We know Easter eggs as a delicious treat beloved of children, but their origins are equally colourful and surprising.
A short history of Easter eggs
We desire them, hide them, roll them, unwrap them and, of course, gobble them up. Chocolate Easter eggs are one of the most popular types of confectionary ever invented and our appetite for those delicious oval-shaped chocolate delights knows no bounds.
Each year Australians eat millions of Easter eggs – in fact, we’re one of the biggest consumers in the world alongside the Americans, Scandinavians, Swiss and Germans.*
This year the Cadbury factory in Victoria is making 477 million Easter eggs, plus 14.6 million Easter bunnies for the Australian and New Zealand market.**
But why do we eat Easter eggs and where does the tradition come from? While the modern chocolate egg first appeared in Europe in the 1870s, the practice of eating hard-boiled eggs at Easter dates back hundreds of years.
Historians believe the tradition of decorating chicken eggs at Easter began in the Middle East in the first century AD and then spread to Eastern Europe, later being adopted by the Orthodox Church.
But the practice of painting hard-boiled eggs appears to be universal; decorated ostrich eggs dating back 60,000 years have been found in Africa.
The ancient pagans considered eggs to be a symbol of rebirth and ate them to celebrate the arrival of spring and the return of the Sun God after the ravages of winter.
For early Christians, painted chicken eggs were loaded with symbolism: the red dye represented the blood of Christ and the shell represented his tomb. Cracking the shell reminded believers of Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
Even the pastime of rolling Easter eggs, which children still practice today, symbolises the rolling away of the stone outside Christ’s tomb in Jerusalem. In the United States, “The Easter Egg Roll” is a popular annual community event held on the lawns of the White House on the first Monday after Easter.
Another reason that eggs are associated with Easter is that for hundreds of years Christians were forbidden from eating all kinds of animal products, including chicken eggs, during Lent, a period of fasting and reflection leading up to Easter.
Eating eggs at Easter was therefore a celebration to mark the end of Lent, and echoes of this indulgent mood are still felt today.
In the Christian tradition, painted or dyed Easter eggs were presented to children as a special treat at the end of Holy Week; today’s chocolate eggs, of course, are wrapped in foil.
During the reign of Queen Victoria this practice was further refined with the introduction of cardboard eggs, which were covered in satin and filled with Easter gifts.
The first chocolate eggs appeared in France and Germany in the 19th century, but these were bitter and hard. English firm J. S. Fry & Sons is credited with producing the first hollow egg, a design further perfected by rival confectionary maker Cadbury.
Remarkably, today the historic traditions continue, and many Australians will spend the Easter long weekend decorating egg shells and enjoy rolling, hiding and eating eggs, much to the delight of children across the nation.
*Source: Euromonitor, 2015