'Nothing Christian about it': The symbolism of Easter Eggs

Steena Joy
·Contributor
·5-min read

As nearly 2.3 billion Christians all over the world, get ready to celebrate Easter or the Resurrection of Jesus Christ this coming Sunday, bakers and confectioners are preparing to meet the demand for the traditional Easter Eggs that have been part of the festival for centuries.

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From a Christian perspective, Easter Eggs are believed to represent Jesus’ emergence from the tomb after his Resurrection

Saint Bede the Venerable, the sixth century Franciscan monk in his book “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, traced the origin of the English word ‘Easter’ to Eostre or Eostrae, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and fertility. Other interpretations believed that the word came from in albis, a Latin phrase that was recognised as the plural of alba or dawn and became eostarum in Old High German.

A Pagan connection

Many Easter-time traditions have roots that can be traced to non-Christian and Pagan celebrations. Since Medieval times, Pagan festivals celebrating spring have used the Egg as an ancient symbol of new life. The Spring or Vernal Equinox when the day and night have approximately the same length, was celebrated as a period of renewal.

Apart from their historical use as symbols of fertility, in early centuries eggs were so highly valued that they were used as currency to pay salaries especially to clerics and pastors. From a Christian perspective, Easter Eggs are believed to represent Jesus’ emergence from the tomb after his resurrection. Just as Jesus rose from the tomb, the egg symbolised new life emerging from the eggshell.

Decorating and colouring eggs for Easter is a tradition that dates back to at least the 13th century, according to some sources. One explanation for this custom is that eggs were formerly a forbidden food during the Lenten season (the period of penance and fasting before Easter), so people would paint and decorate them to mark the end of the season, and eat them on Easter Day as a celebration. In the 18th century, people used pasteboard or papier mache eggs to hide small gifts for the festival. Later cardboard eggs decorated with silk, lace or velvet became popular.

Throughout Europe different cultures have evolved their own symbolic Easter Eggs. In Greece, crimson-coloured Easter Eggs are exchanged, whereas in Eastern Europe and Russia silver and gold decorations are common, and Austrian Easter Eggs often have plant and fern designs. In Ukraine, the art of painting Easter Eggs is called Pysanky, meaning 'how to write' in the local language. These Ukrainian Easter Eggs (known as Pysankas) are decorated using the wax-resist (batik) method and use stunning motifs often taken from Slavic folk art.

Later, the fascination for eggs made artisans craft artificial eggs of silver and gold, ivory or porcelain, often inlaid with jewels. The first of the highly sought Fabergé eggs by Carl Faberge was made as an Easter gift for the Empress Marie of Russia from her husband, Czar Alexander, in 1883. It featured a small gold egg in an outside shell of platinum and enamel. Today, these superb creations are precious museum pieces.

In Edward I's household accounts for 1307 there is an entry which says, "18 pence for 450 eggs to be boiled and dyed or covered with gold leaf and distributed to the Royal household".

Faberge egg
The first of the highly sought Fabergé eggs by Carl Faberge was made as an Easter gift for the Empress Marie of Russia from her husband, Czar Alexander, in 1883

In Europe, even today the art of decorating the real egg is still very much alive. In the Orthodox tradition, eggs are painted red to symbolise the blood that Jesus shed on the cross.

According to Britannica, the tradition of dyeing and decorating Easter eggs is ancient, and its origin is obscure, but it has been practised in both the Eastern Orthodox and the Western churches since the Middle Ages. The church prohibited the eating of eggs during Holy Week, but chickens continued to lay eggs during that week, and the notion of specially identifying those as Holy Week eggs brought about their decoration.

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Eggciting traditions

Easter Egg hunts and Egg rolling are two popular egg-related traditions, Many people, mostly children, also participate in Easter egg “hunts,” in which decorated eggs are hidden. In the United States, the White House Easter Egg Roll has been held, with some interruptions, on the Monday following Easter since 1878, when Rutherford B. Hayes was President. In the most famous Easter tradition, the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, children roll decorated Easter Eggs down Capitol Hill. The event has no religious significance, however some people have considered egg rolling symbolic of the stone blocking Jesus’ tomb being rolled away, leading to his resurrection.

Easter Eggs also evolved to even include chocolate. According to The Chocolate Trading Company, the first chocolate Easter eggs were made in Europe in the early 19th century with France and Germany taking the lead in this new artistic confectionery. A type of eating chocolate had been invented a few years earlier but it could not be successfully moulded. Some early eggs were solid while the production of the first hollow chocolate eggs was probably painstaking as the moulds were lined with paste chocolate one at a time!

chocolate eggs
The first chocolate Easter eggs were made in Europe in the early 19th century with France and Germany taking the lead in this new artistic confectionery

John Cadbury made his first 'French eating Chocolate' in 1842 but it was not until 1875 that the first Cadbury Easter Eggs were made. In fact, progress in the chocolate Easter egg market was very slow until a method was found of making the chocolate flow into the moulds.

Did you know? The largest Easter egg ever made was over 25 feet high and weighed over 8,000 pounds! It was built out of chocolate and marshmallow and supported by an internal steel frame.

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