The Mystical history of the Easter Egg

The World of Books

The Books Editor

For months before Easter both television and the newspaper are filled with advertisements for various confected chocolate eggs, as often as not with no reference to Easter. But chocolate eggs are comparatively new things, within living memory a novelty in the childhoods of many rather than the ubiquitous product of today.

The chocolate Easter eggs can be traced back to confectionary made by German and French chocolatiers in the early 19th Century, but it was not until towards the end of the Victorian era that the familiar hollow egg became a mass produced annual treat, a by-product of the development of the chocolate industry by such people as the Cadburys, Fry’s and Rowntree’s.

From the US more recently has been imported the neo-traditional idea of the Easter Bunny. This was a custom among German Lutherans introduced into the US in the 18th Century.  The notion was that the Easter hare (not rabbit originally) would reward children who had been good in Lent with coloured eggs – eggs having been banned in Lent. The eggs were originally carried in a basket, later they were hidden around the garden for the children to find.

But these days, as the advertisements show only to clearly, any real connections with the religious side of Easter has long been broken. The Easter egg has become not so much multi-cultural, as inter-cultural.

In the Eastern Churches such coloured eggs were a very ancient tradition, the eggs being dyed red in memory of the Saviour’s blood. And it is in the Eastern churches and their communities scattered across Europe and North American that the ancient traditions of the true Easter egg still flourish. Now that Eastern Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox have become established in Ireland, we may well see a revival of these older Eastertime traditions.

Yet for millennia the egg has been associated with spring customs in many cultures, so much so that it was taken over by Christianity and adapted to the new expression of the meaning of life. In the tradition from which much of Western culture derives, the egg can be traced back to such early symbolic myths of Greek philosophical mythology (rather than popular belief) from which the whole of creation was hatched.

Seasonal customs

The best account I know of about these developments is that by Venetia Newell, An Egg at Easter: A Folklore Study (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul).  On taking it down from my shelves I was astonished to find it was published in 1971, but it has never been replaced, I think, as a study of these fascinating seasonal customs.

Dr Newall is a very learned yet wonderfully accessible writer, who has undertaken wide ranging researches into Western folklore traditions, that is the beliefs largely of country people as opposed to the concepts of the academy. Across the Christian cultures of Europe and Asia the traditions varied, but behind them all lies an adoption of the very ancient concept of the egg as a symbol of life reborn.

What had been a mystical concept of earlier traditions became infused for Christians with their belief in the Resurrection, the Easter event as the theologians would call it,  that lies at the vital heart of Christianity. However, all the traditions, folklore and anthological insights put aside, the Easter custom of gifting an egg symbolises for Christians God’s gift of a profound renewal of life which is the Easter event itself.

Venetia Newall refers to many Easter and egg related customs in Ireland in past times. She says that many Presbyterians in Ireland and Scotland would never touch an egg of any kind at Easter, seeing such things as ‘a Popish custom’.

Certainly in my family half a century ago we had hen’s eggs for breakfast on Easter morning which we dyed or painted with vegetable colours. This was a pre-Easter custom which all the children enjoyed. But this tradition seems to have died away completely with the inexorably rise of commercially created buying-habits.

However, it is a simple enough thing to re-introduce back into family life today. It is a charming custom that should not be allowed to die completely.

Bearing that in mind, we can all I think happily nibble away on our chocolate eggs.