Many of the indulgences we enjoy over Easter actually predate Christianity
Although the chocolate Easter egg is a relatively new tradition, the origin of the Easter egg along with a host of other Easter symbols popular in today’s culture, such as the Easter bunny, are in fact the product of Christianity appropriating elements of even more ancient cultures, and this historical assimilation of earlier Pagan and Jewish beliefs into Christian celebration has created the hybrid of Easter traditions we take for granted today.
It is, for example, no coincidence that Easter always fall near the spring equinox on 21st March, as throughout history many ancient cultures have celebrated this day (the last before days become longer than nights) as a time of birth and renewal, following the darkness of the long winter.
Even the origin of the word Easter is believed to have derived from the Scandinavian word 'Ostra' and the Germanic 'Eastre', both of which are names for the same ancient mythological goddess of spring and fertility. Modern symbols of Easter, such as the egg and the bunny, also have their origins in paganism. Rabbits were the most potent symbol of fertility and the egg, the start of all life, was often thought to have magical powers. The egg has long been a symbol of 'fertility', 'rebirth' and 'beginning' in many faiths.
In Egyptian mythology, the phoenix burns its nest to be reborn later from the egg that is left, while Hindu scriptures relate that the world itself developed from an egg. Easter is also falls near the time of one of the most important festivals in the Jewish calendar – Passover. This eight-day observance marking the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, a cycle of feasts and family gatherings filled with stories foretelling the coming of the Messiah, doubtless influenced early Christians, many of whom were, of course, originally Jews.
Meanwhile, some historians believe the death and resurrection story was first associated with the Greek myth of Attis, the son by virgin birth, of the fertility goddess Agdistis, a cult that began around 1250BC - many centuries before the birth of Jesus. Another shrewd reason for incorporating Pagan ritual and tradition into Christianity was to make the process of conversion more comfortable and familiar, and the pagan origins of some of our contemporary Easter traditions may surprise you.
Hot cross buns
At the feast of Eostre, the Saxon fertility goddess, an ox, was sacrificed, and its crossed horns became a symbol of the season carved into the bread. The word 'bun' derives from the Saxon word 'boun' meaning 'sacred ox'.
The Easter Bunny
The symbols of the Norse goddess Ostara were the hare and the egg, both representing fertility. The earthly symbol for the goddess Eastre, goddess of the dawn, was also the rabbit, a symbol of new life. Historians believe the legend of the Easter Bunny originated in Germany before surfacing in the New World in the seventeenth century. Children believed the Easter Bunny would leave them coloured eggs if they were good, and left out their Easter bonnets and caps for the gifts.
The egg has been a symbol of rebirth and fertility for many centuries. Long before Christianity was introduced, eggs were painted with bright colours to celebrate the sunlight of spring. Decorating and colouring Easter eggs was a popular custom in the middle ages, Tthere’s even an account of 450 of then, decorated in gold leaf being distributed abut the royal household of Edward I's in 1307, and throughout Europe different cultures have evolved their own styles and colours.
In Greece, crimson-coloured Easter eggs are exchanged, whereas in Eastern Europe and Russia silver and gold decorations are common, and Austrian Easter eggs are commonly adorned with plant and fern designs. However, the ultimate Easter egg-shaped gifts are probably the fabulous jewelled creations by Carl Fabergé made during the 19th Century for the Russian Czar.
Chocolate Easter eggs
The first chocolate Easter eggs were made in Europe in the early 19th Century with France and Germany taking the lead in this new artistic confectionery. A type of eating chocolate had been invented a few years earlier but it could not be successfully moulded, so most early eggs were solid.
One of today’s favourites, the Cadbury’s Crème Egg was first launched in 1923, and no matter whether you associate them with pagan ritual fertility and spiritual rebirth, or simply regard them as a sugary treat with a good excuse attached, we still consume around 500 million of them in the UK each year.