Delve into the history and origins of the Christian festival of Easter and you come up with a few surprises. For instance, Easter eggs do not owe their origins to Christianity and originally the festival of Easter itself and the giving of Easter gifts had nothing to do with Christianity either. A closer look at the history of both Easter and the Easter Egg reveals a much earlier association with pagan ritual and in particular, the pagan rites of spring, dating back into pre history.
For us, the ancient rites celebrating the Spring Equinox are most obviously associated with the mysterious Druids and places like Stone Henge, but most ancient races around the world had similar spring festivals to celebrate the rebirth of the year. The Egg, as a symbol of fertility and re-birth, has been associated with these rites from the earliest times.
In fact, the festival of Easter is a classic example of the early Christian church adapting an existing pagan ritual to suit their own purposes. The Saxon spring festival of Eostre, was named for their goddess of dawn, and when they came to Britain in about the 5th century AD, the festival came with them along with re-birth and fertility rituals involving eggs, chicks and rabbits. When the Saxons converted to Christianity and started to celebrate the death and the resurrection of Christ, it coincided with Eostre, so that’s what the early church in Britain called the celebration, Eostre or Easter in modern English.
The actual date that Easter falls on every year is governed by a fairly complex calculation related to the Spring Equinox. The actual formula is: The first Sunday after the first full moon following the Spring Equinox is Easter Sunday or Easter Day. This formula was set by Egyptian astronomers in Alexandria in 235ad, and calculated using the same method as the Jews have traditionally used to calculate the feast of the Passover, which occurred at about the same time as the crucifixion.
As well as adopting the pagan festival of Eostre, the Egg, representing fertility and re-birth in pagan times, was also adopted as part of the Christian Easter festival and it came to represent the ‘resurrection’ or re-birth of Christ after the crucifixion, Some Christians believe it is a symbol of the the stone blocking the Sepulchre being ‘rolled’ away.
In the UK and Europe, the earliest Easter eggs were painted and decorated hen, duck or goose eggs, a practice still carried on in many parts of the world today. As time went by, artificial eggs were made and by the end of the 17th century, manufactured eggs made of various materials were available for purchase at Easter.
Easter eggs continued to evolve through the 18th and into the 19th Century, with hollow cardboard eggs filled with gifts and sumptuously decorated, culminating in the ultimate in Easter eggs, the fabulous Faberge Eggs. Encrusted with jewels, they were made for the Czar’s of Russia by Carl Faberge, a French jeweller, surely these were the ‘ultimate’ Easter gift, to buy even a small one now would make you poorer by several millions of pounds sterling.
It was at about this time (early 1800’s) that the first chocolate Easter egg appeared in Germany and France and soon spread to the rest of Europe and beyond. The first chocolate eggs were solid soon followed by hollow eggs. Although making hollow eggs at that time was no mean feat, because the easily worked chocolate we use today didn’t exist then, they had to use a paste made from ground roasted Cacao beans.
By the turn of the 19th Century, the discovery of the modern chocolate making process and improved mass manufacturing methods meant that the hollow, moulded Chocolate Easter Egg was fast becoming the Easter Gift of choice in the UK and parts of Europe, and by the 1960’s it was well established worldwide.