The Easter Egg has arguably become the most recognisable Easter icon. Chocolate eggs filling living rooms across the country – and other parts of the world – have become the main event for many who celebrate the Easter holiday. But how have they become the part of Easter that we recognise the most? What is the history behind them?
The Easter Egg and New Life
The act of egg decoration existed even among ancient civilisations, which even at this early stage already had associations with rebirth and new life. However, its relationship with Easter began with the early Christians of Mesopotamia, where they would stain the eggs red as a representation of the blood of Christ.
The Christian Church then made the egg an official icon of Easter with the publication of the Roman Ritual in 1610, which is when the associations with the resurrection of Christ became central. Interestingly, the Roman Ritual’s blessing is the first example of the eggs being for consumption instead of decoration.
The act of consuming eggs at this time of year may also be linked the preceding the fasting period of Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday and is preceded by Shrove Tuesday – or Pancake Day. It was traditional for all the eggs to be used up on Shrove Tuesday in preparation for the fasting. However, eggs would still be produced by chickens during this period leading to surplus. Once Lent concluded these surplus eggs had to be eating before they spoiled, leading to a feast of eggs during the Easter meal.
This feast could well represent an early form of the tradition of chocolate eggs we have today. However, the introduction of chocolate Easter Eggs was a purely commercial one by British chocolate company J. S. Fry & Sons in 1873. Unsurprisingly, the concept took off. Nevertheless, chocolate Easter Eggs do combine the traditions of decoration and consumption established early on.
The Egg Delivering Easter Bunny
One of the more unusual icons connected to Easter Eggs is the Easter Bunny. Most of us are understandably confused about the concept of a rabbit delivering eggs and its connections with the festival are appropriately bizarre.
Like eggs, rabbits and hares were a symbol of fertility and new life within the church. For example, in medieval times it was believed a hare could reproduce while retaining its virginity – it was thought they were hermaphroditic – leading to an association with the Virgin Mary. Additionally, when it came to spring – and the Easter season – the abundant rabbit and hare litters contributed to this connection with fertility.
However, the idea of an egg giving bunny is still hard to trace and no specific reason can be determined. Nevertheless, one of the earliest stories of an Easter Bunny came from Protestant German immigrants in 18th century Pennsylvania. They told the story of ‘Osterhase’ and hase means hare. This could well have morphed into ‘Easter Bunny’ across Europe as it is a hare not a rabbit.
The Easter Egg Hunt
A tradition closely associated with the Easter Egg is the egg hunt. Many of us have a childhood memory of excitedly running around looking for little chocolate eggs – maybe culminating in a big egg – but its origins can be traced back to Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. It’s recorded that he hosted egg hunts where the men hid the eggs for women and children to find. The symbolism of this was a connection to the tomb that Jesus is said to have been resurrected in. The finding of the eggs represents the joy of the women discovering that Jesus no longer being in the tomb. As we all know, this pastime has survived as a means of fun during the Easter period.