Some curious fruits begin to appear on bushes and trees in Pennsylvania during the Lenten season. They’re most frequently pastel-colored and appear to be, well, plastic.
That’s because they are plastic. They’re the modern adaptations of a custom that originated with using real blown-out chickens’ eggs to decorate shrubbery outside the home before Easter.
Some “eggs” are larger than others…
Historical descriptions of these outdoor decorations suggest that the eggs were undyed at first; later folks began dying them, and finally replaced them with plastic to better withstand the elements (and, one suspects, the wildlife).
The custom seems to have been practiced among the Pennsylvania Germans since at least the mid-19th century, although not as universally as decorating a Christmas tree. This postcard, postmarked 1907, is remarkably similar to its modern counterpart below:
A similar custom involves decorating an Easter tree to display inside the house, and this tradition in American does not seem to have come from the Pennsylvania Germans. Historians believe it may have been imported from Germany about a hundred years ago when people copied the indoor trees they saw depicted on Easter greeting cards. (Alas, I have yet to find one of these!)
Then, in 1950, a Pennsylvania author and illustrator named Katherine Milhous wrote a popular book called The Egg Tree, and the practice spread nationwide. Homes throughout the United States began incorporating egg trees into their indoor holiday decorating. Unlike Christmas trees, Easter trees are most often not evergreens but are bare-branched deciduous trees. Sometimes the base is surrounded with a display or “Putz” made of Easter-related figurines, such as rabbits and chicks. This extravaganza, from Allentown in the mid-20th century, showcased more than 1,000 Easter-related items:
Many of these eggs are painted, gilded, or otherwise decorated. The Pennsylvania Dutch were famous for their onion-skin-dyed eggs, into which they scratched folk art designs. Our photo director is making some of these this week and will post photos on her blog, Christa Snaps. Stay tuned!