Once A Week. Jan-June 1867.
Most things in this world have their poetical as well as their material side. What can be more commonplace than an egg? But in the French language it claims an entire cookery-book to itself, and enters into the simplest as well as into the most recherché of cuisines? It accompanies the poor man's homely rasher, and furnishes the Parisian exquisite with his omelette sofflée at the Trois Frères.
Yet the egg in all ages and in every country has been the subject of poetical myths and legends. The ancient Fins believed that a mystic bird laid an egg on the lap of Vaimainou, who hatched it in his bosom. He let it fall into the water and it broke; the lower portion of the shell formed the earth, the upper the sky, the liquid white became the sun, and the yolk the moon; while the little fragments of broken shell were changed into stars. English and Irish nurses instruct children when they have eaten a boiled egg always to push the spoon through the bottom of the shell in order "to hinder the witches from making a boat of it." In France a similar custom prevails, but the reason assigned for it is that magicians formerly used the egg for their diabolical witcheries. They emptied it adroitly, and traced on the interior cabalistic characters, able to cause much evil. The faithful were therefore instructed to break at the same time the shell and the spell.
It is difficult to ascertain the precise origin of the graceful custom, so universal. in France and Germany, and more or less prevalent throughout the world, of offering eggs at the festival of Easter. The Persians give each other eggs at the new year, the Russians and the Jews at the festival of Easter. Amongst the Romans the year commenced at Easter, as it did amongst the Franks 'under the Oapets. Mutual presents were bestowed; and as the egg is the emblem of the beginning of all things, nothing better could be found as an offering. The symbolic meaning is striking; eggs are the germ of fecundity and abundance; and we wish our friends all the blessings contained within the slender shell when we offer this gift, whose fragility represents that of happiness here below.
The Romans commenced their repasts with an egg, whence the proverbial phrase, ab ovo usgue ad mala; and we still say, to express going back to the very commencement, beginning ab ovo.
In Christian countries, from the fourth century, the Church prohibited the use of eggs during the forty days of Lent; but as the heretical hens did not cease to lay, a large quantity of eggs were found to have accumulated at the end of the period of abstinence. These were usually given to the children, and in order to render them more attractive, they were dyed with gay colours or otherwise ornamented. A favourite game was to knock two eggs together, and whichever broke became the property of him who held the other. Of course this would not profit much if the eggs were in a fluid state, and thence came the custom of boiling them hard.
In some remote districts of Prance, it is still customary for the priest of the parish to go round to each house at Easter and bestow on it his blessing. In return he receives eggs, both plain and painted. In these same regions a belief still lingers that during Passion-week the bells of the churches set out for Rome in order to get themselves blessed by the Pope. During this period of mourning the bells are sad and mute in their belfry, and the peasants firmly believe that they have started on their pious pilgrimage, and will return to send forth a joyous peal on the morning of the Resurrection. People do not come back from so long a journey without bringing presents to good children. The joy-bells then always came first, and bore with them various beautiful pleythings. The death-bells came last and brought nothing. Easter then was like a second New Year's-day. The peasant bestowed on his child an egg dyed with scarlet, like the cloak of a Roman cardinal, and supposed to come from Rome.
On Easter morning, at the sound of the rejoicing bells, fair angels with azure wings were believed to descend from heaven, bearing baskets of eggs, which they deposited in the houses of the faithful. Sometimes, however, it happened that the evil one slipped in an accursed egg amongst those which came from heaven. An ancient legend of central France is founded on this belief: -
Long ago there lived in a village a widow and her daughter. Jeanne, so was the young girl named, was as good as she was beautiful. The poor blessed her, for she used to pass her time in visiting their hovels and relieving their distress. She had many suitors, but her mother shrank from parting with her only child, and put them off. "One year more," she said, "and Jeanne shall choose a husband."
On Easter morning, when returning from mass, Jeanne met an old beggar-woman whom no one in the village knew, and who implored her charity. The young girl bestowed her alms, and the stranger, whose face was concealed by a ragged hood, as she received it, said with a husky voice, -
"Beautiful damsel, do not disdain the gift of a poor beggar. Take this egg, and before this day twelve months a young and handsome noble will ask for you in marriage. You will become a great lady. It is written in the book of fate. On your wedding-day break this egg; it contains a nuptial present."
So saying, she gave her a large egg of a brilliant scarlet hue. Jeanne took it, laughing at the prediction, and placed it in a casket. To her mother she spoke not of it; but visions of ambition, of pleasure, and of luxury, hitherto unknown to her pure and simple mind, floated before her, and troubled her occupations by day and her slumbers by night.
Near the village rose the towers of an ancient castle which had not been inhabited within the memory of man. One day a gentleman arrived, proclaiming himself the heir of the ancient lords, and he caused the castle to be restored and furnished with luxury. Numerous visitors arrived, and gay feasts, balls and hunting-parties succeeded each other without intermission. The lord of the castle called himself Sire Robert de Volpiac. One day he chanced to see Jeanne, her beauty struck him, he sought an interview with her mother, and asked her in marriage. The widow at first was inclined to refuse, but Jeanne, dazzled by the splendoutrof the offer, prevailed on her to consent, and an early day was fixed for the marriage.
