Easter eggs, also called Paschal eggs, are eggs that are sometimes decorated. They are usually used as gifts on the occasion of Easter.
As such, Easter eggs are common during the season of Eastertide (Easter season). The oldest tradition is to use dyed and painted chicken eggs, but a modern custom is to substitute chocolate eggs wrapped in colored foil, hand-carved wooden eggs, or plastic eggs filled with confectionery such as chocolate. However, real eggs continue to be used in Central and Eastern European traditions.
Although eggs, in general, were a traditional symbol of fertility and rebirth, in Christianity, for the celebration of Eastertide, Easter eggs symbolize the empty tomb of Jesus, from which Jesus resurrected. Also, one ancient tradition was the staining of Easter eggs with the color red “in memory of the blood of Christ, shed as at that time of his crucifixion.”
This custom of the Easter egg, according to many sources, can be traced to early Christians of Mesopotamia, and from there it spread into Eastern Europe and Siberia through the Orthodox Churches, and later into Europe through the Catholic and Protestant Churches.
Other sources maintain that the custom arose in western Europe during the Middle Ages as a result of the fact that Western Christians were prohibited from eating eggs during Lent, but were allowed to eat them when Easter arrived.
The practice of decorating eggshells is quite ancient, with decorated, engraved ostrich eggs found in Africa which are 60,000 years old.
In the pre-dynastic period of Egypt and the early cultures of Mesopotamia and Crete, eggs were associated with death and rebirth, as well as with kingship, with decorated ostrich eggs, and representations of ostrich eggs in gold and silver were commonly placed in graves of the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians as early as 5,000 years ago.
These cultural relationships may have influenced early Christian and Islamic cultures in those areas, as well as through mercantile, religious, and political links from those areas around the Mediterranean.
According to many sources, the Christian custom of Easter eggs, specifically, started among the early Christians of Mesopotamia, who stained eggs with red coloring “in memory of the blood of Christ, shed at His crucifixion“.
The Christian Church officially adopted the custom, regarding the eggs as a symbol of the resurrection of Jesus, with the Roman Ritual, the first edition of which was published in 1610 but which has texts of much older date, containing among the Easter Blessings of Food, one for eggs, along with those for lamb, bread, and new produce.
Lord, let the grace of your blessing + come upon these eggs, that they be healthful food for your faithful who eat them in thanksgiving for the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you forever and ever.
Sociology professor Kenneth Thompson discusses the spread of the Easter egg throughout Christendom, writing that:
“use of eggs at Easter seems to have come from Persia into the Greek Christian Churches of Mesopotamia, thence to Russia and Siberia through the medium of Orthodox Christianity. From the Greek Church the custom was adopted by either the Roman Catholics or the Protestants and then spread through Europe.”
Both Thompson, as well as British orientalist Thomas Hyde state that in addition to dyeing the eggs red, the early Christians of Mesopotamia also stained Easter eggs green and yellow.
Peter Gainsford maintains that the association between eggs and Easter most likely arose in western Europe during the Middle Ages as a result of the fact that Catholic Christians were prohibited from eating eggs during Lent, but were allowed to eat them when Easter arrived.
Influential 19th-century folklorist and philologist Jacob Grimm speculates, in the second volume of his Deutsche Mythologie, that the folk custom of Easter eggs among the continental Germanic peoples may have stemmed from springtime festivities of a Germanic goddess known in Old English as Ēostre (namesake of modern English Easter) and possibly known in Old High German as Ostara (and thus namesake of Modern German Ostern ‘Easter’).
However, despite Grimm’s speculation, there is no evidence to connect eggs with Ostara. The use of eggs as favors or treats at Easter originated when they were prohibited during Lent. A common practice in England in the medieval period was for children to go door-to-door begging for eggs on Saturday before Lent began. People handed out eggs as special treats for children before their fast.
Although one of the Christian traditions is to use dyed or painted chicken eggs, a modern custom is to substitute chocolate eggs, or plastic eggs filled with candy such as jelly beans; as many people give up sweets as their Lenten sacrifice, individuals enjoy them at Easter after having abstained from them during the preceding forty days of Lent.
