The Origin of Easter

Historians have traced the origin of the word Easter to the Scandinavian word ‘Ostra’ and the Germanic ‘Ostern’ or ‘Eastre’. Both derive from the names of mythological goddesses of spring and fertility, for whom festivals were held at the time of the Spring Equinox. Similar goddesses were known by other names in other cultures around the Mediterranean, such as Aphrodite from Cyprus, Astarte from Phoenicia, Demeter from Mycenae in Greece, Hathor from Egypt, and Ishtar from Assyria. ( Northern Mesopotamia) All of these goddesses were celebrated in the spring.

Modern symbols of Easter, such as the egg and the bunny, 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.

A few legacies that have been left to us are:

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’.

Easter lilies
It’s believed that the lily, because of its shape, was associated with the reproductive organs, and therefore with fertility.

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.

Easter Eggs
The egg has been a symbol of rebirth and fertility for many centuries. Long ago 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, 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 often have plant and fern designs.

The first of the highly wrought Fabergé eggs was made as an Easter gift for the Empress Marie of Russia from her husband, Tsar Alexander, in 1883. It featured a small gold egg in an outside shell of platinum and enamel.

Easter eggs have been coloured and decorated from earliest times. 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”.  Later, craftsmen made artificial eggs of silver and gold, ivory or porcelain, often inlaid with jewels. The ultimate Easter egg-shaped gifts must have been the fabulous jeweled creations by Carl Fabergé made during the 19th Century for the Russian Czar and Czarina. Today, these superb creations are precious museum pieces.

In the 18th century, people could buy pasteboard or papier-maché eggs, in which they hid small gifts. By the 19th century cardboard eggs covered with silk, lace or velvet and fastened with ribbon were fashionable.

In Europe Easter eggs are taken seriously. The old art of decorating the real egg is still very much alive. Many of them are dyed red to symbolise Christ’s blood.

Chocolate Eggs

The chocolate Easter egg has developed from the simple type wrapped in paper to the beribboned variety wrapped in brightest foil and packed in a box or basket.

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. Some early eggs were solid while the production of the first hollow chocolate eggs must have been rather painstaking as the moulds were lined with paste chocolate one at a time!

John Cadbury made his first ‘French eating Chocolate’ in 1842 but it was not until 1875 that the first Cadbury Easter Eggs were made. This may have been because he was not sufficiently impressed with continental eggs to wish to compete with them or because he was too busy with other aspects of his growing business. In fact, progress in the chocolate Easter egg market was very slow until a method was found of making the chocolate flow into the moulds.

The modern chocolate Easter egg with its smoothness, shape and flavour owes its progression to the two greatest developments in the history of chocolate – the invention of a press for separating cocoa butter from the cocoa bean by the Dutch inventor Van Houten in 1828 and the introduction of a pure cocoa by Cadbury Brothers in 1866. The Cadbury process made large quantities of cocoa butter available and this was the secret of making moulded chocolate or indeed, any fine eating chocolate.

The earliest Cadbury chocolate eggs were made of ‘dark’ chocolate with a plain smooth surface and were filled with dragees  ( An Almond with a candied shell) The earliest ‘decorated eggs’ were plain shells enhanced by chocolate piping and marzipan flowers.

Decorative skill and variety soon followed and by 1893 there were no less than 19 different lines on the Cadbury Brothers Easter list in the UK. Richard Cadbury’s artistic skill undoubtedly played an important part in the development of the Easter range. Many of his designs were based on French, Dutch and German originals adapted to Victorian tastes. From Germany came the ‘crocodile’ finish which by breaking up the smooth surface, disguised minor imperfections; still used today by some manufacturers, this was the forerunner to the many distinctive finishes now available.

The launch in 1905 of the famous Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Chocolate made a tremendous contribution to the Easter egg market. The popularity of this new kind of chocolate vastly increased sales of Easter eggs and did much to establish them as seasonal best sellers. Today the Easter egg market is predominantly milk chocolate.

In pagan times the egg was believed to have special powers. It was buried under the foundations of buildings to ward off evil, and brides stepped upon an egg before crossing the threshold of their new home. To be given an egg was to wish many children upon the recipient.

Whatever your beliefs, Easter today represents a time for celebration of new life, spring and fertility. The giving of decorated Easter eggs and gifts, the Easter egg hunts, familiar images of young bunnies and chicks. They all combine many of the age-old customs so we can each enjoy in our own way, no matter how big or small the gesture


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