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Fun With Eggs: Celebrating Oschdre

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colored eggs in easter basket
Classic “Easter Eggs”

Eggs are fun! They’re a subversive little survival of the ancient pagan joy in life, tied to the emergence of spring, the babies being born at this time, the food that feels good in our bellies, and yes, sex, glorious delightful sex! Eggs have been so important to human life, as food, symbols, and offerings, that our customs with them have survived into modern times, even if most people have no idea where they came from.

If you grew up in the United States, you’re doubtless familiar with a custom that our German immigrants brought to this country when they settled in Pennsylvania in the early nineteenth century: coloring eggs for Easter. Did you ever wonder why in Germanic languages, like English, we refer to it as “Easter”, when other languages derive their words for this time from the word for “Passover”? (Hint: It’s got nothing to do with a certain Babylonian goddess, no offense intended to Her!)

Folklife scholar Alfred Shoemaker, in his book “Eastertide in Pennsylvania”, tells us:

“The Easter rabbit is entirely foreign to England, even to large parts of Europe. It was the Palatine immigrants of the eighteenth century who introduced him into our country and to our English-speaking neighbors. Wherever the Pennsylvania Dutchman migrated in the early decades of our history, whether south to Virginia, the Carolinas, or Tennessee, whether north into New York state or Canada–he took the custom of the Oschter Haws with him. […] In Pennsylvania Dutch Country the Easter rabbit always lays the eggs.”

Shoemaker discusses how, although there were Christians who opposed both the Oschter Haws and colorful eggs as having nothing to do with Jesus and the Christian holiday of Easter, customs such as coloring eggs, gifting them to children in grass “nests”, and baking a cake in the shape of a rabbit laying eggs (complete with a real egg, anatomically placed!), persisted, being historically attested in local newspapers as early as the 1820s, and likely practiced by the earliest German settlers of the region prior to this. We have many surviving examples of decorated eggs, egg trees, Oschter birds made from colorful eggs, and families with the customs of baking rabbit cakes and setting out nests for the Oschter Haws to lay eggs in.

Patrick Donmoyer, in his article discussing a Pennsylvania Dutch Easter egg display at Kutztown University, notes:

“Though the mythological symbolism and significance of the Easter Bunny has been traced to ancient Celtic beliefs concerning fertility and the coming of spring, it was the German-speaking population of central Europe that embraced these practices with gusto – an enthusiasm that found its way to Pennsylvania in the 18th century and has persisted to the present day.”

An article from Lancaster Online taps a Latin resource to suggest that the tradition is even older:

“…Georg Franck von Frankenau first wrote about the tradition of a hare bringing Easter eggs in “De ovis paschalibus,” or “About Easter Eggs,” in 1682. Other sources suggest the Germans had an Easter hare tradition dating to the 1500s.”

easter bunny postcard
A 1907 postcard depicting an Easter bunny. Public domain.

In surviving folktales of the Pennsylvania Dutch, including this beautiful compilation of Oschdra myths from folklore interviews conducted by Michelle A. Jones and Robert L. Schreiwer, we see the goddess Oschdra blessing the Haas (hare) with color that he then shares with the world, including the Distlefinks (goldfinches) and their once-drab eggs. In Urglaawe, we celebrate Oschdre, and honor the Goddesses Oschdra, Helling, and Nacht, at the Spring Equinox.

This holiday marks roughly the halfway point between Grundsaudaag, where we begin our Spring cleaning, and Walpurgisnacht, when that cleaning must be completed for Frau Holle’s return from leading the Wild Hunt. We clean our homes both to welcome Her return and to prepare ourselves for the busy growing season ahead–for many of us, in a spiritual or metaphorical sense rather than an agricultural sense.

If you’re looking to take a break from the mop and bucket, though, there’s lots of fun Pennsylvania Dutch customs you can enjoy while celebrating Oschdre. These customs are all tied to eggs, of course!

Decorate your own: Yes, it is totally fitting to color your own eggs for Oschdre, just like you might have done as a kid if you grew up in a household celebrating Easter. Traditional Pennsylvania Dutch eggs were decorated with natural dyes, typically by boiling onion skins or black walnut husks. Other methods included wrapping an egg in calico fabric and boiling it to transfer the pattern (such eggs should not be eaten), or dying an egg and then wrapping it in softened rushes called binsa-graws to form designs. Another very traditional Deitsch method of decorating eggs is known as scratch carving. Eggs dyed with a natural method such as the boiled onion skins would then have intricate and beautiful designs scratched onto the surface with a needle or very sharp knife. The yolks would be carefully blown out of the shells beforehand, so these were fragile treasures that often depicted birds, flowers, houses, ships, or the name of a loved one and the year the egg was carved. I think such a decorated egg would also make a lovely offering to the Gods and Goddesses, Ancestors, or Spirits!

