By Heather Green
In many ways, Easter appears to be a very commercialized holiday. We take our children, sometimes kicking and screaming, to get their pictures taken with the Easter Bunny. Our children or grandchildren hunt for Easter baskets on Easter morning. Families come to celebrate the Easter Eggstravanza at our church, usually held the Saturday before Palm Sunday. These have all become part of our family traditions, but what do eggs and a bunny have to do with Christ’s Resurrection?
As with many traditions, there are no absolute answers as to how eggs, and decorating eggs, became associated with Easter. However, there are many theories that trace back to ancient, pagan, and medieval periods. Not surprisingly, the egg in general is a symbol for life. An old Latin proverb states: omne vium ex ovo which translated means “all life comes from an egg”. In the early days of Christianity, the symbolism of the egg as a representation of life was expanded to become a symbol of the Resurrection; Jesus broke free of the tomb much like new life breaks free from the eggshell. But why do we decorate eggs?
In medieval times, Christians were very strict about fasting during Lent, and they were not allowed to eat eggs between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. This incidentally led to the creation of “Pancake Day” or “Fat Tuesday” because all of the eggs in the household had to be consumed before Lent. Thus, eggs became a prized item on Easter Sunday when the dietary restrictions of Lent were over. Eggs became a symbol of celebration.
There are a few theories as to why eggs are decorated. The first is based on a legend that Mary Magdalene is indirectly responsible for the coloring of eggs at Easter. The legend states that Mary Magdalene went to meet the emperor of Rome after Christ’s resurrection. She supposedly said, “Christ is Risen.” The emperor supposedly replied, “Christ has risen as much as an egg is red.” The legend then states that a nearby egg turned blood red and that this is why early Christians began to color eggs on Easter. They would color eggs and pass them to each other in passing as a sign that they were fellow Christians.
Another explanation is that the decorating of eggs dates back to the 13th century when eggs were forbidden during Lent. Christians used to paint and decorate eggs during Lent and then eat them as part of the celebration of Easter. Decorated eggs were a prized possession of children and servants. Another well-documented story of decorating eggs at Easter comes from Russia in the late 19th century. At that time, Easter was already considered the most important event in the Russian Orthodox Church. During the previous centuries, it had become a tradition for people to bring decorated eggs to the church to be blessed. After church, the eggs would be presented to family and friends. Not to be outdone by “commoners,” in 1885 Emperor Alexander III commissioned Peter Carl Fabergé to create an elaborately “bejeweled” gold egg to present to his wife. This egg became the “First Imperial Fabergé Easter Egg.” But again, why do we hunt for eggs on Easter?
As with other traditions, there is no concrete explanation for why we hunt for eggs or participate in egg rolling events. The speculation is that the egg hunt and egg rolling are activities related to looking for Christ after the Resurrection and Christ rolling away the stone in front of the tomb. This is again based on the symbolism that the egg represents life. So, now that we have explored why eggs and decorating eggs are associated with Easter, what does a bunny have to do with it all?
In ancient legends, rabbits were a symbol of fertility and new life. This isn’t surprising because in our modern culture, rabbits are usually associated with spring, which is a season in which fertility and new life is celebrated; flowers bloom, grass grows, pollens and allergies are prolific. Again, how does this relate to the Easter Bunny? There is historical documentation that the idea of the Easter Bunny is of German origin. In the 1700’s, German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania and brought with them the tradition of Osterhase or “Easter Bunny,” an egg laying hare. Their children made nests for the Osterhase to use to lay colored eggs on Easter. Over time, the nest evolved into a basket. Nowadays, children often leave carrots out for the Easter Bunny in case he gets hungry from hopping around all night delivering baskets full of eggs.
No matter which theory or legend you believe regarding Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny, there is no disputing the fun associated with each of them. As with many traditions, we may never know exactly how or why they came to be. Perhaps these few explanations will heighten our understanding of where these beloved symbols of Easter have originated. The most important commonality of all of these symbols is that they remind us of the importance of the Resurrection of Christ and the eternal life promised in Him.