The “Eierleset”—Not Your Typical Egg-and-Spoon Race

Around the world, many Easter traditions involve the egg, which originally was a pagan symbol of new life and the renewal that comes along with spring and in Christianity was considered a symbol of the resurrection of Christ. In some of the communities around Basel in the cantons of Baselland, Aargau, and Solothurn, however, another egg-related tradition has survived that takes place after Easter—the “Eierleset” (egg race).

The Historical Eierleset

The origins of the Eierleset (aka Eierläset, Eierlesen, Eierauflesen) go back to the 16th century and likely are rather practical: During the lent season preceding Easter, it was not only prohibited to eat meat but also eggs. However, the chickens of course kept laying eggs; in fact, with the lengthening days and warmer temperatures they would lay more eggs than during the winter months. This resulted in large numbers of eggs piling up in people’s homes that needed to be dealt with. For example, people would pay part of their taxes to the Church and the authorities in the form of eggs. But another way to get rid of excess eggs was a friendly competition in the form of an egg race after the lent period ended. For this, several rows of raw eggs, spaced about half a meter apart, were laid out and one of the competitors—the gatherer—would have to run to the farthest egg in the row, pick it up, and bring it back to the starting point and drop it in a big vat of water, then run to get the next egg and so on, all without breaking a single egg. At the same time, his opponent—the runner—would run a predetermined longer distance but without picking up any eggs, and whichever one of the two completed their task first was the winner.

The first reliably documented Eierleset in Basel took place at Petersplatz in 1556, where the runner had to run from Petersplatz to Schützenmatt while the gatherer had to pick up 50 eggs. Subsequently, the event was moved to Münsterplatz and was typically held on Easter Monday. In 1789, the date was moved to the Sunday after Easter, and that is still the day when these races are held today. In Basel, the last Eierleset on Münsterplatz was held in 1880; in some of the surrounding communities, however, the tradition has survived until today.

Today’s Eierleset

Today’s races typically are organized by local sports clubs and involve two or more teams competing against each other. For each team a row of about 100 eggs is prepared on the street, with the eggs sitting on little piles of sawdust. Most of the eggs are hardboiled, but some raw eggs are intermingled as well. Each team features several gatherers, which may include adults and children, as well as a catcher. Because nowadays, the gatherers don’t carry the eggs all the way back to the collection site but have to throw them the last few meters to the catcher, who tries to catch them in a big flat basket filled with grains and chaff. And since some of the eggs are raw, a missed catch can turn a bit messy for the catcher or others nearby! Also, for the gatherers it is no longer just a matter of running back and forth to pick up the eggs. For at least some of the eggs, they must collect them while performing special tasks, such as walking on stilts, running with one leg tied to that of a partner in a three-legged race, riding on an office chair or scooter, or pushing another team member in a wheel barrow, making the event highly entertaining for spectators to watch.

And once it’s over and all the eggs have been gathered, those that did not break during the competition are turned into masses of scrambled eggs, to be shared by competitors and spectators alike!