Why Do We Decorate Easter Eggs, Anyway?

published Apr 12, 2017
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(Image credit: Coco Morante)

Easter eggs tend to be lumped with all the other things that commercialize the holiday — jellybeans, plastic grass, bunny photos at the mall — but they actually have a surprisingly deep history and symbolism, to boot.

The Symbolism of Eggs

Eggs have long represented springtime and fertility, partly due to their spherical shape: Circles have no beginning and no end, so they often represent the cycle of life, religious studies professor Bruce David Forbes writes in America’s Favorite Holidays.

A lot of myths also told the story about how the universe hatched out of an egg. “[An egg] has a hard surface that, to all outward appearances, looks lifeless or inanimate, like a stone. Miracle of miracles, it cracks open and life emerges! What could be more amazing than that?” Forbes adds.

(Image credit: Luisa Weiss)

Painted Eggs: An Early History

Decorating eggs pre-dates Christianity, actually. Some 2,500 years ago, the ancient Persians, or Zoroastrians, painted eggs for Nowruz, or Persian New Year. Persian families still dye eggs for the springtime celebration, which kicks off on the vernal equinox. And there are more eggs, too: One of the traditional items served during the holiday is kuku sabzi, a frittata loaded with herbs to represent rebirth, and eggs to represent fertility.

Now, it’s no secret that religions often borrow from each other, and that’s where the Easter connection comes in. No one knows for sure when Christians adopted the tradition of painting eggs, but it was most likely in the Middle Ages — at least as far back as the 13th century. One of the earliest records is from the year 1290, when England’s King Edward I ordered 450 eggs to be colored (or covered with fancy gold leaf) and given to royal relatives.

Eggs were relatively inexpensive, which probably helped the decorating tradition catch on more easily, according to Stories Behind the Traditions and Songs of Easter, by Ace Collins. And the egg symbolism fit in nicely with Christ’s resurrection, too.

Some stories include the Virgin Mary bringing a basket of eggs to the soldiers guarding Jesus, with her tears staining the eggs red. Another one says that after Mary Magdalene found Jesus’ tomb empty, the Roman emperor said he would only believe her if the eggs next to him turned red — and then, spoiler alert, they did. (This is why red Easter eggs are a thing, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox Church.)

Among Christians, Eastern Orthodox were probably the first to color eggs, often draining them of yolk and painting them that symbolic red. In Germany, people began to paint eggs green the day before Good Friday and hang them on trees.

The elaborate folk designs out of the Ukraine and Poland, called pysanky, or pisanki, which are done with wax and dye, likely pre-dated Christianity, but also became associated with Easter as the practice spread across Europe.

Egg Hunts Are Ancient, Too

If you’ve ever been to a modern Easter egg hunt, you know they can be pretty cutthroat — I’ve personally witnessed parents pick up slow toddlers and carry them under one arm, so they could then ferociously gather the eggs themselves.

Look back in history, though, and egg hunts were literally life or death: Even before eggs became a symbol for Christians, their ancient tribes would go on egg hunts — literally searching nests of any kind of bird — for food. But they’d bring the most brightly colored eggs home to children as presents, Collins writes. (Competitive parenting even existed back then, apparently.)

(Image credit: Sara Kate Gillingham)

Easter Eggs Today

Funny enough, given how ancient the practice is, our mass-market egg-dying kits haven’t changed much since a New Jersey drug-store owner came up with the Paas dye tablets that could be mixed with water and vinegar, back in the late 1800s.

Personally, we’re partial to the idea of naturally dyed eggs, a great way to make use of onion skins, purple cabbage, tea bags, or that past-its-prime jar of turmeric in your cupboard.

And, of course there are myriad other ways dress up your eggs that don’t involve dye at all. Here are a few of our favorites.

Do you decorate Easter eggs? What’s your favorite technique?