In her latest column, York museums boss REYAHN KING looks at the tradition of egg-giving at Easter

Object of the Week: Pace eggs

Eggs have long been associated with Spring customs and have been symbols of life. Plants begin to bloom and grow in the Spring. Birds build nests and lay eggs. In England, Easter occurs at a time of the year when we feel life reawakening around us after a long dark winter.

People have been giving eggs as a seasonal custom for centuries. In 1290 the Household of Edward I purchased 450 eggs to be coloured or covered in gold leaf and gifted amongst members of the royal household. Easter traditions extended beyond aristocratic custom and eggs became a popular gift for children and the poor.

In Yorkshire, a whole tradition of ‘pace-egging’ (the word ‘pace’ is derived from the adjective ‘Paschal’ - the Latin name for Easter) developed from a practice of collecting money or food for an Easter feast. Young boys dressed up and begged for ‘pace eggs’. The ‘captain’ entered singing:

Here’s two or three jolly boys, all o’ one mind,

We’ve come a pace-egging and I hope you’ll prove kind,

I hope you’ll prove kind, with your eggs and your beer,

For we’ll come no more pace-egging until the next year.

This tradition evolved to include providing entertainment, a custom which first appeared in Lancashire in the late 18th century. Young adults - and later children - would dress up and perform dances and recite songs and verses to music. These performers were known as ‘peace-eggers.’ In Yorkshire, performers wore ribbons or coloured paper and masks, and sometimes carried wooden swords in a performance similar to that of Morris dancers today. Common characters included Old Tosspot, St George, Bold Slasher, the Doctor and the Black Prince of Paradine.The central theme of each play was death and resurrection. These were still performed by children into the early 20th century as a Good Friday tradition.

The custom of decorating the eggs evolved as standards of living improved and eggs were no longer essential food commodities. The decorated eggs were given as presents, used as adornments and entered into competitions.

This practice was most firmly rooted in the North of England and were often known as peace-, pace-, paes-, paste- or pasch-eggs. After decorating, it was custom to roll the eggs down a hill on Easter Monday. It was considered good luck if the egg survived and didn’t break.

The Castle Museum holds a fascinating collection of pace eggs dating from 1888 to 1910.

Pace eggs could be decorated in a variety of ways. Chicken or pullet eggs were boiled for about half an hour and either coated in the outer skins of onions or with coffee grains to stain them brown. Red onion skins would similarly stain them pink. The eggs were often decorated with leaves and flowers, or else tied with colourful pieces of cloth to create a patterned or marbled effect.

Gorse flowers were a popular choice as they stained the egg yellow whilst also leaving an imprint of the flower on the shell. Eggs could be inscribed or drawn on with a wax candle which prevented that area of the egg from being stained. It was common practice to write the person’s name and date on the egg.

The examples in the photographs were made either by or for Rachael Hannah Bell at Beachburn in 1900 and by members of the Wilson family at Scawton or at Crook, near Helmsley. York Castle Museum holds 16 pace eggs including one with sheep, a shepherd and inscription ‘The Good Shepherd 1910’.

Today pace eggs are a less well-known Easter custom although a colleague of mine does remember competitively rolling eggs as a child in Yorkshire and the North East. Mass produced chocolate eggs became much more popular in the mid-20th century and have largely overtaken this tradition. The Calder Valley revived the tradition of the Pace plays in the 1930s. If you want to revive the tradition of decorating pace eggs at home, you can download activity sheets on the York Museums Trust’s Museums From Home Pages here:

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