Russians love a good feast day – wherever in the world they are living, they can certainly plan and throw a good bash, and the Easter feast is the biggest celebration of the year. It’s not uncommon for Russian Orthodox people to start preparing days in advance, cleaning, cooking and painting eggs. These vibrantly coloured eggs, along with kulich (cylindrical yeast-based Russian Easter bread) and paskha (cottage or farmers’ cheese-based pyramid cake), are the must-have items on any Russian Easter table.
It’s thought the tradition of painting eggs dates back to the early days of Christianity, when Mary Magdalene gave the Roman emperor, Tuberous, an egg as an Easter present soon after Christ’s ascension. Allegedly, when she told the emperor the Christ had risen, he, in his utter disbelief, likened the miracle to an egg turning red.
Others say that red-painted eggs symbolise the blood of Christ and the hard shell represents his sealed tomb. Either way, eggs are a symbol of life and new beginnings, and the tradition of painting eggs goes back centuries.
Russian Orthodox Easter is preceded by 40 days of fasting – those observing Lent refrain from eating all animal products, including dairy and eggs, The idea being to think less about food and to focus on prayer and soul cleansing.
Easter begins at midnight with a church service, after which blessed, red-painted eggs are handed out. It is customary to break the 40-day fast with this blessed food first, before the main Easter meal.
At home, families paint hard-boiled eggs in bright colours and patterns in the days leading up to the festivities. They use ink, dye, oil and wax to create intricate and brilliantly coloured effects – onion skins, leaves and flowers can be used to stain patterns onto the eggs. Candle wax and oils create a scatter effect.
The best-looking eggs are taken in a basket, along with the kulich, to church for blessing during the service.
The eggs that haven’t been blessed are used for games such as egg cracking. For egg cracking to be fair, opponents must both use the same end of their eggs. One person holds their egg while the other person attempts to smash it with theirs. The loser (whose egg cracks first) must eat theirs, while the winner keeps playing on with their victorious egg.