What is the origin of Easter eggs and when did the tradition of exchanging colourful eggs start? Most people know Easter as a Christian celebration of the rebirth of Christ, which is marked with Easter eggs – hard-boiled eggs that have been coloured and decorated in brilliant shades. (Chocolate eggs and bunnies came along far later.) No-one really knows the answer to the above questions, but we’ve found five interesting facts about the origin and early celebration of Easter and Easter eggs to set you thinking as you prepare for this weekend.

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1. Celebrating a new season

The word ‘Easter’ comes from the Norse Eostur (spellings vary) and the pagan goddess Eostre, the symbol of spring and new birth. Ancient Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians and Hindus all believed the world began with a giant egg, so the egg as a symbol of new life has been around for centuries.
The arrival of spring is the ultimate expression of rebirth, so when this season of growth arrived in the northern hemisphere in April, the chances of a big welcoming party were high! Lambs were roasted and eggs were boiled and decorated (an early form of decoration was to wrap a boiled egg in a fern leaf before placing it in a bath of vegetable dye) and newborn rabbits and chicks became popular symbols of the season. With the arrival of Christianity, the idea of rebirth became associated with Christ’s resurrection, and the practice of exchanging coloured eggs was adopted to mark the occasion.

2. In ancient Mesopotamia

The Catholic Donahoe’s Magazine, which was published from 1878 to the early 1900s, featured an article which stated that early Christians in Mesopotamia dyed eggs red to mimic the blood shed by Christ during his crucifixion.

3. Mary Magdalene and the red egg

Several legends suggest that the origin of the egg-dying tradition lies with Mary Magdalene who, according to one of the stories, visited Jesus’s tomb three days after his crucifixion with a basket of cooked eggs to share with other mourners. But when she arrived and found the entrance to the tomb clear and its interior empty, the eggs in her basket turned red.
Another legend tells of Mary Magdalene going to speak to the Roman Emperor Tiberius after Jesus rose from the dead and telling him that Christ had risen. Tiberius is said to have replied, “Christ has no more risen than that egg is red,” gesturing to an egg either on his table or brought by his visitor. As he spoke, the egg is said to have turned red.

4. The mother of Jesus and the red egg

According to some Eastern European legends, on Good Friday Mary sat at her son’s feet as he hung on the cross with a basket of eggs on her lap. Some of his blood is said to have dropped on the eggs, colouring them red.

5. A practice of kings

The household accounts of 13th-century King Edward I of England contain an order for 450 eggs to be coloured and decorated extravagantly in gold-leaf to give as gifts to his royal household at Easter.


Acknowledgements & Photo credits

Thanks go to Kaitlyn Boettcher for her article about the history of Easter eggs featured on the general knowledge website magazine Mental­­ Floss and foodie and food news writer Peggy Trowbridge Filippone for her inspiring piece about the history of decorated Easter eggs on about.com
1. Photo of Easter eggs courtesy of Apolonia / FreeDigitalPhotos.net