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5 Theories on Why We Dye Eggs for Easter

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Every year, as Easter approaches, people across the globe hardboil eggs and dye them brilliant colors. Where did this tradition come from? There's no one answer to that question—in fact, there are many accounts as to how dying eggs became a part of the tradition surrounding the Christian holiday of Easter. Here are five of them. 

1. A Spring Celebration

Eggs were often associated with pagan festivals and celebrations of spring. Eggs were symbolic of rebirth and new life, making them an appropriate part of the celebration of spring and the new life that comes after winter. It was common for eggs to be decorated in conjunction with these spring festivals, and common to see these colored eggs given as gifts to friends and family. The symbolism of rebirth fit well with the spring holiday of Easter, as it is the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. The practice of decorating eggs and giving them as gifts was adopted by Christians and included in their Easter celebrations.

2. A Mesopotamian Tradition

According to Volume 5 of Donahoe's Magazine, a monthly Catholic-oriented general interest magazine that ran from 1878 to 1908, early Christians in Mesopotamia dyed eggs red to mimic the blood that Christ shed during his crucifixion. The church purportedly took up this tradition and it has continued ever since. 

3. A Royal Tradition

King Edward I of England may also have contributed to the tradition of decorating eggs to celebrate Easter. In the 13th century, Edward I ordered 450 eggs to be colored and decorated with gold-leaf. They were presented as Easter gifts to the rest of the royal household.

4. Mary Magdalene and the Red Egg

In several legends, Mary Magdalene is a key player in the creation of the egg-dying tradition. One version involves Mary Magdalene’s trip to Jesus’ tomb three days after his crucifixion. She carried a basket of cooked eggs to share with the other women who would be mourning at the tomb. When she arrived to find the stone rolled away from the entrance and the tomb empty, the eggs in her basket turned a brilliant shade of red.

Another legend tells of Mary Magdalene going to speak to the Roman Emperor Tiberius after Jesus rose from the dead. She greeted the emperor by saying “Christ is risen.” Tiberius replied, “Christ has no more risen than that egg is red,” gesturing to an egg that was, depending on the version of the legend, on his table or held by Mary herself. As soon as the emperor said this—you guessed it—the egg turned red.

5. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the Red Egg

Some Eastern European legends credit not Mary Magdalene, but Jesus' mother Mary, as the source of the egg-dying tradition. Mary was present at her son’s crucifixion on Good Friday and, according to these legends, she brought eggs with her. In one version, blood from Jesus’ wounds drops on the eggs, coloring them red. Another version of the legend tells of Mary weeping, begging the soldiers at the cross to be less cruel to her son. She gives these soldiers eggs and, as her tears fall on them, they are spotted with brilliant color.

This post originally appeared in 2013.

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10 Things You May Not Know About the Easter Bunny
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Whether you attend a church service, decorate eggs, or devour Peeps, no Easter celebration is complete without a visit from the Easter Bunny. Check out these 10 things you may not know about the Easter Bunny, from its contested origins to its surprising iterations around the world.

1. IT MAY HAVE COME FROM A PAGAN GODDESS OF FERTILITY—WITH SOME HELP FROM A BROTHER GRIMM ...

"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts.
Eduard Ade, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While we don’t know its exact origins, some believe the Easter Bunny has its roots in Anglo-Saxon paganism. According to Bede, a prolific 8th-century English monk, the Anglo-Saxon month Eosturmonath (broadly the Easter season) "was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honor feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honored name of the old observance." Whether Eostre was real or an invention by Bede has long been controversial, but scholarship on the goddess didn't really pick up for over a thousand years.

In his 1835 book Deutsche Mythologie, Jacob Grimm (of the Brothers Grimm) speculated that Eostre was connected to a German goddess named Ostara (whose existence, again, is controversial). Almost 40 years later, Adolf Holtzmann wrote that "The Easter Hare is unintelligible to me, but probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara," and a contemporary named K. A. Oberle hypothesized that "the hare which lay the parti-coloured Easter eggs was sacred to [Ostara]."

Over the years, other writers repeated these speculations as fact, and the idea that a hare was one of Eostre's sacred animals spread. Although hares and rabbits are different species, they're often conflated because the animals look alike and are both associated with fertility.

