Decorated eggs are a traditional Lithuanian craft most often associated with Easter, or Velykos as it is known in Lithuania. This Baltic country, through its pagan and Catholic roots, has maintained the practice of egg decorating. And while some similarities can be found with decorated eggs from other countries in the region, Lithuanian Easter eggs have particular characteristics.
Types of Lithuanian Easter Eggs
Traditionally, two types of Lithuanian Easter eggs are typically seen as a part of Lithuanian folk art.
Scratched or Etched
The first type of Lithuanian Easter egg is the scratched egg. The egg is dyed a single color, and the design is then scratched into the surface of the dye with a pin, piece of glass, or knife to reveal the color of the egg underneath.
The second is the wax-decorating method, where some type of tool, such as a splinter of wood or a nail, is used to apply wax in various patterns to the egg, so when the egg is dipped in dye, those parts covered in wax remain dye free.
The difference between Lithuanian decorated eggs and those of some other countries is that Lithuanian margučiai (one colored egg is a margutis) reflect patterns made up of teardrop shapes that are created by dragging the wax with the tool used to apply the wax.
Very beautiful and intricate designs can be made using this simple method, and expert egg decorators creatively reinterpret their ancestor’s designs for today’s eggs.
Other Ways to Decorate Eggs
While the above ways to decorate eggs are the most traditional, when you’re in Lithuania, you may see eggs decorated in other ways.
For example, wooden eggs in souvenir shops may be painted in bright colors. These may or may not reflect the traditional Lithuanian teardrop shapes.
Eggs decorated in string and slivers from birch branches are a labor-intensive and beautiful take on the Easter egg.
Decorated Egg Tradition
In pagan times, decorated eggs were associated with magic and luck, with different colors signifying various qualities, such as red for beauty and white for purity. That meant the eggs were thought to be imbued with certain powers, so they were used for protection, to attract an object of affection, or to ensure fertility and a good harvest.
Lithuanians will proudly tell you that they were the last pagans in Europe, not converting to Christianity until the 14th century. However, even when they adopted Catholicism, they continued the egg tradition, even if the eggs now were symbols of Christianity rather than pre-Christian beliefs.
According to Vilnews, historical evidence supports the idea that eggs, or objects indicating the shape of eggs, have long been decorated in Lithuania:
At the foot of the Gediminas Hill in Vilnius archaeologists have found eggs made of bone and clay, which shows that this custom was known in Lithuania as early as the 13th Century. Easter eggs are also mentioned by Martynas Mažvydas in his dedication to his book “Hymns of St Ambrosius” (1549).
Not Just for Easter
Lithuanians decorated eggs twice a year—once prior to Easter on Holy Saturday and once for St. George’s Day, April 23, to protect the animals, which were let out to graze on that day after the long northern winter. The eggs were thought to protect the livestock, which were important for rural inhabitants’ livelihoods and nutrition.
The Easter Granny
Various other traditions are associated with Lithuanian decorated eggs. Instead of the Easter bunny as the main figure for this holiday, Lithuanian children may be visited by Velykų Senelė, or the Easter Granny, who has bunnies as helpers and who, when riding in her carriage, uses a sunbeam as a whip and distributes Easter eggs as she travels about the land.
Other Easter Egg Traditions
Furthermore, children may go begging for Easter eggs, much like they would in Western countries for candy at Halloween, and traditionally eggs were exchanged with family members, relatives, and friends around this holiday. Venetia Newall, in An Egg at Easter, indicates that Lithuanian peasants kept the most beautiful eggs between the double panes of windows during winter and that egg decorating was typically reserved for young, unmarried women.*
Keeping Tradition Alive
Though many families in Lithuania now decorate their Easter eggs the way children in many Western countries do—with basic dyes, stickers, or shrink-wrap sleeves—craftspeople continue to keep the Lithuanian egg-decorating tradition alive.
Dyes were originally developed from plants, though more varied and richer tones can often be achieved with commercial dyes, so it depends upon the artist’s preferences which they use, or if they scratch their eggs or use the wax-resist method. Some artists even offer workshops to teach others how to make these eggs.
Viewing and Buying Lithuanian Easter Eggs
If you’d like to see traditional Lithuanian decorated eggs, Rumšiškės, the Lithuanian open-air museum, has an especially fine collection on display, particularly around Easter—and there, you may even practice the game of egg-rolling, where competitors roll their eggs down a slope to see which egg reaches the bottom without breaking.
You may also buy hand-decorated eggs at outdoor markets such as Kaziukas Fair or at souvenir and tourist shops in Old Town Vilnius. For longevity’s sake, some of these eggs may be painted wooden facsimiles, but authentic eggshells—as delicate as they may be—make for the prettiest, most precious specimens of Lithuanian decorated eggs.
*Newall, Venetia. An Egg at Easter: A Folklore Study. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971.