Turns out, eggs have been an important aspect of cultural celebrations dating back thousands of years, long before Easter was ever a holiday. It’s believed they were used in pagan rites, as symbols of fertility and new life, as well as by Persian civilizations. In ancient Egypt, eggs were important elements in reaching the afterlife and in rebirth.
Eggs were also considered a delicacy in Roman times—only the wealthy and powerful could afford to serve eggs at dinner. But their first association with Easter is shrouded in mystery.
“We don’t honestly know why we use eggs historically,” says Christine Luckritz Marquis, assistant professor of Church History at the Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. “There are lots of different theories, but eggs definitely are about new life and resurrection. There’s a rich history of eggs being symbolic of new life.”
Some traditions believe that Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary held eggs during the crucifixion or that they were eaten at the first meal after the Resurrection. Eggs were viewed as a way of confirming Jesus’ resurrection. In the Eastern Orthodox churches, the hard shell of the egg represents the stone walls of Jesus’ tomb, with the egg itself representing the new life of the Resurrection.
During Lent, the 40-day period of preparation for Easter, Christians were traditionally forbidden to eat foods such as eggs, milk, and sugar (which is why they were used up on Shrove Tuesday to make pancakes). So it’s also likely that eggs were eaten at Easter to celebrate the end of this strict period of fasting.
A History of Easter Eggs
Decorated eggs were first introduced in the 13th century. Many countries, especially in eastern Europe, celebrate Easter with dyed eggs, carved wooden eggs, or richly painted eggs. Lots of the patterns have symbolic meaning, and some eggs are intricately painted with religious or cultural scenes.
Joseph Fry created the first chocolate Easter egg in 1873. These were considered a luxury gift, because they were hand-crafted from couture chocolate, which was hugely expensive. It wasn’t until the 1950s, that more affordable chocolate eggs for children were introduced.
But the most famous Easter eggs in the world were never intended to be eaten. In 1885, Tsar Alexander III of Russia commissioned the jeweler Fabergé to make an egg as an Easter gift for his wife. This gold egg had an enamel shell which opened to reveal a gold yolk. The yolk contained a pure gold hen, which in turn held a diamond replica of a crown, complete with a tiny ruby. Worth a staggering $2.93 million in today’s money, this must surely be the ultimate luxury egg. Fabergé made over 50 eggs for the Russian royal family, each more extravagant than the last.
There are many traditions associated with Easter, and it’s easy to use eggs to celebrate Easter for yourself. Try your hand at an Easter egg hunt, use eggs for some seasonal Easter cooking, or have a go at making eco-friendly eggs. You’ll be carrying on a tradition that stretches back for centuries.