs possessed healing and protective powers. It was believed by some in the Ukraine that it was possible to cure blood poisoning by touching an egg to the infected part of the body. If an egg was laid on Good Friday, the Pennsylvania Dutch believed the egg could prevent sores in a baby's mouth. In Bombay, Indians placed eggs in the foundations of buildings because of their belief in the protective nature of the eggs.
Persians, who in ancient times believed the world was hatched from an enormous egg, were among the first to make use of colored eggs as gifts. In China dyed eggs were included as traditional offerings made to the god and goddess of the bed. Early in German history people made egg trees to celebrate spring.
As Christianity became more widely accepted, the egg continued as an important symbol. In particular, Christians that practiced the Eastern Orthodox faith would exchange colored eggs on the morning of the Resurrection to symbolize a renewal of life. As early as the fourth century, Catholics brought eggs to services to be blessed. By the 12th century eggs were officially sanctioned by the Catholic church for special use on the holy days of Easter. Interestingly, the use of eggs in church services was not adopted by the Protestant faiths.
Although it is not known exactly when or how the tradition of coloring eggs at Easter began, it is known that in many cultures red eggs were though to hold particular powers. It can be speculated that red-dyed eggs are one of the earliest examples of decorated eggs. An ancient Roman tale associates the birth of Emperor Alexander Severus with a hen laying a red egg. Red eggs were used to guarantee a good crop. In China the birth of a boy was celebrated with red eggs. In many Christian cultures, eggs were dyed red to represent the blood of Christ.
Colored eggs have been a significant part of the Easter celebration since at least the 15th century. Some references cite colored eggs at Easter in existence as early as the 13th century. Early records give credit to the Macedonians for being the first Christians to use eggs in connection with Easter. It is thought that children brought dyed eggs to the marketplace to be sold.
In England eggs have played an important role in the Easter celebration since the time of King Edward I, who died in 1307. Eggs, which were stained or covered with gold leaf, were a custom at Easter among royalty. Later, Pope Paul V began a ritual of blessing Easter eggs in England, Scotland, and Ireland. In the 16th century when the Church of England became Protestant, this ritual was discontinued. In spite of all this, egg decorating continued to be practiced in England. In the early 1800s a method called scratch-carving was used to decorate Easter eggs. Using a needle, a design was scratched out on the shell of a dyed egg. Scratch-carving was a technique also used in America by the Pennsylvania Dutch and Moravians.
During the same period eggs dyed in fabric were popular in the United States. Eggs would be wrapped in fabric that was not colorfast and boiled. When the fabric was removed a pattern remained. This custom is similar to pace-egging practiced by some English people. Fresh flowers and plants are placed around the egg, which is then wrapped in fabric. The eggs are boiled and when the fabric is removed the impression of the flowers and plants remains. A similar tradition can be found in Austria.
In Scotland hardboiled eggs were painted so that children could roll them down hills on Easter morning. A similar custom was practiced in the Netherlands. Sassy eggs, much like the English pace eggs, were used during egg rolling. A unique Dutch practice was the palmpass, a palm branch decorated with eggshells, chocolate, paper flags, and fruit, which was carried by children on Palm Sunday. In parts of Ireland on Palm Sunday, children build nests from stones to hold eggs collected during Holy Week. On Easter Sunday the eggs are given away as gifts.
Many Easter egg customs have been part of German culture. It was once customary to give away three dyed eggs accompanied by a traditional poem. Satin eggs are sometimes given at Easter. These eggs are filled with sweets and small toys and are used in a game where they are struck together until broken. Easter egg trees were also popular in both Germany and Switzerland. During the 1890s the German Easter egg tree and the Christmas tree were very similar. For Easter, an evergreen tree was placed on a table in the living room and decorated with blown, dyed eggs. The eggs were often filled with candy. Gifts were placed under the Easter tree. Easter eggs have always had particular religious significance in Russia. Today members of the Eastern Orthodox faith decorate eggs and take them to church on the eve of Easter to be blessed by the priest. Easter eggs were so important in Russia that a fair called the Verba, held from Palm Sunday through Holy Week, contained booths that sold Easter eggs. White china eggs with views of the city painted on them and eggs made of glass containing scenes of the Resurrection were examples of what was sold.
Some of the most intricate Easter eggs in the world originate in the Slavic nations. In the Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia and other countries of Central Europe, there are two kinds of Easter eggs. One is a solid colored, hardboiled egg that may be eaten. The Ukrainians called these krashanky from the word meaning color. These eggs are often dyed red in honor. The second kind of Easter egg is intricately designed and given as gifts. The Ukrainian word for these eggs is pysanky. In Czechoslovakia they are called kraslice.
Easter is a joyous holiday in Czechoslovakia. For this reason many Easter customs have continued to be practiced among Czech families who have left the Old Country and come to America. One of the most prominent traditions is the art of kraslice, which means beautiful or embellished egg. This technique of egg decorating originated well before the beginning of Christianity.
