SPOTSYLVANIA, Va. — It was a harrowing spectacle Sunday morning when rugged nine-year-old Andrew Murray emerged from a thicket near Spotsylvania Library and Arena, desperately clutching two handfuls of plastic eggs against his tattered armor and eerily humming “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.”
In any other town, the sight of a school-aged youth with war-torn clothing and gladiator-esque attire would be a shock, but such is the norm at Spotsylvania’s annual Easter Egg Battle Royale that has been a tradition in the county since time immemorial. When asked how he felt about his hard-earned victory, Andrew only replied in a frail, singsong voice, “There’s an orchid for your mommy and an Easter bonnet too.”
Andrew is only the the latest victor of the Easter Egg Battle Royale, a festive three-day-long event featuring combative matches in which blossoming warriors aged eight to 12 compete for Easter eggs in a variety of skirmishes and crusades. He’s now one of many child warriors who’ve proven themselves on the hallowed Spotsylvania fields.
The rules have changed remarkably little since it’s early 18th century beginnings: scores of youths are led to the battlegrounds with a single egg in their hand and are not permitted to return home until they have gathered at least three more through rigorous combat with their peers. Any child who returns without an egg faces shunning from their peers; some early records of the quarrel even suggested possible banishment. Other matches that can help a combatant youth acquire eggs include chariot jousting (modified with heelies) and the notorious “King of the Bunny Hill” competition, a savage contest in which the young combatants armed with shields clash on a hilltop, fighting for a single egg. At the end of the festival, the child warrior who returns with the most eggs is crowned victorious.
The earliest recording of the event comes from 1831 when, according to parish records, champion Horace Shoreditch “dispatched adversaries in the neighboring townes with adequate display. Within his satchel were a paltry three quail eggs with two more broken—forsooth, a meagre bounty.”
The event was preceded with much anticipation; many local enthusiasts, calling it a prime vintage for mayhem, speculated that it could rival the landmark year of 1986, when no fewer than 40 children participated in the event. The morning began with the traditional honoring of the Rabbit Shrine, in which participants stand before the monument and chant “Ave, Lepus, we who are about to fight salute you.”
Why is the event three days? The 1973 champion Thomas “The Lotus” Page has his own interpretation. As the surly veteran of the game told us, “Easter, man … shit. You enter the woods as a boy and emerge not as a man, but as a true warrior.” He paused to take a long drag from the Winston in his trembling hand. “Yeah, the hunt changes you, and though your innocence gets scrambled on the first day … on the third day, you come back hardboiled.”
“Fuckin’ A,” he added.
According to experts in Spotsylvania gladiatorial history, the event has roots as far back as the pre-Roman Gallic civilization, claiming further that it’s as venerable a Virginia tradition as cornhole and wearing boat shoes for no goddamn reason. However, while the event’s benefits to those children who aren’t defeated in the glorious field of battle are well documented, the practice strikes many outsiders as crude, perhaps even inhumane. Clearly, that opinion is not shared by the tens of spectators who attend every year. Enthusiast and two-time participant Gloria “One-Eye” Stendhall opined that “the Easter Egg Battle Royale is as much a part of a Spotsylvanian’s identity as Civil War history, and, umm …”
“Those uppity sumbitches in DC or Loudoun County might look down on our traditions of forcing our children to do battle while gathering that sweet, sweet cadbury cream,” her husband added. “But when you see the looks on their grimaced faces, would you really take that experience from them?”
For now, it looks like the games are here to stay, and many adolescent fighters have already begun training for next year’s festivities.
As master of the 2016 hunt, Richard Allerton, 11, told us, “You either strive in glorious pursuit of eggs, or you fall by my hand. There is no room for cowardice.”