Origins of the Easter Egg Tradition

Nelida Nassar.  04.08.2018

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From simple, colored hard -boiled eggs to the most fabulous and expensive Fabergé eggs, the Easter egg has remained a tradition all over the world. In Italy, Easter eggs are blessed and placed at the center of the dinner table. Russian and Ukrainian Easter eggs are real works of art, with traditional symbolic colors and geometric patterns, along with Christian motifs like the cross and Christ’s figure.

In the West, in both the countryside and the cities, egg hunts take place early on Easter morning. For centuries, it was forbidden to ring the bells of Catholic churches between Holy Thursday and Easter Sunday, as a sign of mourning. We do not pay much attention to this prohibition today, especially if we live in the city. But in rural villages where life was punctuated by the clanging of bells, their silence was deafening. To explain the absence of the bells during these three days, the children were told that they had gone to Rome to be blessed by the Pope. Upon their return, they were loaded with eggs and sweets. In Germany, England and the United States hares or rabbits are said to bring the eggs. Eggs also represent a goddess, symbol of fertility and of Spring, which gives its name to Easter: “Ostern” and “Easter”. Another interpretation is that Easter was originally the celebration of Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of sex and fertility. The custom of offering chocolate eggs or rabbits is of commercial origin dating back to the 18th century. Nowadays, this tradition has spread beyond the West and can be found in many countries across the globe.

The “cosmic” egg is a motif found in many mythological accounts of the origins of various civilizations. Ostrich egg shells, 60,000 years old, decorated with animal, geometric or plant motifs, have been found in tombs in Egypt and Southern Africa. In these ancient theogonies – the oldest appears in Sanskrit in the sacred writings of India – the egg is evoked to designate the universe, the “cosmos,” the “golden fetus,” or the “Golden uterus.” In short, it is a symbol of the origin of the world, fertility, and the perpetuation of life.

The custom of offering decorated, dyed or incrusted eggs existed long before the Christian era. As spring is the season of nature’s renewal, the egg, representing life and rebirth, was probably the first symbol used in rituals that date back to the dawn of history. The Egyptians and Persians used to dye eggs and offer them to symbolize the renewal of life. In ancient Gaul, the Druids dyed the eggs red in honor of the sun.

In the Jewish tradition, the egg is the symbol of life but also of death. The liberation of the Jewish people from Egypt cost the lives of many, and happiness is never taken for granted. During Passover (Pesach), Jews perform the ritual of dipping an egg in salt water in memory of all the tears shed on account of the loss of the Jewish people’s independence.

Judaism and Christianity still see the egg as an emblem of the cycle of life, perpetuating this belief by eating a hard-boiled egg as part of the main meal during the mourning period. In Chinese mythology, the universe is perceived as an egg, which the god Pangu broke in two, creating heaven and earth. There are many other examples. And the egg has always been an important symbol in mysticism. Islam is one of the few religions that doesn’t have the egg symbolism.

The red egg goes back to a Greek Orthodox legend concerning Mary Magdalene. When she reported Jesus’ resurrection to Emperor Tiberius, the egg she was holding turned red on account of his skepticism. But it was not until the thirteenth century that the practice of painting eggs bright red became widespread in Europe. Their decoration begins on Holy Thursday, and the first painted egg has to be freshly laid that day. Eggs were decorated in red with coin motifs or drawings and were exchanged to celebrate the end of Lent – and of the hardships of winter.

During the Renaissance, especially in the courts of European sovereigns, the red egg was replaced by the one decorated with gold leaf. King Louis XIV personally distributed them to his courtiers. The tradition of placing a surprise in the egg dates back to the sixteenth century, and some exceptional examples have even been recorded in history. This is the case of the statue of Cupid contained in a huge Easter egg offered by Louis XV to Madame du Barry. Decorated with precious metals, and sometimes featuring the work of great painters, these objects reached their peak at the end of the nineteenth century with the famous Fabergé eggs at the Russian court, when Czar Alexander III offered the first one to his beloved spouse Czarina Maria. May the symbol of the egg always bring renewal to the universe and lasting peace.