These eggs can be hidden for children to find on Easter morning, which may be left by the Easter Bunny. They may also be put in a basket filled with real or artificial straw to resemble a bird’s nest.
Symbolism and related customs
Some Christians symbolically link the cracking open of Easter eggs with the empty tomb of Jesus.
In the Orthodox churches, Easter eggs are blessed by the priest at the end of the Paschal Vigil (which is equivalent to Holy Saturday) and distributed to the faithful. The egg is seen by followers of Christianity as a symbol of resurrection: while being dormant it contains a new life sealed within it.
Similarly, in the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, the so-called święconka, i.e. blessing of decorative baskets with a sampling of Easter eggs and other symbolic foods, is one of the most enduring and beloved Polish traditions on Holy Saturday.
During Paschaltide, in some traditions, the Pascal greeting with the Easter egg is even extended to the deceased. On either the second Monday or Tuesday of Pascha, after a memorial service people bring blessed eggs to the cemetery and bring the joyous paschal greeting, “Christ has risen“, to their beloved departed.
In Greece, women traditionally dye the eggs with onion skins and vinegar on Thursday (also the day of Communion). These ceremonial eggs are known as kokkina avga. They also bake tsoureki (braided loaf of bread) for the Easter Sunday feast. Red Easter eggs are sometimes served along the centerline of tsoureki.
In Egypt, it is a tradition to decorate boiled eggs during the Sham el-Nessim holiday, which falls every year after the Eastern Christian Easter.
Coincidentally, every Passover, Jews place a hard-boiled egg on the Passover ceremonial plate, and the celebrants also eat hard-boiled eggs dipped in salt-water as part of the ceremony.
- The dyeing of Easter eggs in different colors is commonplace, with color being achieved through boiling the egg in natural substances (such as onion peel (brown color), oak or alder bark or walnut nutshell (black), beet juice (pink), etc.), or using artificial colorings.
A greater variety of color was often provided by tying on the onion skin with different colored woolen yarn. In the North of England, these are called pace-eggs or paste-eggs, from a dialectal form of Middle English Pasche. They were usually eaten after an egg-jarping (egg tapping) competition.
In the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, Easter eggs are dyed red to represent the blood of Christ, with further symbolism being found in the hard shell of the egg symbolizing the sealed Tomb of Christ — the cracking of which symbolized his resurrection from the dead. The tradition of red Easter eggs was used by the Russian Orthodox Church.
The tradition of dying the Easter eggs in an Onion tone exists in the cultures of Armenia, Georgia, Belarus, Russia, Czechia, Romania, and Israel. The color is made by boiling onion peel in water.
Easter egg games
An egg hunt is a game in which decorated eggs, which may be hard-boiled chicken eggs, chocolate eggs, or artificial eggs containing candies, are hidden for children to find. The eggs often vary in size and maybe hidden both indoors and outdoors. When the hunt is over, prizes may be given for the largest number of eggs collected, or for the largest or the smallest egg.
The central European Slavic nations (Czechs and Slovaks etc.) have a tradition of gathering eggs by gaining them from the females in return of whipping them with a pony-tail shaped whip made out of fresh willow branches and splashing them with water, by the Ruthenians called polivanja, which is supposed to give them health and beauty.
Cascarones, a Latin American tradition now shared by the many US States with high Hispanic demographics, are emptied and dried chicken eggs stuffed with confetti and sealed with a piece of tissue paper. The eggs are hidden in a similar tradition to the American Easter egg hunt and when found the children (and adults) break them over each other’s heads.
To enable children to take part in egg hunts despite visual impairment, eggs have been created that emit various clicks, beeps, noises, or music so that visually impaired children can easily hunt for Easter eggs.
In the North of England, during Eastertide, a traditional game is played where hard boiled pace eggs are distributed and each player hits the other player’s egg with their own.
This is known as “egg tapping“, “egg dumping“, or “egg jarping“. The winner is the holder of the last intact egg. The annual egg jarping world championship is held every year over Easter in Peterlee, Durham.
