Imagine back, way back, to 4500 BCE at a humble hunting and gathering settlement in Western Ukraine. That’s where the earliest paintings of decorated eggs were discovered (Baring & Cashford, 61). What joy these ancient people must have felt at the advent of spring! 6,600 years later their painted treasures convey a delicate brilliance familiar to us as we celebrate Easter. Nowadays Easter is celebrated as “the first Sunday after the full moon date, based on mathematical calculations, that falls on or after March 21” (https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/determining-easter-date.html). It’s possible that ancient astronomers may have held to that same date for spring celebrations. The stars, unlike our cultures and lifestyles, are basically timeless.
Framing Easter Egg Reality
The world’s largest Easter egg, a Ukrainian ‘Pysanka’, is displayed in Vegreville, Alberta (https://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/4028). The Pysanka’s splendid and intricate decorations are a reminder that in artful celebrations what matters most often transcends the mass-produced simplifications on offer from the passing and seasonal world of consumerism. In a year where wanton shopping is frowned upon, the opportunity arises to engage in the custom of egg-painting. What counts as normal Easter behavior is contained by an invisible framework of expectation and Easter eggs, as art or confection, are no exception. Normal appears to have no boundary; it’s disguised as natural. Georg Simmel describes how this framed reality appears and disappears with sleight of hand akin to the dispensation of eggs by an Easter Bunny: “Within actual space an object can be touched, whereas in a painting it can only be looked at; each portion of real space is experienced as part of an infinite expanse, but the space of a picture is experienced as a self-enclosed world; the real object interacts with everything that surges past or hovers around it, but the content of a work of art cuts off these threads, fusing only its own elements into self-sufficient unity. Hence, the work of art leads its life beyond reality” (Simmel in Goffman, 249). Whether an egg or a moment feels authentic depends upon the production of a believable performance.
Eggs Painted From The Heart
Many of us know that the word Easter derives from words for Estrus, signifying the many pregnancies, peregrinations, and germinations endemic to the inchoate blossom season. Painting eggs allows us to express ourselves anew in a dialectic of growth and production. Unique and irreplaceable, just like our AU journeys through academia, Easter eggs can express all that we are and yearn to be. Painting one’s a solo, individualized project, even as we share the process with others at the table. This year, as we are sheltered in place rather than bustling through a marketplace, we might as well enjoy the unique creative capacities derived from the act of painting Easter eggs.
What does the shared joy of egg-painting signify, though? The devilled eggs are in the details, as it were. First, we have to drain (or suck!) eggs from their shells (although some folks forgo this step and hard-boil their eggs, the better to eat them with). In any case the key component is the preparation of a pristine canvas on which to project our colourful desires. Inside is an empty shell, an apparent nothing; rien, as Louis XVI famously wrote in his hunting journal the day the Bastille, unbeknownst to him, was stormed by revolutionaries. With Easter eggs it’s what’s outside that counts and that’s precisely because we project what’s inside ourselves onto that smooth oval surface. While Hallowe’en pumpkins tend to be trite or comic, there’s an ethereal, even sultry, joy in utilizing our inner artistic side to paint eggshells in tones gentle or brash.
Goffman’s Dramaturgy: The Drama of Creative Urges Meeting Social Norms
Another small Alberta town, Mannville, had a famous export to the world named Erving Goffman. His sociological studies of the drama of everyday life, whereby we each pull off a performance of ourselves in a range of given settings, set the frame for how social theorists observe and record human interactions. We’re always in a social reality, never truly alone with our thoughts without socialized feelings of self-awareness and conscience. So the definition of a situation, and it’s corresponding framework, conveys a metamorphic kaleidoscope of colour, hue, and tone. Meaning is a collective, social, process that creates a believable reality. In playful times, like during egg painting, make-believe involves a playful act that exists solely for pleasurable ends. Such timeless moments of joy are best enjoyed as they are, rather than with too much premeditation. Says Jacob Brackman, a moment’s inevitable ephemerality means that its meaning can never be repeated in all its glory: “once the vision’s devoured, mulched and incorporated, unless it has been frozen somewhere, its moment…is lost forever” (Brackman in Goffman, 16). To truly enjoy Easter as we are is to dispense with expectation and embrace traditions as we imagine them to be. In other words, to make Easter personal, as AU similarly allows us to personalize our education.
