So it’s the appropriate time of year for Easter Eggs. (The clue really is in the name.) There are loads of really unusual and interesting traditions surrounding Easter – it is a major festival of the Christian west after all – but I’m going to focus on eggs today.
Why eggs? Well, Archbishop of York John Sentamu has backed the Real Easter Egg campaign, which began five years ago in order to sell chocolate eggs accompanied by booklets that explain the Christian meaning of Easter. Apparently the campaign is not having much success because major supermarkets have not agreed to stock the eggs, with one chain apparently asking, “What does Easter have to do with the Church?” (And I apologise that this link goes through to the Daily Mail. Brrr.) Couple this with the 2013 study that found one third of 5- to16-year-olds thought Easter was the celebration of the birthday of the Easter Bunny and it’s safe(ish) to say that chocolate eggs have taken over as the most popular aspect of the spring festival (study was done by Travelodge, though, which I find a bit strange). FYI, the Easter Bunny as an egg-giving character is a bit like Santa Claus in that he’s an originally German idea given more popularity by American advertising. The Swedes have an Easter Wizard instead.
Whether you believe Easter is the festival of Jesus’ resurrection, or a more secular festival of spring and the rebirth of nature, you can’t really ignore the influence the Christian church had on celebrations at this time of year. In any event, I like to talk about old traditions and there are lots of which have grown up around Easter from medieval times in England and Europe that still exist to this day.
So, eggs. These are found all over Europe as a symbol of fertility, and indeed most religions feature egg symbolism somewhere. For example, the Cult of Mithras, which was spread from Persia during the Roman Empire, believed that the eponymous deity was born from an egg (or stone, depending on the skill of the stonemason). In Christianity, the egg could be a symbol of Christ being reborn or the stone rolling away from the tomb. The dormant egg contains new life. It could be that the versatility of the symbol’s interpretation has made it so popular. Or the origins could be more pagan – when it was first developing, the Church was super-good at absorbing others’ local customs into their festivals so new converts would find the religion a bit more familiar.
Considering pagan origins, it is worth noting that in Britain we’re alone in calling Easter “Easter”. All the other European countries’ names for the festival are based on the Latin-derived word “pasch”, which is what you’d expect for a festival promoted by the Catholic Church. The origins of the term “Easter” are obscure. In his book, The English Year, Steve Roud suggests that the word is derived from “east”, and therefore probably relating to “dawn” – this could be the dawn of spring, or the new dawn of Jesus. Otherwise, it is widely accepted that “Easter” comes from “Eoster”, the name of a Germanic deity. She is mentioned in the Venerable Bede’s eighth century book, De Temporum Ratione (basically a big book on how to work out the date of Easter, which was quite a contentious issue in the early medieval period), where he records that the month “Eosturmonath” – now April – was a time when pagan Anglo-Saxons held feasts in Eoster’s honour, although this had been replaced by Christian celebration by the time of Bede’s writing. This appears to be the only source in which Eoster is mentioned, but that’s not to say she wasn’t a small, local tradition the Church could have subsumed in early Anglo-Saxon England.
Back to the eggs. Their popularity in medieval England probably had something to do with them being a staple foodstuff for rich and poor alike, and that they were banned during Lent. Enforced abstinence makes the heart grow fonder, and it’s not like chickens were going to stop laying during that period, so there were plenty to eat to celebrate their return at Easter. Eggs were a useful gift or in-kind offering during the medieval period, especially in farming communities and medieval manors where payment was expected to your social superiors.
Of course, if you’re going to gift an egg to your mates or local church, you might want it to look a bit pretty. Decorating eggs is a pretty ancient tradition: some Ancient Egyptians and Sumerians have been found buried with eggs either made from or decorated with silver and gold. According to Wikipedia, the early Christians of Mesopotamia began staining eggs red to represent the blood of the dying Christ, and this continues today in the Eastern and Orthodox Churches. This comes from two legends. One states that Mary Magdalene was taking cooked eggs to share with the women at Jesus’ tomb, and they miraculously turned bright red when she saw Christ had risen. The second legend is that when she was spreading the news of Jesus’ resurrection, she visited the Roman Emperor and greeted him by saying “Christ has risen.” He pointed at an egg on his table, replying, “He’s no more risen than that egg is red,” and the egg promptly changed colour.
In the UK, decorating hard-boiled eggs was mainly popular in the North of England and south of Scotland, where they were called “pace-eggs” (or “peace-eggs”, “pash-eggs” and “paste-eggs”). This definitely existed by 1579, when the author if the Beehive of the Romish Church wrote that they were a silly superstition that should be discarded. They weren’t, and this still continues today, thanks in part to the Victorians who encouraged children to decorate eggs and helped the tradition spread across the whole country (their equivalent of something going viral, perhaps?). Traditionally, boiling the eggs with onion skins turned the eggs brown, and different design effects could be created by winding wool around an egg, or wrapping it in leaves. Nowadays I’ve been known to use felt-tip pens and Doctor Who stickers.
The fun didn’t/doesn’t end with decorating eggs, however. They’d then be used by children in various games, such as “jaapin” where you hold the egg in your fist, the pointy bit sticking out between your second and middle fingers, and then you smash it into your opponent’s pointy end. Winner is the one whose egg remains intact. “Boolin” is another custom which is still popularly practised, for example in my home town of Morpeth: lots of people gather in the park and bowl their eggs down a hill to see whose goes furthest and doesn’t break. One 1909 antiquarian article from Northumberland, quoted by Roud, mentions rolling the eggs up a hill, which is unusual to say the least. I am rubbish at this game, and try as I might I can’t find any decent strategies for winning.
The Victorians did their bit for developing the tradition of gifting eggs in their usual style. Among the upper classes, they gave each other cardboard eggs covered in satin and filled with chocolates or other gifts; similarly, in Russia, Fabergé eggs of the late 19th century were a very expensive way to say “Happy Easter”. Chocolate eggs originated in France and Germany, although the early ones were solid (my teeth hurt just thinking about it) or painstakingly handmade because the technology for manufacturing hollow, moulded eggs had not developed yet. But eventually, when a way to cover moulds by machine was found, John Cadbury created the first commercially-available chocolate egg in 1875.
And countless dentists have him to thank for their livelihoods.