It is also practiced in Italy (where it is called scuccetta), Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Lebanon, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia (where it is called turčanje or trkanje), Ukraine, Russia, and other countries. In parts of Austria, Bavaria and German-speaking Switzerland it is called Ostereiertitschen or Eierpecken.
In parts of Europe, it is also called epper, presumably from the German name Opfer, meaning “offering” and in Greece, it is known as tsougrisma. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, red eggs are also cracked together when people exchange Easter greetings.
In South Louisiana, this practice is called pocking eggs and is slightly different. The Louisiana Creoles hold that the winner eats the eggs of the losers in each round.
Egg dance is a traditional Easter game in which eggs are laid on the ground or floor and the goal is to dance among them without damaging any eggs which originated in Germany. In the UK the dance is called the hop-egg.
Pace egg plays
The Pace Egg plays are traditional village plays, with a rebirth theme. The drama takes the form of a combat between the hero and villain, in which the hero is killed and brought back to life. The plays take place in England during Easter.
While the origin of Easter eggs can be explained in the symbolic terms described above, among followers of Eastern Christianity the legend says that Mary Magdalene was bringing cooked eggs to share with the other women at the tomb of Jesus, and the eggs in her basket miraculously turned bright red when she saw the risen Christ.
A different, but not necessarily conflicting legend concerns Mary Magdalene’s efforts to spread the Gospel. According to this tradition, after the Ascension of Jesus, Mary went to the Emperor of Rome and greeted him with “Christ has risen,” whereupon he pointed to an egg on his table and stated, “Christ has no more risen than that egg is red.” After making this statement it is said the egg immediately turned blood red.
Red Easter eggs, known as kokkina avga in Greece and krashanki in Ukraine, are an Easter tradition and a distinct type of Easter egg prepared by various Orthodox Christian peoples.
The red eggs are part of Easter customs in many areas and often accompany other traditional Easter foods. Passover haminados are prepared with similar methods. Dark red eggs are a tradition in Greece and represent the blood of Christ shed on the cross.
The practice dates to the early Christian church in Mesopotamia. In Greece, superstitions of the past included the custom of placing the first-dyed red egg at the home’s iconostasis (the place where icons are displayed) to ward off evil. The heads and backs of small lambs were also marked with the red dye to protect them.
Parallels in other faiths
The egg is widely used as a symbol of the start of new life, just as new life emerges from an egg when the chick hatches out.
Painted eggs are used at the Iranian spring holidays, the Nowruz that marks the first day of spring or Equinox, and the beginning of the year in the Persian calendar. It is celebrated on the day of the astronomical Northward equinox, which usually occurs on March 21 or the previous/following day depending on where it is observed.
The painted eggs symbolize fertility and are displayed on the Nowruz table, called Haft-Seen together with various other symbolic objects. There is sometimes one egg for each member of the family. The ancient Zoroastrians painted eggs for Nowruz, their New Year celebration, which falls on the Spring equinox. The tradition continues among Persians of Islamic, Zoroastrian, and other faiths today.
The Nowruz tradition has existed for at least 2,500 years. The sculptures on the walls of Persepolis show people carrying eggs for Nowruz to the king.
The Neopagan holiday of Ostara occurs at roughly the same time as Easter. While it is often claimed that the use of painted eggs is an ancient, pre-Christian component of the celebration of Ostara, there are no historical accounts that ancient celebrations included this practice, apart from the Old High German lullaby which is believed by most to be a modern fabrication.
Rather, the use of painted eggs has been adopted under the assumption that it might be a pre-Christian survival. Modern scholarship has been unable to trace any association between eggs and a supposed goddess named Ostara before the 19th century when early folklorists began to speculate about the possibility.
There are good grounds for the association between hares (later termed Easter bunnies) and bird eggs, through folklore confusion between hares’ forms (where they raise their young) and plovers’ nests.
In Judaism, a hard-boiled egg is an element of the Passover Seder, representing festival sacrifice. The children’s game of hunting for the afikomen (a half-piece of matzo) has similarities to the Easter egg hunt tradition, by which the child who finds the hidden bread will be awarded a prize.
In other homes, the children hide the afikoman and a parent must look for it; when the parents give up, the children demand a prize for revealing its location.