The Christian holiday of Easter was named after the Anglo-Saxon goddess, Eostre or Ostara, who symbolised fertility, dawn and light. She was honoured at pagan festivals celebrating the arrival of spring, and the reference to her name is a good example of the way in which pagan traditions were blended into Christian holidays.
The date of Easter Sunday changes each year, because it is linked to the lunar calendar. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the full moon that takes on or after 21 March, the start of spring.
The egg is a symbol of life and rebirth and the tradition of giving eggs at Easter time can be traced back to Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Gauls. For thousands of years Iranians have painted eggs on Nowruz, the Iranian new year that coincides with the spring equinox.
In the medieval period eating eggs was forbidden during the 40-day fasting period of Lent, so Easter Sunday – the day on which the fast ended – was greeted with feasting and merriment, and eggs were very popular amongst poorer people who couldn’t afford meat. It was also traditional for villagers to give lord of the manor the gift of eggs on Good Friday, in preparation for the Easter celebrations.
In England decorated Easter eggs have a long historical pedigree. In Edward I’s household accounts for 1307 there is an entry of ‘18 pence for 450 eggs to be boiled and dyed or covered with gold leaf and distributed to the Royal Household’.
In Medieval times a festival of egg-tossing took place in church at Easter, when the priest threw an egg to one of the choirboys. It was then tossed from one choirboy to the next, without dropping or breaking it, until the clock struck 12, when the boy who was holding the egg was allowed to keep and consume it – a kind of egg-based pass the parcel!
The custom of the Easter egg hunt is thought to date back to Protestant states in 16th-century Germany, when the reformer Martin Luther organised egg hunts for his congregation. Men hid eggs for women and children to find, a symbolic representation of the resurrection, when women discovered Jesus’ tomb.
As a child Queen Victoria enjoyed Easter egg hunts, a German tradition introduced by her German-born mother the Duchess of Kent. When Victoria married Albert, they continued the tradition of hiding eggs, hard-boiled and decorated, for their own children to find in ‘little moss baskets’, which they concealed around the palace.
Various superstitions and traditions surround Easter eggs. Some thought that eggs cooked on Good Friday and eaten on Easter Sunday promoted fertility and prevented sudden death. If your egg had a double yolk, it was said you’d soon become rich.
It is thought that the Easter bunny derives from a German tradition of the Easter Hare, which can be dated back to the late 17th century. Hares were associated with fertility and the Virgin Mary. The custom was that the hare would bring a basket of brightly decorated eggs for children who had been good, which would then be hidden around the garden for the children to find.
Chocolate Easter eggs originated in France and Germany in the early 19th century and in Britain they date back to Victorian times. The first chocolate egg was made in 1873 by the Fry family of Bristol, and two years later Cadbury had also made their first chocolate egg. Today, sales in the Easter period make up 10 per cent of total annual sales of chocolate in the UK.
The Easter bonnet represents the tradition of wearing new clothes at Easter, with its symbolism of renewal and rebirth. There was a strong superstition that new clothes should be first worn at church, at the Easter Sunday service, for a ‘blessing’; not doing so risked bringing bad luck. For those who couldn’t afford a completely new Easter outfit, a smaller item. such as a bonnet, gloves or new ribbon, would have to suffice.