How we act only appears natural after a period of learning what counts as normal. In each cultural setting crucial claims of authenticity are on display: whether our behaviour and dress pass as appropriate in a given setting depends on the interpretation of others. So to paint an Easter egg is a chance to share creativity with others while also breaking the bounds of the frame of expectations—an egg is our blank slate of expressive possibility.
Comedy thrives on exploring the consequences of what Goffman termed breaking frame. In Easter egg-painting it’s practically unheard of for an egg to be adorned with a crucifixion scene, complete with blood trailing down and around the egg like a runny yolk, for instance. Creativity has limits based on the frame defined by the group. Thus, each moment of social life is, for Goffman, a performance on a stage or in a courtroom where a jury of our peers decides whether our actions fit the code of respectability. What feels right in an instance is thus problematized; we’re surrounded by cues and reinforcements that herd us, lamblike, into pastures of respectability.
What counts as an appropriate performance is laced with ambivalence, however. As Goffman is apt to slyly add: “whatever it is that generates sureness is precisely what will be employed by those who wish to deceive us” (Goffman, 249). Easter advertising in normal years is a good example; cheap chocolate becomes plentiful as though the Easter spirit comes prepackaged in garish colours. Easter celebrations likewise can seem a bit contrived. Yet, when unusual behaviour is permitted (when ‘breaking frame’ becomes a temporary norm) magical things can happen.
For decades my hometown had an annual ‘Easter Egg Drop’ of thousands of eggs from a helicopter. Kids would scurry in all directions to scoop up the booty and there would be inevitable collisions and scuffles. It was like throwing meat morsels into a chicken run. The ensuing pandemonium was a rare instance of helter-skelter public activity breaking the normal frame of social interactions. Perhaps it let off some steam from what, like every Holiday, can feel like a stultifying occasion.
Goffman would have loved the Easter egg drop, I figure, and he’d have been fascinated by viral videos of idiots fighting over toilet paper as though their sustenance depended upon it.
Even the best performance of Easter fun requires an active participation of others akin to suspension of disbelief in a short story. In fact, the more fantastical fun becomes, the more it serves to uphold the abject myth that real reality is somehow less fake than the make believes we engage in. Social life never ‘just is’ and we can rarely just ‘be ourselves’. Yet, we e can overcome contrivance and demonstrate how much acting goes on to make the social normal happen. To flip the board at a games table thus becomes a potential praxis for life itself; painting Easter eggs at home during this troubled time likewise represents a challenge to the ‘loss’ of access to the capitalist marketplace.
Painting eggs is an opportunity to exfoliate our spirits, then, and this to break the albumen of social isolation. The real world of our lived experiences comes to fruitful expression when we translate it onto a creative canvas: in this case, an egg suffices to embody a transubstantiation of our intangible yet authentic dreams onto a tangible, physical, landscape. If social distancing were lifted today there would still not be a store where one could purchase that sense of exhilaration from painting an egg and saying ‘I made this, this is me!’ As Henry Miller put it in a book title: To Paint Is To Love Again.
So, if Easter feels a bit hollow this year, we can remember that all social interactions are a bit hollow in that we’re expected to act in approved ways regardless of how authentic they make us feel. Easter this year might feel surreal or abnormal, but it was all a bit of an act anyway; we make the world appear as it does, but our outer realm is naturally separated from the inner life of our heart and mind. A great opportunity awaits us this Easter if we choose to embrace it: a chance to make our time in isolation with our beloveds an experience and expression that is truly our own.