Eggs have been a symbol of life, fertility and rebirth since people first began to eat them. Some believed that the golden yolk of an egg symbolized the sun which was necessary for life and later, as they turned to agriculture, for crops to grow. In creation myths from China and the Indian subcontinent there is the common theme, the idea that the world was born from a “Cosmic” egg. There are also Norse myths of creation which feature them.
The giving of eggs in spring began in pagan times, as they were connected in popular beliefs as embodying the sun (the yolk), so when the sun began to shine again after a long, cold winter, people would celebrate the sun’s return.
Christians adopted the pagan practice of giving eggs at Easter as for them the egg symbolized the resurrection of Christ, just as before Christ eggs had signified the return of the sun which would ensure the fertility of crops in northern climates.
The eggs might have been dyed red or other colours- charcoal was used as well as bright dyes from plants. Orthodox Christians still dye eggs red in Greece and Russia, and Easter is the most important day in their calendar- having more importance than Christmas.
In some Slavic countries eggs were hand painted rather than dyed and as time passed, they became more lavishly decorated. Faberge took decorated eggs to a more elevated level with those he created for the Russian royal family during the 1899s up until 1917 and the overthrow of the tsar. These were jewel encrusted and made with precious metals, sold today for vast sums, and highly prized in the museums where they are housed.
The chocolate Easter egg is a relative newcomer in the history of egg-giving in spring, as they were first made in Europe in the early 19th century by French and German confectioners. Some of these early ones were solid as the process for molding chocolate had not been developed. The first molded ones were difficult to make as the chocolate paste had to be spread into individual molds by hand.
It was the Dutch who first invented a press to separate cocoa butter from cocoa beans in 1828, and this enabled manufacturers to make more chocolate as well as Easter eggs. The first were made of dark chocolate, as milk chocolate only appeared on the market at the beginning of the 20th century.
Now of course, chocolate Easter eggs are big business for chocolate manufacturers in the West, as every child is given one at Easter. The symbolism may have been forgotten, but the tradition of giving eggs in spring is one which has been carried on down the centuries. The type of egg has changed, but not the gift.