The Feast of Eggs 

The Christian festival of Easter is marked by many rituals and customs combining various pagan and Christian elements. Easter eggs, the Easter Bunny, and hot cross buns are all of pagan origin.

Easter is celebrated as the principal festival of the Christian Church, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the Western Christian Churches and the Eastern Orthodox Church, the formula for determining the Easter date is identical. Easter is celebrated on the first 

Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox. However, the two main branches of the Christian Church base their Easter date on different calendars – the Western churches using the Gregorian calendar, which is standard for much of the world, whereas the Orthodox churches retain the older Julian calendar. This means that Easter, the celebration of a fundamental aspect of the Christian faith, is observed on different dates by these two church bodies, a theological inconsistency that remains a thorny problem for the Christian Church. 

Throughout recorded Western history, ancient Mediterranean cultures have celebrated some kind of festival at or around the time of the spring equinox on March 25 – in most instances, these were New Year’s celebrations. In the northern hemisphere these New Year celebrations were a way of rejoicing in the rebirth of nature, with the onset of spring. The seasonal changes were acted out ritually, from the symbolic death of the earth in winter to its resurrection through the budding and blooming that came with spring. Most of these cultures had myths of god-men born miraculously, killed, and reborn at this time each year. As far back as four thousand years ago, the ancient Egyptians annually celebrated the resurrection of their god, Osiris, while the ancient Syrians had similar festivities centred around their god, Adonis, during the same period in early spring. Similarly, the death and rebirth of the god, Attis, son of the great goddess, Cybele, was celebrated each year in ancient Rome, the festivities in his honour ending on March 25. 

Marking the rebirth of the sun and of nature, each culture also honoured its respective fertility goddess. To the Germanic tribes, she was known as Ostara, which gave rise to the German term Ostern (the German word for Easter); to the Anglo-Saxons, she was Eostre, from which the term ‘Easter’ is thought to be derived. Similarly, from the same word originate ‘estrogen’, the scientific name for the hormone governing breeding, and the female reproduction cycle ‘estrus’.

The custom of eating and giving eggs at this time of the year originates with the ‘feast of eggs’, which was part of the pre-Christian spring festivities – the egg traditionally symbolising the rebirth of nature. The feast of eggs also marked the time – long before intensive farming methods played havoc with the natural cycles of hens – when hens began laying again after the long winter.

Most nations of antiquity – the Egyptians, Persians, Chinese, Romans, Greeks, Celts, and Teutons – gave one another presents of eggs during the solar New Year celebrations. In Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome, eggs were dyed red to represent the womb and given at spring festivals. Eggs dyed blood red were traditionally rolled along the ground in fields to ensure the fertility of the newly sown seeds. After the spread of Christianity, the feast of eggs became attached to the Christian Easter celebrations. The colouring and ornamentation of Easter eggs continued, red on the painted eggs now symbolising the blood of Christ.

Whereas sugar Easter eggs became popular in Europe during the sixteenth century, the delectable chocolate Easter eggs we so enjoy at this time of the year are of recent origin. So-called ‘eating’ chocolate was first introduced to the European public in the late seventeenth century.  

Today the Easter egg survives mainly as a much-commercialised economic commodity, the symbolism and ancient origins largely forgotten. 


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