Thursday, April 21, 2011
For Christians across the world Easter is a sacred day that marks Jesus Christ's resurrection from the dead. But alongside celebratory church services and religious festivities, for Christians and non-Christians alike, Easter has also become a day to enjoy Easter chocolate and candy, family fun and of course an Easter egg hunt. From coast to coast, families across America enjoy the thrill of hiding and then hunting for Easter gifts tucked away in the house or somewhere in the yard.
But where did the tradition start?? And why is it that Easter is celebrated with an egg hunt? To understand why the Easter egg hunt became such an important part of the Easter tradition, we have to begin by considering why eggs became associated with the holiday in the first place. And surprisingly enough it's our pre-Christian past that holds the key.
Long before Christianity, as long as three thousand years ago, the ancient Zoracstrians in Iran celebrated Nowruz, the spring equinox, with eggs. Similarly, ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Persians and Babylonians all considered the egg to be a sacred food and a symbol of fertility, rebirth and the cycle of life. In pagan northern Europe the egg also symbolized the germination of new life. Throughout April and spring, eggs were exchanged between friends in celebration of Eostre,the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring. And of course Easter eggs also owe some connection to the Jewish holiday of Passover which celebrates the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. During the traditional holiday Seder meal, special salt-flavored hard boiled eggs are eaten.
Melding these diverse, rich cultural and religious roots, with the emergence of Christianity, the egg also began to symbolize the rebirth and resurrection of man himself. For followers of eastern Christianity, several legends involving Mary Magdalene, clearly depicting how the symbol of the egg became intertwined with that of the Resurrection. Legend dictates that Mary Magdalene brought eggs to the tomb of Jesus to share with the other women, and that upon seeing that Christ had risen, these eggs turned red. According to further legend, Mary Magdalene went to Rome to meet Emperor Tiberius to recount the Resurrection of Jesus. It is said that as she held out an egg to him as a symbol of the Resurrection he scoffed, stating that a man could no more rise form the dead than an egg could turn scarlet. It is said that the egg then promptly turned deep red in her hands.
In addition to this lore and legend, the humble egg took on greater Easter significance with the spread of the Lent tradition of fasting. During medieval times, it became tradition in Europe for Christians to refrain from eating eggs during the forty day Lenten period. So much so that the night before Lent, on Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, households would eat up all the remaining eggs in the pantry by cooking hearty and sustaining pancakes. In days that followed, as Christians fasted, all eggs that were laid were boiled and preserved to be enjoyed later. Then, when the period of penance was over and it was time to break the fast and celebrate Easter, eggs quite naturally became a prized gift. In the centuries that have followed, new and more elaborate ways to decorate and gift eggs have been established. In many countries eggs are painted bright red to symbolize the blood Christ shed, while in Germany and Austria, green is the traditional color of choice for Easter eggs. But, perhaps the most famous and exquisite example of egg decorating remains the jeweled Faberge eggs that were crafted for the Russian Imperial Court.
So how about the egg hunt itself? While not much is known about the real history of the egg hunt, some folklore suggests that the first Easter egg hunts originated during the rise of Christianity when followers were persecuted. Instead of simply giving children eggs, people hid them so to avoid ill treatment. Today, alongside Easter egg hunts, many people enjoy other fun outdoor activities including the popular Easter egg roll. Not much is known about the real history of the egg hunt, one thing is for sure; In the U.S., Dolly Madison, the wife of the fourth President, organized the very first Easter egg roll in 1814. It was held outside the Capitol in Washington D.C., and apart form a hiatus during the Civil War, is celebrated to this day every Easter Monday on the lawn of the White House.