Outside its religious connotations, Easter has traditionally been a time to celebrate the return of spring. Flowers are in bloom, the fields are full of new shoots and animals are giving birth left, right and centre. In order to celebrate this rebirth of wildlife, the clear end of the winter, a number of traditions have been built up regarding the giving of presents at this time of year.
Only within the last century were chocolate and candy eggs exchanged as Easter gifts. But the springtime exchanging of real eggs-white, colored, and gold-leafed-is an ancient custom, predating Easter by many centuries.
From earliest times, and in most cultures, the egg signified birth and resurrection. The Egyptians buried eggs in their tombs. The Greeks placed eggs atop graves. The Romans coined a proverb: "All life comes from an egg." And legend has it that Simon of Cyrene, who helped carry Christ’s cross to Calvary, was by trade an egg merchant. (Upon returning from the crucifixion to his produce farm, he allegedly discovered that all his hens’ eggs had miraculously turned a rainbow of colors; substantive evidence for this legend is weak.) Thus, when the Church started to celebrate the Resurrection, in the second century, it did not have to search far for a popular and easily recognizable symbol.
In those days, wealthy people would cover a gift egg with gilt or gold leaf, while peasants often dyed their eggs. The tinting was achieved by boiling the eggs with certain flowers, leaves, log wood chips, or the cochineal insect. Spinach leaves or anemone petals were considered best for green; the bristly gorse blossom for yellow; log wood for rich purple; and the body fluid of the cochineal produced scarlet.
In parts of Germany during the early 1880s, Easter eggs substituted for birth certificates. An egg was dyed a solid color, then a design, which included the recipient’s name and birth date, was etched into the shell with a needle or sharp tool. Such Easter eggs were honored in law courts as evidence of identity and age.
Easter’s most valuable eggs were hand crafted in the 1880s. Made by the great goldsmith Peter Carl Faberge, they were commissioned by Czar Alexander III of Russia as gifts for his wife, Czarina Maria Feodorovna. The first Faberge egg, presented in 1886, measured two and a half inches long and had a deceptively simple exterior. Inside the white enamel shell, though, was a golden yolk, which when opened revealed a gold hen with ruby eyes. The hen itself could be opened, by lifting the beak, to expose a tiny diamond replica of the imperial crown. The Faberge treasures today are collectively valued at over four million dollars. Forty-three of the fifty-three eggs, known to have been made by Faberge, are now in museums and private collections.
As chocolate was becoming more widespread in the 20th Century, a chocolate version of the traditional egg was developed. These hollow ovoids of chocolate have become larger as time has passed and more represent Ostrich eggs than any you might find where the traditions originated. Chocolate eggs have become increasingly elaborate as manufacturers tempt people to buy their eggs. They have increased the size of the eggs and often associate them with brands of less seasonal chocolate. Other gifts may also be included with the egg, including egg-cups, egg-timers and mugs.
The move towards chocolate eggs also heralded a trend towards the commercialisation of Easter. The heavy marketing campaigns used to sell chocolate eggs also put greater emphasis on the role children play in the festival. The increasing emphasis on children along with an attempt to fuse the idea of a rebirth of life in spring with the giving of eggs as gifts has led to new traditions and characters such as the Easter Bunny. The Easter Bunny supposedly delivers Easter eggs in much the same way Father Christmas delivers presents. The eggs are typically hidden and form the basis for a game.
“We hope you all have a Happy Easter and enjoy your eggs, we will” say all the staff at Greengates Builders Merchants Accrington, Lancashire.