What are some Easter egg traditions from Britain?

Coloured eggs for Easter rolling or hunting (Photo by kishbee - CC-BY)

Coloured eggs for Easter rolling or hunting (Photo by kishbee - CC-BY)

An egg hunt is popular in some parts of the UK, but at one time it was as likely to be a hare hunt – either really trying to find a hare or a ritual mock hunt. The idea of the Easter hare, or a rabbit, hiding eggs for children to find may have arrived from Germany in the 19th century.

For centuries children went pace egging, asking for gifts of eggs at the more prosperous houses in their area. (Pace or paste egg simply meant an Easter, or paschal, egg.)  Ways of asking and giving varied from region to region. Often there would be songs, rhymes, or plays handed down the generations.

Children added ribbons and other fancy touches to their clothing and took little moss-lined baskets around hoping they would fill up with eggs and goodies.  Asking for the eggs while chanting to loud clappers was an old custom, but is  now only remembered in Anglesey in Wales.

Young men, or “jolly boys”, would arrive at a house, dressed as traditional characters like Tosspot the fool and his wife Old Mally. Like other pace eggers they often sooted their faces. They would sing or act out their piece, and receive eggs and coins, perhaps some bacon too. Easter folk play traditions have been conserved in Yorkshire and Lancashire.  Pace egging is now associated with these counties and other parts of northern England, but it also happened elsewhere.

Pace eggs were coloured, but sometimes they weren’t actually dyed until after the first wave of pace egging was finished. In areas where the ritual visiting happened in the week before Easter, plain eggs might be given out.

Broom or gorse flowers, also called whin or furze, and onion skins were widely used to dye eggs yellow. Other flowers and roots were used too, or eggs could be boiled with scraps of coloured yarn or cloth. Tallow-fat candles were sometimes used to draw on the shell before dyeing, creating a white pattern.

Egg tapping was (and still is?) a popular custom with children who like to see if they can break someone else’s hard-boiled egg without cracking their own. Regional names for this include jarping, dumping, or dunting.

Egg rolling is a well-rooted tradition in northern England and Scotland, and now famously associated with the White House in Washington. In the UK the eggs are mostly rolled down a hill or grassy slope, where bits of coloured eggshell hang on for days after. There may be a competitive element, seeing whose egg goes fastest, or who can roll their egg without it cracking.

Southern parts of the UK used to be hardly aware of egg rolling (or bowling or booling), and mid-20th century children living there were puzzled by egg rolling storylines in best-selling comics like the Beano and Dandy, published in Scotland.

There were areas where pace egging, tapping, and egg rolling all happened, and the fun spread out over several days. No matter when they were collected, church rules said the eggs should not actually be eaten before Easter Day.

Note: There is a map of regions where egg rolling was recorded around 1950 (almost all “north of the [river] Trent”) in The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren by Peter and Iona Opie, which also mentions the comics posing problems for southern children.

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