In Czechoslovakia eggs were exchanged by everyone for a new beginning, a symbol of love, friendship, and good things to come. Children would give their most beautiful eggs to their special best-loved friend. During Easter, friends exchange eggs with the greeting "Christ is risen." The reply is "He is risen indeed."
At times eggs were even given as pre-engagement gifts. One story tells of a young man who decorated an egg tree below the window of his loved one. She awoke to find it on Easter morning.
Switching was a custom where young men braided green willow branches and decorated them with ribbons and flowers. These switches were called dynvaska. When the young girl gave the boy her kraslice, she received a switching.
Before they are decorated, eggs are divided into sections or fields, with the basic lines running lengthwise and/or crosswise around the egg. Motifs are placed within these sections. Designs are drawn on the egg with a special stylus dipped in melted beeswax. Beeswax is used because it has a high melting point, gives better coverage, and has a greater resistance to dyes. The process is closely related to batik.
Originally, eggs were colored using natural dyes. Several basic colors could be obtained from various vegetables and plants. Prominent colors depended on the ease of obtaining the dyes. Since the finished kraslice has several layers of dyes, it is best to start with lighter colors and gradually go to darker colors.
Cooked eggs are never used for kraslice. When the design is complete, eggs are blown by making a hole in each end of the egg, stirring the contents to break the yoke, and blowing it through one end. Traditionally, the contents were usually not wasted; they were used in baking or cooking. However, some dyes used today are toxic, and the eggs should not be eaten.
In areas where the art of kraslice is practiced, each region has its own rituals, symbols, and dye formulas for the eggs. These have been carefully preserved and passed along from one generation to the next.
Symbolism of Kraslice Motifs and Colors
One of the most popular Czech symbols is the eight-pointed star. It was believed that with every birth, a star is born so that each person has his or her own star. The star is believed to be a person's guardian and fate. Stars found in Czech folk art have an even number of points. An odd number was believed to symbolize death. For protection, stars were often placed on house gables.
The butterfly is another symbol used in kraslice. It can represent the idea of reincarnation. It was once believed that good souls would become birds, small beasts, and butterflies. At one time in Moravia it was thought that seeing a butterfly with eyes in its wings meant happiness. With the belief in Christianity, the meaning of Christ's resurrection became associated with the butterfly.
Many other motifs or symbols are traditionally found on kraslice. The heart could symbolize love and compassion. The wheel found on decorated eggs was associated with the bride's traditional wedding cart. When wavy and curved lines as well as dots were used on decorated eggs, it represented a new year or new beginning. A radiating design such as the sun or a daisy could mean good fortune.
As with motifs, colors traditionally had meanings as well. The Czechs always considered red to be an important color. At one time Bohemians referred to Easter as the red holiday. This color is easily obtained from nature which is probably one of the reasons early decorated eggs were red. Red can symbolize health, strength, and beauty. This color was believed to protect against evil and therefore played a part in popular ceremonies of the family.
Blue was not a popular color in kraslice for several reasons. The dye was difficult to obtain, and in folklore blue often symbolized death and suffering. Moravian and Slovakian men wore red ribbons on their shirts, but widowers wore blue ribbons. With the Protestant Reformation and the Hussite movement, the color blue began to be seen as a heavenly color. Around the 16th century indigo was imported, and the use of blue increased in popularity.
Green, as the color of trees, could symbolize growth. It was believed that the strength of a tree was a safeguard against sickness. In folklore the apple tree was associated with the woman's role in the family ceremonies. Apple twigs were often put into house foundations to protect the health of the inhabitants. During the 19th century in Moravia and Slovakia, brides wore green skirts or bodices and caps embroidered in green. Green came to symbolize weddings.
Because yellow is the color of ripening grain and gold, it is considered a symbol of good fortune. White was originally a mourning color. However, after the acceptance of Christianity, white stood for purity. In some areas black was seen as a ceremonial color.
Despite cultural differences and geographic distances, the custom of decorating eggs is widespread. Since the United States is made up of people from many cultural backgrounds, holiday traditions tend to exhibit similarities and variations of customs from many areas. Easter egg customs are no exception.
When the Czechs arrived in Kansas they brought with them many traditions, one of them being the beautiful art of kraslice. Czech Americans in Kansas are proud of their heritage. Several communities annually celebrate their Czech traditions with festivals featuring traditional foods, music, customs, and crafts.
In 1967 Wilson was proclaimed by the state as the Czech Capital of Kansas. Every July the After Harvest Czech Festival shares the cultural heritage of the Czech Americans with parades, dances, traditional foods, and of course the art of kraslice.
Traditions 1993 © KSHS
Entry: Czech Egg Decorating
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: August 2012
Date Modified: August 2012
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.