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.

Treasure hunt

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.

A colour engraving depicting the Ascension of Jesus (1798) from the collection at Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire
A colour engraving depicting the Ascension of Jesus
A colour engraving depicting the Ascension of Jesus (1798) from the collection at Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire

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

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.

The Game Larder at Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire

A larder staple

A large box for transporting and storing eggs is one of many historic containers kept in the Game Larder at Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire.

riangular silver egg cup frame and ten egg cups

Eggs for ten

This triangular silver egg cup frame, which holds ten silver egg cups, is by Peter Archambo, a Huguenot silver and goldsmith. It is from the collection at Dunham Massey and dates to 1740–41.

Different traditions

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.’

An egg painted with a prominent red band from the collection at Grey's Court, Oxfordshire. In the Orthodox Church, the use of red on eggs represents the blood shed by Jesus on the cross
An egg painted with a prominent red band
An egg painted with a prominent red band from the collection at Grey's Court, Oxfordshire. In the Orthodox Church, the use of red on eggs represents the blood shed by Jesus on the cross

Luxury eggs

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.

Satin-covered cardboard Easter egg with photographic portraits and gilt detailing, about 1902, to commemorate the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, Lanhydrock Cornwall
Satin-covered cardboard Easter egg with photographic portraits and gilt detailing, about 1902, to commemorate the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra
Satin-covered cardboard Easter egg with photographic portraits and gilt detailing, about 1902, to commemorate the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, Lanhydrock Cornwall

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.

Electro-gilt mounted ostrich egg steeple cup (centre), c.1870, surrounded by two gilt copper-mounted emu eggs, at Tyntesfield, Somerset
An electro-gilt mounted ostrich egg steeple cup, circa 1870, at Tyntesfield, Somerset
Electro-gilt mounted ostrich egg steeple cup (centre), c.1870, surrounded by two gilt copper-mounted emu eggs, at Tyntesfield, Somerset

Chocolate eggs

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.  

A tin egg-shaped chocolate mould from the collection at Ham House, Surrey

Moulds for chocolate eggs

A tin egg-shaped mould from the collection at Ham House, Surrey would have been used to make chocolate eggs.

Detail of an Easter greeting card

Decorating eggs

During the 19th and 20th centuries, dying or painting eggs with spring scenes became popular in British households. This Easter card dates from the early 20th century is from the collection at Mr Straw's House, Nottinghamshire.

Early 17th-century stoneware temple on display in the Winter Dining Room

Hiding places

At Greenway, Devon, the holiday home of Agatha Christie, an early 17th-century Chinese temple was used by Agatha and her family to hide eggs at Easter time for egg hunts.

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.

Papier-mâché Easter egg painted with a floral pattern, glazed and decorated inside with floral paper, about 1920s, from the collection at Tyntesfield, North Somerset
Papier-mâché Easter egg painted with a floral pattern, glazed and decorated inside with floral paper, about 1920s.
Papier-mâché Easter egg painted with a floral pattern, glazed and decorated inside with floral paper, about 1920s, from the collection at Tyntesfield, North Somerset

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.

Photograph of Henry Jenney, 1929, gelatin silver print. As an adult, Jenney transferred Calke Abbey to the National Trust
Photograph of Henry Jenney, 1929, gelatin silver print from the collection at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
Photograph of Henry Jenney, 1929, gelatin silver print. As an adult, Jenney transferred Calke Abbey to the National Trust

Ingenious eggs

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 cardboard Easter egg packaging in the style of a rugby ball, about 1910, from the collection at Lanhydrock, Cornwall
Cadbury’s cardboard Easter egg packaging in the style of a rugby ball,
Cadbury’s cardboard Easter egg packaging in the style of a rugby ball, about 1910, from the collection at Lanhydrock, Cornwall

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.