The union of "very high and very noble Sire Robert de Volpiac and of Damoiselle Jeanne" was celebrated in the chapel of the castle by a stranger chaplain, and in presence of the bridegroom's friends. A brilliant festival, to which all the neighbours were invited, succeeded. But, amid all the gaiety and splendour which surrounded her, the bride did not forget her Easter egg. She had caused it to be brought in the casket and placed in the nuptial chamber.
The feast was ended; the guests, one by one, had taken their departure, and the young mistress of the castle was conducted into its most magnificent chamber. Midnight sounded from the lofty tower when the bridegroom entered, and, advancing towards Jeanne, was about to embrace her, but she drew back, and said:
"My dear lord, before becoming yours, as I have sworn before the chaplain to be, I would fain know what this egg contains." She then told him its history, and prepared to break it. He stopped her and implored her to wait until the morrow. But Jeanne, without heeding him, seized the egg. It was burning hot, and she hastily let it fall. It broke: an enormous toad sprang out, leaped on the nup-tial bed, vomiting flames which set fire to the curtains. The whole castle was speedily in con-flagration, every soul within it perished, and the sun rose on a heap of smouldering ruins.
In the picturesque pages of our ancient chronicler may be found the account of the "mariage aux oeufs " between the beautiful Marguerite of Austria, gouvernante of Flanders, and Philibert the Handsome, Duke of Savoy. The royal lady had come on a pilgrimage into the charming district of Breese, lying on the western slope of the Alps. " Où," says the old chronicler, "jeune fille pouvait leaver moult."
The castle of Brou was gay, Marguerite had taken up her abode there, and serfs and nobles alike shared her hospitality. Philibert the Handsome, who was hunting in the neighbourhood, came to the castle in order to render homage to the fair princess of Austria.
It was Easter Monday, high and low danced together on the green. The old men drew their bows on a barrel filled with wine, and when one succeeded in planting his arrow firmly in it, he was privileged to drink as much as he pleased, " Jusgu' à merci."
A hundred eggs were scattered on a level space covered with sand, and a lad and a lass holding each other by the hand came forward to execute a dance of the country. According to the ancient custom, if they succeeded in finishing the "braule " without breaking a single egg, they became affianced; the the will of their parents might not avail to break their union. Three couples had already tried it unsuccessfully, and shouts of laughter derided their failure, when the sound of a horn was heard and Philibert of Savoy, radiant with youth and happiness, appeared on the scene. He bent his knee before the noble châtelaine, and besought her hospitality. And as the games continued he proposed to his hostess to essay with him the merry dance of eggs. How beautiful they looked as they stepped forward hand in hand! "Savoy and Austria!" shouted the crowd. The dance was finished without the breaking of an egg, and the blushing Marguerite allowed her hand to remain within that of Philibert, as he said,
"Let us adopt the custom of Breese."
So they were affianced, and their marriage soon took place. A few years of exquisite happiness were their portion, but an untimely death carried off the husband. Marguerite lived long, but never forgot her beloved Philibert. She caused to be built, and in 1511 dedicated to his memory, the beautiful church of Notre Dame of Brou. Within it is his tomb, and there Marguerite, too, rests by the side of her beloved husband. Visitors still admire the magnificent architecture which enshrines the buried love of Marguerite and Philibert.
Formerly at the approach of Easter all the hen-roosts of France were ransacked for the largest eggs, which were brought as a tribute to the king. At the conclusion of the Faster high mass in the chapel of the Louvre, lackeys brought into the royal cabinet pyramids of gilded eggs, placed in baskets adorned with verdure; and the chaplain, after having blessed them, distributed them in the presence of His Most Christian Majesty to all the persons about the court.
The idea of fabricating imitation eggs in sugar and pasteboard is of later origin; but their manufacture has become, both in France and Germany, a source of important traffic. In Paris, especially, that city, as Bdranger says, "full of gold and misery," the splendour and luxury of the Easter eggs are almost fabulous. A few years since a Parisian house furnished, destined as a present for an Infanta of Spain, an egg which cost twenty thousand franca (800 l.) It was formed of white enamel; on its inside was engraved the gospel for Easter-day; and by an ingenious mechanism a little bird, lodged in this pretty cage, sang twelve airs from as many fabhionable operas.
In Germany the tastes of the people are more simple and their means more limited than those of their Gallic neighbours consequently the cost of an Easter egg, even when most gorgeous with oolours and gilding, seldom exceeds two or three gulden. A curious custom prevails amongst them, of which I have in vain sought an explanation: hares are, in the popular belief, transformed for the nonce into oviparous animals, and you see in the pastry-cooks' windows animals of that species as large as life, modelled in sugar, and sitting upright in a nest, surrounded by any quantity of eggs. The fresh, simple-minded German children believe implicitly in this egg-producing power of the hare; and when about Easter time they see one running across a field, they clap their hands and shout after it, "Hare, good little hare, lay plenty of eggs for us on Easter-day!"
It is the custom in German families on Easter-eve to place sugar and real eggs, (the former usually filled with bonbons or tiny play-things,) in a nest, and then conceal it in the house or garden, in order that the young ones, who always rise at break of day on that important morning, may have the delight of seeking and finding the hidden treasures. The shouts of innocent, joyous laughter which hail the discovery, are amongst my pleasantest reminiscences of the Fatherland. Happy the little ones who are thus taught to associate joy and pleasure with the deepest mysteries of that religion which amongst us is too often made the harbinger of gloom and restraint.
M. A. Hoare