At the time of writing we are half way through Holy Week as the Lenten period comes to an end and we approach Good Friday and Easter Sunday. For some time now we have been inundated with images of chocolate eggs and chocolate bunnies that are part and parcel with this holiday. The etymology of the name Easter (in English) has older pagan roots, being derived from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn, Eostre (her name is also the origin of the English word “East”, the direction of the dawn). In the old Germanic calendar April was the month of Eostre (Eosturmanoth) during which time feast were held in her honour. With the Christianization of Britain the month of Eostre was absorbed into the Paschal tradition. In the Latin and Greek world the name of this holiday is called Pascha, derived from the Aramaic and Hebrew Pesach or Passover.
The Easter Egg is a long hallowed tradition that has multiple symbolic resonances. It symbolizes the rock-cut tomb in which Jesus was placed following the crucifixion and the bird which hatches from the it symbolizes the Risen Christ. Painted or decorated eggs are not a particularly Christian tradition. Decorated ostrich eggs from 60,000 years ago have been found in Africa and decorated eggs have also been found in ancient Sumerian and Egyptian tombs. It is likely from the Sumerians that the Christians took this tradition of painted eggs. The earliest record of this tradition among the Christians comes from the early communities of Mesopotamia. These early Christians would stain the eggs red in memory of the blood shed at the crucifixion. This tradition spread through the Eastern Orthodox church and on to the Roman West. To this day Easter Eggs are still a symbolic and serious matter in Catholic Europe and the Orthodox Church. In contrast in the Protestant countries it is yet another commercial opportunity for Cadbury’s chocolate (think of the tv ad campaign in Britain “have a fling with a cream egg (ends April 20th)”).
However, the Easter Egg also has a practical function. During the 40 days of Lent the consumption of eggs was forbidden hence the making of pancakes on the day before Lent (Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day) was a convenient way of getting rid of any eggs that one had (along with butter and milk etc). However, Chickens were not subject to Lenten rules and would, of course, continue to lay eggs during the 40 days. This would lead to a large surplus of eggs at the end of the season. As such, and to prevent food wastage, inventive ways to use the eggs had to be found. Much of the time this involved hard boiling the eggs to make them last longer. The eggs would be boiled in various broths to dye them various colours (i.e. using petals of the mallow flower to turn it violet). Other uses led to many traditional dishes revolving around eggs such as the Russian dessert Pascha or Spanish Hornazo.
With the Protestant Reformation those who separated from Roman Catholicism ceased to do the Lenten fast and yet wanted to preserve the custom of eating coloured eggs. The German Lutherans, as a compromise, came up with the idea of an Easter Bunny bringing the eggs. The bunny (or hare) had a connection to the Easter season in Northern Europe from pagan times. They were connected to Eostre and her Norse equivalent Freyja as symbols of fertility in Spring. This idea of the egg laying bunny was brought to the US by the Pennsylvania Dutch (Germans) in the 18th century. In Sweden the tradition of the Easter bunny took on a strange twist. The word for Easter Bunny “Påskharen” was mistaken for “Påskkarlen” meaning Easter Wizard. This led to the tradition of the Easter Eggs being brought by a Wizard. By the 20th century it had become tradition for Swedish children to dress up as witches and wizards at Easter.