Make an Egg Tree: It’s a custom practiced today to decorate a tree by hanging colorful eggs, ribbon, and tied on bits of cloth from its branches, but it comes from older roots. From Shoemaker:

“My conviction as of this moment–based on documentation which I am about to present–is that 1) putting up an Easter egg tree in one’s home was an innovation in the second half of the nineteenth century, a novelty yes, but very definitely not a custom; and 2) impaling blown eggs–most frequently undyed ones–on a bush in the yard at Easter time is of a much older vintage and must be considered a custom of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, though certainly not a widely practiced one.”

It’s not hard to see similarities in the old practice of impaling eggs on a bush to the custom of dipping the branches of fruit trees in cider (wassailing). There may have been a similar fertility or abundance intention at play.

For your own egg tree, you can decorate an outdoor tree, if you have access to one, bring some branches indoors, or buy a small artificial tree to decorate. An egg tree typically has bare branches, as trees in the northeastern United States do at this time of year. Traditional decorations are colored eggs hung from ribbons and tied on bits of cloth and ribbon. Some trees include a nest with a rabbit in it underneath–after all, someBUNNY had to lay all those eggs! (Haha, ok, I’ll stop, I promise.) Feel free to have some fun with your tree and use your imagination: maybe you can include goose eggs or goose figurines to honor Frau Holle, Distlefinks or tulips in honor of the Oschdre story and Deitsch culture, or make special wishes for the coming year as you tie pieces of fabric to the tree’s branches to let the wind carry your prayers.

spring tulips
Spring Tulips, Author’s photo

Eat Them!: There’s all kinds of delicious things you can make with eggs! Of course, you can eat your (safely) colored hard boiled eggs on their own, or perhaps sliced up in a salad. Try scratching runes aligned with a special intent on your colored eggs (“knowst how to carve?”) as a way to “take the runes in” when you eat them. You can also use wax resist crayons to draw on runes and “reveal” them with the egg dyes–this can be a fun method of divination for a group where each person selects an egg at random and ponders the meaning of the rune in relation to a question or their current life circumstances.

A very traditional Deitsch food is pickled eggs and beets–fantastic for this time of year as the cold weather root vegetables are still in season. The sweet and sour taste nicely balances with the rich flavors of heavier German foods like Weinerschnitzel, sausages, or casseroles. Back when Pennsylvania Dutch households relied on backyard chickens to produce their eggs, the eggs would be saved for weeks leading up to Easter before being feasted upon in breakfasts of ham and eggs, and even in egg eating competitions. They also baked rabbit shaped cakes that were intended to depict the Oschter Haws laying an egg. A hardboiled egg would be inserted into the cake right under the rabbit’s tail so that it appeared to be in the process of being laid! There are many rabbit shaped cake molds on the market that would allow you to make your own, or you could make bunny cupcakes (check Pinterest for tons of examples) and add jellybean eggs as desired.

Have an Egg Battle: Sure, you can fling your eggs at each other, but that’s not quite what’s meant here! This game was called “Egg Picking”, and it was so widely practiced in Deitsch country that there were numerous accounts of it published in newspapers in the nineteenth century. (See Shoemaker for many quoted articles.) The game is simple: you and your competitors each need a hard-boiled egg. Hold the egg upright in your hand, making a circle around the point with your thumb and forefinger. This is the striking area. Your opponent holds their egg point down, with the point of the egg poking out of a circle between their pinky and thumb. Your opponent then brings their egg down until it taps your point. The person whose egg cracks has lost. You get one more chance, tapping eggs from bottom to bottom in the same way. If your egg cracks on both ends, you lose, and the victor takes your egg. In a variant practiced in my family, you are simply “out” and can then eat your egg–not such a bad thing!

Have a fun and blessed Oschdre!

 

My primary reference for this post is the excellent “Eastertide in Pennsylvania” by Alfred L. Shoemaker. For even more information on Urglaawe and Oschdre customs, you can join the Urglaawe Facebook group or check out the Urglaawe resources page. For more Deitsch mythology, check out “The First Book of Urglaawe Myths” by Robert L. Schreiwer. And finally, if you want to read more and didn’t catch the links above, check out this article by Patrick Donmoyer, and this piece from Lancaster Online, which I also quoted in this post.

 


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