Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A History of Country Easter Egg Decorating: a Pennsylvania Dutch Tradition


An introduction:

Today most families decorate their Easter eggs with store bought kits. I know we certainly do! The more advantageous egg decorators may even use natural dyes they discovered on Pinterest. I would like to share with you the history of how my grandparents and great-grandparents decorated Easter eggs with their kids, my dad included, while they lived in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. Their ancestors were Pennsylvania Dutch and these methods for Easter egg dying most likely came with them from Pennsylvania to Virginia over a century ago. I post this here in the hope that this history will not be lost. Thank you to my aunts Gail and Martha who humored me a couple of years ago with my questions, and my apologies for taking so long to publish it here.


"Easter was an important part of growing up in the country -- not only did we see Easter Sunday as the most important Sunday in the life of the church, it was a time when we kids could take part in coloring Easter Eggs, and at the same time we heard stories of an even older time!  Here is the sequence of how we did our eggs:

First, on Good Friday Mama (Grandmother Polly Will Lytton) would boil several dozen eggs -- sometimes 3 or 4 dozen depending on how many were at hand.  Once the eggs were boiled they were placed in colanders or pans -- nestled into old cotton of some sort (old dish towels, clean rags of every kind) and ALWAYS with very clean hands -- Mama did not want any oil or grease to spoil what would be the final product.  The pans of eggs were then put on the back screened porch to cool overnight -- never into the icebox (or later the refrigerator) where if cooling too fast they would "sweat".

On the Saturday before Easter, after supper, Mama would gather all the things needed to "spot eggs" --- vinegar, suet, dyes, old woolen shirts or sweaters -- she would have everything ready before she brought the eggs in from the porch.


 With all us kids hovering around and Grandma Edna and Granddad Carson near by we would start (I can't remember your Granddad Ty Cobb Lytton being involved at all -- maybe he was doing final outside chores ...or taking time to just sit aside and read the paper!)

This is how it would go:   Grandma had boiled some onion skins to make brown dye; Granddaddy would be standing by to mix the toxic black dye (kids not allowed to touch - it was cloth dye and it was toxic!); Mama would set old cups or those stained from previous Easter dye sessions around the table and carefully put the dye tablet, some vinegar, some hot water in each cup and each of us would take up a space around the table and try to stir and melt the tablet without spilling a drop (not always successful at that).  With that accomplished Mama would carefully put an egg in each cup and we would try to made sure that each egg was evenly colored.  Each colored egg was laid again in clean cotton cloth to completely dry and wait for "spotting."  We kids of course would try to outdo each other in whose eggs came most perfectly out of the dye -- not a quiet discussion.

When we were very young we would be sent off to bed to wait for Easter morning where we would find baskets of the decorated eggs -- as we grew older and stopped believing in the Easter Bunny WE were allowed to help and this is how it went:

Once the eggs were cool and colored, Mama would melt the suet in a pan on the stove -- this really was beef tallow that she saved from year to year --  from Easter to Easter -- with very clean hands we would each take an egg and using our fingers -- or for more intricate designs a straw from a REAL broom -- and dip into the tallow and make spots of tallow all over the egg -- or dip each end of the egg in tallow and put a design in tallow around the middle --or use a straw to make a design;  Mama ALWAYS took the green eggs and made a  wheat design [shafts of wheat, little tadpoles, crosses, bunny tracks, spiders] up and down the egg w/tallow using a broom straw   -- Granddaddy used the black dye to make "baldies" by dipping each end of the egg in the tallow -- then he would take a black egg and with a straw draw spiders all over the egg -- somehow I cannot remember if we decorated Grandma's onion skin dyed eggs --maybe we just admired them as brown -- I'll have to ask one of the "Lytton girls" about that ...anyway  we could make any design we could manage -- as you can imagine some of us had much more artistic talent then others!!

After the tallow hardened on the egg -- and it hardened quickly on the porch-cooled eggs -- and the older the tallow the more quickly it hardened -- Mama would place the eggs in a bowl of water and apple vinegar where they would sit for a few minutes -- then out she would take them and rub with the woolens she also kept from year to year -- all the color would come off EXCEPT for that under the tallow -- can you picture that?  Of course the tallow came off too but the color underneath did not and formed the design.

Preparing/decorating Easter Eggs in this way was always attributed to our Pennsylvania Dutch/German ancestors -- I like to think of them as folk art -- while those of the Ukraine are/were much more complex and sophisticated -- I do not know of anyone who decorates eggs "our" way now -- Some of us have tried  over the years -- but the eggs are treated/coated when they come from the store - so you need straight from the hen -- the dyes are much too harmless nowadays so the color won't stick - and the tallow must be heated again and again to render it to the point when it will harden quickly --"

The eggs were a simpler version of traditional Dutch decorated eggs such as these.



This process must've produced the most beautiful and unique eggs. I don't think that I will ever actually be able to take these steps. The tallow and fresh eggs aren't realistic ingredients for me to come by. But I do think it is important for this history to be written down and remembered. There is a lot of art lost in convenience, don't you agree?

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