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Easter Eggs: What Do Eggs Have to Do with Easter Tradition?


Hard-boiled, painted eggs are ubiquitous during the Easter holiday season. But what do they have to do with Easter? We answer this and more in this post.

Easter eggs—

They come large, they come small.

You dye them, you hide them, you gift them in baskets.

There are even Marmite-flavored ones. (Yeast-er eggs?)

But what’s the story behind Easter eggs? What’s the deal with painting these ovoids in pastel shades?

Let’s find out.

Easter eggs on grass inside nest
Taken by A. Spratt via unsplash.com. [Public Domain].

What do eggs have to do with Easter?

Eggs have represented fertility and life regeneration for time immemorial. And, like eggs, springtime also has been a symbol of rebirth, with the blossoming of flowers and uptick of life and energy.

Early Christians then adopted this pagan symbol and used it to represent the idea that Jesus resurrected after dying on the cross.

Later on, over 400 years ago, the Catholic Church gave their blessing:

Bless, O Lord, we beseech you, these Your creatures of eggs, that they may become a wholesome sustenance to Your faithful servants, eating in thankfulness to You, on account of the Resurrection of Our Lord.

Pope Paul V (1605-1621)

Today, this prayer is still used to “bless” eggs around Easter, in the Catholic Church.

Why do we dye and paint eggs on Easter?

Painting eggs is a tradition which has been around forever.

A recent archeological discovery has found hundreds of intentionally-marked ostrich eggshell fragments at Diepkloof Rock Shelter, Western Cape, South Africa dating 60,000 years old!

Iranians have used colored eggs as a centerpiece for the Persian new year (Nowruz) for around 3,000 years.

Dyeing eggs for Easter, specifically, has been around from the Middle Ages, for Western and Orthodox Christianity alike.

This more-than-a-century-old dictionary entry gives some insight:

Easter Eggs, or Pasch eggs, are symbolical of creation, or the re-creation of spring. The practice of presenting eggs to our friends at Easter is Magian or Persian, and bears allusion to the mundane egg, for which Ormuzd and Ahriman were to contend till the consummation of all things. It prevailed not only with the Persians, but also among the Jews, Egyptians, and Hindus. Christians adopted the custom to symbolise the resurrection, and they colour the eggs red in allusion to the blood of their redemption. There is a tradition, also, that the world was “hatched” or created at Easter-tide.

Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898.
fancy Easter eggs carved and painted in a bowl
Fancier, schmancier Easter eggs. Taken by B. Felten-Leidel via unsplash.com. [Public Domain].

Why do we hunt eggs on Easter?

The practice of hiding and hunting eggs for Easter comes from Germany.

In German tradition dating to at least as far back as the 17th century, an Easter hare would bring good children a basket of painted eggs. These eggs would be hidden around the house and garden for them to find.

The earliest mention of the Easter hare (Osterhase) is in the Dispvtatione Ordinaria Disqvirens De Ovis Paschalibvs (An Ordinary Dispute Inquiring on Easter Eggs) from 1682, written by Georg Franck von Franckenau and Johannes Richier (in Latin):

§. 9. In Germania Superiore, Palatinatu nostrate, Alsatia & vicinis locis, ut & in Westphalia vocantur hæc ova Di Hasen-Fier a fabula, qua simplicioribus & infantibus imponunt Leporem (Der Oster-Hase) ejusmodi ova excludere, & in hortis in gramine, fruticctis & c. abscondere ut studiosius a pueris investigentur, cum risu & iucunditate seniorum. Et revera sæpe leporum, h. e. Imprudentium nomine possunt venire, qui ejusmodi ovis pueri valetudinis suæ magnam inveniunt jacturam; quando dein, semoto arbitro, ista justo avidius per ingluviem ingurgitant, sine sale, butiro, aut alio condimento; adeoque dolorem voluptate sibi coëmunt, ceu jam ab aliquot annis, multis sum edoctus experimentis. Hac igitur vice conabor quædam de intempestivi istorum esus noxa edisserere; utut rarissimos habeam, quos hoc in passu præeuntes sequi possim.

Dispvtatione Ordinaria Disqvirens De Ovis Paschalibvs, Georg Franck von Franckenau, Johann Richier

(I transcribed that myself from the original page, so forgive me if the Latin is slightly inaccurate!)

It basically talks about a Northern German custom (the Palatinate, Alsace, and Westphalia), where it is common practice for “a smile and enjoyment of their elders” to hide hare eggs for local kids to find. The Osterhase, or Easter Hare, hides these Easter eggs in the garden, grass, and bushes.

Later in that same book, it reads:

§. 18. Iam consideranda veniunt ipsa ova paschalia; hoc enim nomine appellantur Italis ova dura quod scil. die Paschatos sacerdoti benedicenda offerantur, ceu feribit JONSTON Idea Hygien.

Dispvtatione Ordinaria Disqvirens De Ovis Paschalibvs, Georg Franck von Franckenau, Johann Richier

This passage essentially gives credit to Italy for first using the term “Easter eggs,” or “Paschal eggs,” in this case.

Germany is also very important for the English-language version of the Easter concept. Most languages derive their term for Easter from the Greek Pascha, which means Passover. English Easter, however, comes from German Ēostre or Ostara, a Germanic goddess representing springtime.

When German immigrants arrived in America in the 1700s through 1800s, the egg hunting tradition came along with them. It soon became more Americanized and child-friendly, kind of how scary German fairy tales become all happy-smiley Disney movies. Thus, the Easter hare became the Easter rabbit, and eggs became ever more colorful.

What is the Easter egg roll?

No, it’s not a lumpia festooned with pastel colors.

In the United States, the most widely-known event is the White House Easter Egg Roll, held on the lawn of the White House every Easter Monday. Participants use a long-handled spoon to roll dyed, hard-boiled Easter eggs across the lawn. Whoever went the furthest without the egg cracking is the winner.

According to whitehouse.gov, “The White House Easter Egg Roll officially dates back to 1878 and the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, but first-hand accounts suggest that informal festivities began with egg-rolling parties under President Abraham Lincoln.”

In the United Kingdom, the egg roll is sometimes referred to as “pace egging” (from the word for Passover), and British children take turns rolling their eggs down a hill.

Why are hidden items in media called “Easter eggs?”

Finally, one last Easter egg-related question—an “Easter egg,” if you will.

A media Easter egg, like those hidden games within other games or hidden messages in comic books, gets its name from the traditional Easter egg hunt.

Written by
Christian Eilers
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