My 10-year-old daughter was recently asking why we eat chocolate Easter eggs and bunnies, and sometimes lambs, at Easter and I wasn’t sure of the answer. Can you help me?
Let us start with Easter eggs, which are probably the most common popular symbol of Easter. They can be chocolate, as your daughter mentions and which are so common in this country, or more commonly hard boiled and brightly coloured, as in some European countries.
But what do eggs have to do with Easter? The egg can be seen as a symbol of the sealed tomb from which Christ emerged after his resurrection, just as the chick emerges from the closed egg. From ancient times it was also seen as a symbol of new life. And since eggs were one of the foods from which people fasted in Lent in the early Church as they still do in the Orthodox tradition, people looked forward to eating them again and associated different customs with them.
It seems that as far back as the fourth century in the East eggs were blessed at Easter time. The Benedictio Ovorum, blessing of eggs, came to the West in the twelfth century, perhaps brought from the East by the Crusaders. In the East the eggs were stained red in memory of the blood Christ shed on the Cross. Red eggs, sometimes emblazoned with a cross, are still the custom in the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic traditions. They are blessed by the priest at the end of the Easter Vigil and distributed to the faithful.
In medieval times it was the custom to give eggs at Easter to one’s servants. It is reported that in 1290 King Edward I of England had 450 eggs boiled, dyed or covered with gold leaf before Easter to be distributed to the members of the royal household on Easter Day. Later the famous Fabergé workshops were well known for creating beautiful jewelled Easter eggs for the Russian Imperial Court.
In northern Europe the custom of painting eggs in bright colours at Easter, having them blessed and giving them as gifts goes back many centuries. The old Roman Ritual, the first edition of which dates to 1610, had a special blessing for Easter eggs. In countries like Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and the Czech Republic eggs are decorated with magnificent intricate designs which are true works of art. They are often given as gifts to relatives and friends, with the design on the egg chosen to match the character of the person to whom it is given.
In Poland the so-called swieconka involves the blessing of baskets of Easter eggs and other symbolic foods in the Easter Vigil. A similar custom is lived in Ukraine. Upon returning home after the Vigil the family breaks the Lenten fast by eating the eggs and other foods.
In Germany thousands of brightly coloured emptied-out eggs are hung on the barren branches of outdoor trees known as Easter egg trees to give a very festive appearance. They are also hung on tree branches in flower pots and used as table decorations.
In some traditions Easter eggs are even offered to the deceased. After a memorial service the people go on the second Monday or Tuesday after Easter to take blessed eggs to the cemetery where they say the traditional Easter greeting “Christ is risen” in honour of those buried there.
As for Easter lambs, these too go back a long way. They are usually represented with the cross and the flag of victory, symbolising the resurrection of Christ. Just as the Jews ate a lamb in the annual celebration of the Passover, Christians took up the lamb as a symbol of Christ, the lamb of God who by his death and resurrection takes away the sins of the world.
The oldest prayer for the blessing of lambs is in the seventh-century sacramentary of the Benedictine monastery in Bobbio, Italy. Rome adopted it two hundred years later and for many centuries afterwards lamb was served in the Pope’s Easter dinner. In more recent times figures of a lamb made of butter, pastry or sugar – and yes, chocolate – have become popular.
And as for Easter bunnies, rabbits have always been seen as a figure of fertility and new life, and so they are associated with Easter. It seems that Germany was the origin of the legend that the Easter bunny brought eggs and hid them in the garden. Naturally, there is no scriptural basis for Easter bunnies.