Although, as a pagan, I don’t celebrate Easter per se, Christianity’s secular arm has appropriated so many pagan symbols of the season that if you look around the house, it appears that I do. Even the English name for the holiday itself derives from Eostre, a Teutonic deity, goddess of spring, who could transform herself into a rabbit and was fond of handing out colored birds’ eggs to her devotees. That probably sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Images of bunnies and eggs abound in the house, but there’s also an extensive collection of shamrocks and leprechauns, with St Patrick’s Day another early harbinger of the spring season (I’ve already profiled those decorations in my last edition of this series, but you’ll doubtless find some repetition in the embedded pics here) and of course lots and lots of spring florals, the natural symbols of the holiday. The real-life version of the earliest of these has already been covered in “Garden Glimpses”, but there are many more silk versions inside.
As a child, of course, growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family, Easter was a very big deal indeed, but I always gravitated more to the cultural elements than the religious ones. The whole family gathered at my maternal grandmother’s Nazareth home on Easter Sunday, for some good post-church service grub and an impromptu egg hunt in her garden. I had at least four annual egg hunts at my disposal in my youth, one given by a kind neighbor on Good Friday afternoon, a second held by the Church at Nazareth Park on Saturday morning, the third early Easter morning in my parents’ home, and the outdoor hunt at Nana’s that afternoon. Of course I recognized the ones at home as those I had dyed myself a few days earlier, but we maintained the fiction of the Easter Bunny for many years after I outgrew that legend.
But even more than hunting eggs, I enjoyed dyeing them. As March approached, I always invaded my mother’s pantry to make certain that there was enough leftover dye materials from the previous year, and if not I hounded her mercilessly until she bought fresh.
We typically used the Paas egg-dye kit, which consisted primarily of tiny bottles of red, yellow, blue, purple and green food coloring, and a delivery system of double-headed Q-Tips, with a cotton swab on both ends of the stick. You had to pay attention to what you were doing, because if you accidentally dipped a yellow swab into the green dye bottle, there’d be major tainted color issues going forward!
Mom and I usually dyed our eggs on Maundy Thursday after school (not that we called it that, the term was far too Catholic for our PA Dutch protestant household). But the school was closed on Friday, so our egg-dye debauch was the official start of the long holiday weekend. Mom always used a particular old kettle with a heavy bottom and an ill-fitting lid for cooking her eggs, a piece of kitchen equipment I never saw at any other time of year. I never thought to ask why she chose that pot, so worn and discolored over time, but I now suspect it may have been the one her mother used for a similar purpose.
The kettle was already on the boil when I got home, and the dining table covered in newspaper, with the dyes and swabs laid out. Mom quickly fished out the first eggs, which were so hot they burned your fingers, and had to be cradled in paper towel to work with them. This, in turn, created its own hazard, because if dye got smeared on the toweling, it might rub off onto the next egg by accident, and ruin the design.
Mom was usually fairly minimalist in her decorating; solid colors, bicolored, or polka dot eggs were her specialty. I, on the other hand, went for more intricacy of detail, crafting complex striping, abstract forms, and fanciful pictures of tulips, hyacinth, daffodils, even chicks or bunnies. Some ideas worked, some didn’t. Mom often colored only a few eggs, but kept me supplied as she moved on to preparing the evening meal. We probably did about three dozen in total.
Mom never used natural dyes, but as a tween I learned the secret of onion skin eggs from my grandmother, and came to love the rusty tones to be garnered by slipping a handful of browned papery skins into the pot when the eggs were boiled. To this day I keep a small plastic tub in the cabinet above the kitchen counter, and squirrel away especially dark onion skins when I encounter them in the course of my cooking throughout the year, so there is always a supply on hand when I want them. In the ’90s I endured a brief Martha Stewart-inspired excursion into natural dyes of other types, from carrot tops to turmeric and beetroot, but none yielded pleasing results.
I no longer decorate eggs elaborately or buy kits, simply adding food coloring to the cold water, plus a bit of white vinegar as a mordant, after the eggs are submerged, but before the heat is turned on. Once they come to a gentle boil, the pot goes off the heat and sits covered for an hour before removing perfectly cooked eggs, beautifully dyed. My early training from depression-era parents kicks in, and I frugally don’t waste dye or water, starting with a pot of yellow eggs, to which I add blue dye to create green once they are removed and I’m ready for the next batch; then starting fresh with red food coloring for pink eggs, to which I add blue for purple tones in round two. The onion skin eggs stand alone. I make my eggs much earlier, too, so they are ready for Spring Equinox and the Ostara celebration, but since I still make about three dozen, for just me, there are always some left for Easter itself.
In the late ‘90s I went through a faux pysanky phase, hand-blowing the contents out of raw eggs to create permanent, if crude, versions of the dazzlingly intricate Ukrainian Easter eggs. Once emptied and rinsed, I used a wax crayon to cover portions of the shell in a geometric design, dipping the egg in a succession of colored dyes, working from light to dark, and covering more and more of the egg each time, to preserve sections in the latest color before moving on to the next. I still have many of these, though they are fragile and occasionally I lose one to breakage.
The tradition of specialty foods is trebled at this time of year, as I will make some form of Irish favorites for St Patrick’s Day (always including colcannon and Irish soda bread, but varying the sides and protein from year to year); then the Ostara brunch for Spring Equinix, with its bagels and spreads, bacon-mushroom quiche, beet salad and coleslaw; and an Easter dinner based on my grandmother’s menu. If I’m having guests, I’ll bake a ham (with my patented Dijon/honey/fig preserve glaze), but if I’m solitary, as this year, I’ll fry ham steaks, as my grandmother did. Au gratin potatoes and sugar snap peas are the usual sides, and the de rigueur starter is always endive with hot bacon dressing, an old PA Dutch favorite. As a kid, we had fresh spring dandelion for this, culled by my grandfather from Nazareth Park behind their house, but the hothouse variety of dandelion just isn’t the same, so I use curly endive, which Nana also did in years when Easter fell too early for a decent crop of dandelion to be up and doing.
There’s one more tradition I keep up annually, thanks to an assist from ABC. Just like when I was a kid, I always stay up late the night before Easter to watch “The Ten Commandments”, and count how many times they say, “Moses, Moses!”
And that’s this pagan’s Easter!