Easter eggs through the ages

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MANY of us will be enjoying a chocolate egg this weekend.

But not so long ago, Easter eggs were real eggs and decorating them was a northern passion.

Eggs were coloured by boiling them with natural plant dyes. Onionskins or gorse flowers gave yellow; spinach, green; tea, brown; and beetroot, pink.

Leaves or strips of cloth tied around the shells before boiling produced delicate patterns, while more formal designs were marked out in candle wax.

Coloured eggs were given as presents, or kept for display in the home. Many met their end on Easter Monday, chased down hillsides by screaming youngsters.

Egg rolling took off around 1800 all over northern England and became really popular in areas of the North York Moors, where seriously steep slopes are commonplace.

The usual plan was to see whose egg could go furthest before disintegrating, though to make it more challenging goals were sometimes marked at the bottom of the slope.

Any eggs that were left in a reasonable state were eaten and their shells crushed, because witches might use the half shells to sail out to sea and call up a storm.

“Break an egg, save a sailor,” went an old saying.

One reason why eggs were popular at Easter was because there were lots of them around.

Hens didn’t stop laying because eggs couldn’t be eaten during Lent, so all those surplus eggs had to be hard-boiled or pickled and saved until the fast was over.

But for some reason, Easter egg customs had died out in most southern counties by the 19th century and were only revived by the introduction of chocolate eggs.


Wealthy folk could always do frivolous things with eggs. In 1290 the accounts of Edward I show that 450 eggs were boiled, covered in gold leaf and presented to members of the royal household at Easter.

In the 18th century people could buy papier-mache eggs, which split in half to reveal a small gift.

These became fashionable in the 19th century, when they were covered with silk, lace or velvet and fastened with ribbon.

Craftsmen made eggs of silver, gold, ivory or porcelain.

None were more glorious then the creations of Carl Faberge, who made bejewelled eggs for the Russian royal family.

The first, presented at Easter 1883, featured a small gold egg hidden in a shell of platinum and enamel.

European confectioners made the first solid chocolate eggs in the 1830s, but the problem of making chocolate flow into moulds wasn’t solved until much later.

Cadbury made their first moulded, hollow eggs in 1875, dark chocolate filled with dragees.

With the introduction of Dairy Milk chocolate in 1905 sales of Easter eggs soared, but it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that mass-produced chocolate eggs took their place as a popular symbol of the Easter festival.

Easter message

Of course Easter is the most important Christian festival and at its heart is the Cross, not the egg.

The story of Holy Week, leading up to Easter, is one of betrayal and cruel death on Good Friday. But the Easter message is one of hope.

Sunday is Easter Day, when Christians celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, bringing joy and light into the world.

In Coptic Christian churches, an ostrich egg is suspended to represent creation, life and resurrection.

The early western church also recognised the symbolism of the egg. It was even blessed with its own prayer, which began: “Bless, O Lord, we beseech Thee, this Thy creature of eggs . . .”

With new life hidden inside it, the egg has always been a source of inspiration.

Ancient creation myths tell of a cosmic egg, containing the potential for all existence: when it burst apart, the heavens, earth and water were created from its parts.

It’s easy to understand how the egg became associated with Easter.