The story of Easter eggs in our collections
Easter is the single most important holy day of the Christian calendar, commemorating the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
But how did the egg come to symbolise Easter? Here, we take a look at the history of Easter eggs and explore the different ways they have been decorated, treasured and celebrated over the centuries.
Before chocolate eggs became popular, decorative papier-mâché eggs were exchanged at Easter. This one from Tyntesfield, North Somerset is decorated with spring flowers and butterflies.
Gifts for children
This cardboard egg from the collection at Lanhydrock, Cornwall, was most likely intended as a gift for a child. It is decorated with fun scenes of children riding giant cockerels.
A golden egg
This sumptuous gold egg from Tyntesfield, Somerset, is actually made from papier-mâché. The elaborate gold exterior is embossed with a clover pattern.
A chocolate egg?
At first glance, this looks like it could be a modern luxury chocolate egg, covered in foil. However, this egg from Tyntesfield, Somerset, is also made from papier-mâché, decorated with blue foil.
It became fashionable to collect these decorative cardboard eggs and display them at Easter. This one is from the collection at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire.
Rebirth and renewal
From a Christian perspective, eggs are symbolic of the resurrection of Jesus. They are said to represent Jesus’s emergence from the tomb and subsequent ascension to heaven.
But there are also pre-Christian customs linking eggs to Easter. Indeed, eggs have long been symbolic in many different cultures of new life, fertility and the coming of spring.
Eating eggs at Easter is thought to go back to medieval Europe. During this period, strict fasting rules meant that animal products – including eggs – were not allowed during Lent. Eggs were allegedly hard boiled for preservation and then gifted and eaten once Lent was over.
Though giving and eating eggs at Easter continued to be commonplace, the eggs themselves became more elaborate, painted or dyed – often red. In the Orthodox Christian tradition, eggs dyed a deep red are knocked against each other at the Easter table. The winner is the person whose egg does not crack and is said to have good luck for the coming year.’
Painted eggs in England can be found as early as 1290, when Edward I purchased 450 eggs at Easter to be dyed or covered in gold leaf. In the 16th century, Henry VIII received an egg in a silver case from the Vatican.
In the late 19th century, intricately jewelled eggs were made by the House of Fabergé for the Russian court. Some Easter eggs were even used to commemorate royalty with detailed embellishment.
At the same time, real birds' eggs, such as those of an ostrich or emu, were regarded as rare and exotic, and were sometimes mounted in gilt silver. Historically, ostrich eggs have even been used as reliquaries – a container of holy relics.
Chocolate eggs began to appear in the Victorian era, with Cadbury’s one of the first to make them (after JS Fry of Bristol) from 1875. Hiding eggs also emerged as an Easter pastime, as many Victorian tendencies became geared towards children. By the 19th and 20th centuries, decorating eggs became a family activity.
Decorated ‘eggs’ made from papier-mâché or satin-covered cardboard also became collectible items, displayed at home at Easter or gifted to children as Easter presents.
The special status that Easter eggs came to have can be seen in a 1929 photograph showing Henry Jenney as a child dressed smartly in a shirt and tie and posing with a painted Easter egg. As an adult, Jenney transferred Calke Abbey to the National Trust.
The burgeoning popularity of Easter eggs gave rise to a novelty industry. In fact, many decorative Easter eggs, or Easter egg packaging, were kept by families who used to live in our places. At Lanhydrock, the collections include a cardboard Easter egg in the shape of a rugby ball, made by Cadbury’s in about 1910. These were clearly desgined to appeal to evolving public tastes, as rugby became widely played during the Edwardian era.
Cadbury’s was not the only company to commercialise Easter eggs, and today almost every chocolate manufacturer has an Easter range. But many families still love to dye or decorate their own eggs, whether real or crafted at home.