2. … OR IT MAY COME FROM A MYTH ABOUT THAT GODDESS'S BIRD.

baby chick and bunny cuddling in a field
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Other scholars, however, think the Easter Bunny originated from an Anglo-Saxon myth about Eostre. According to the myth, the goddess was entertaining a group of kids one day. To make them laugh, she transformed her pet bird into a rabbit, giving it the ability to lay colored eggs. Eostre then gave the eggs to the children. A similar myth portrays a more malevolent Eostre, who turned her pet bird into a rabbit or hare because she was enraged. But other historians, noting the lack of any information outside of Bede regarding Eostre or Ostara, have speculated that these stories are possibly corruptions of Ukrainian folktales that explained that country's practice of making pysanky—essentially highly decorated eggs. An alternate hypothesis is that Oberle (or perhaps Holtzmann) made the decision that because the rabbit lays eggs it must have at some point transformed from a bird, making this story an entirely late-19th century invention.

3. THE PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH INTRODUCED THE OSCHTER HAWS TO THE U.S.

nest of colorful Easter eggs
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In the late 17th century, groups of Christian German immigrants began settling in Pennsylvania. They taught their children about the Oschter Haws (or Osterhase), a hare from German folklore that gave colorful eggs to well-behaved children on Easter. To prepare for the Oschter Haws's arrival, German and German-American kids built a small nest or basket for the hare's eggs. Over time, the Oschter Haws character gained popularity and was Americanized, morphing into the Easter Bunny.

4. IT'S NOT IN THE BIBLE, BUT IT MIGHT BE ASSOCIATED WITH THE VIRGIN MARY.

"The Madonna of the Rabbit," by Titian, circa 1530.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny is a secular symbol of a Christian holiday. Although the Easter Bunny doesn't appear in the Bible, some religious scholars argue that it was originally associated with the Virgin Mary, rather than the pagan goddess Eostre. Because rabbits and hares were so fertile, Ancient Greeks and early medieval Christians thought that the animals could reproduce without having sex. Consequently, artwork and manuscripts often depict the Virgin Mary with rabbit iconography, alluding to the view that both the Virgin Mary and rabbits were able to have virgin births.

5. IN AUSTRALIA, IT'S THE EASTER BILBY …

a chocolate Easter bilby
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Rather than celebrate Easter with bunnies, Australians are increasingly ushering in fall (which is when Easter falls in the southern hemisphere) with the Easter Bilby. Also called rabbit-bandicoots, bilbies are Australian marsupials with long, rabbit-like ears. Things began looking grim for bilbies two centuries ago, when new predators and diseases were introduced into their habitat. Then, European rabbits—an invasive species whose population really took off when a few were released more than 150 years ago so they could be hunted—drove them out of their natural habitat until only a few thousand of the animals remained. But in the 1980s and '90s, Australians began doing more to protect the bilby. A book called Billy The Aussie Easter Bilby popularized the concept of the Easter Bilby, and the establishment of the Foundation for Rabbit-Free Australia educated Australians about the ecological harm that rabbits wreak. Today, you can find chocolate bilbies in Australia around Easter time, and some chocolate companies even donate a portion of their proceeds to organizations that save the animals.

6. … AND IN OTHER COUNTRIES, YOU'LL FIND THE EASTER BELL, WIZARD, AND CUCKOO.

Two women feed candy to fish while dressed as Easter witches at the Aquaria Vattenmuseum in Stockholm, Sweden in 2016.
Two women feed candy to fish while dressed as Easter witches at the Aquaria Vattenmuseum in Stockholm, Sweden in 2016.
JESSICA GOW, TT/AFP/Getty Images

While the Easter Bilby might sound strange to anyone unfamiliar with it, other countries have their own, even weirder versions of the Easter Bunny. In most of France, children believe that flying church bells travel to the Vatican and bring back chocolate treats in time for Easter Sunday. In Sweden, kids dress up as wizards and witches rather than bunnies. And in Switzerland, the Easter Cuckoo (bird) is a symbol of the spring holiday.

7. A SENSORY-FRIENDLY EASTER BUNNY CATERS TO KIDS WITH AUTISM.

Easter Bunny greets a small child
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sensory-friendly Caring Bunny greeted and posed for photos with children with autism and special needs on World Autism Awareness Day in 2017. Sponsored by Autism Speaks, the event took place in malls across the U.S., which dimmed the lights, lowered the music, and shut down noisy escalators and fountains to accommodate kids who were unable to deal with the visual and auditory stimulation of a normal mall.

8. FAMOUS PEOPLE LOVE DONNING BUNNY COSTUMES.

The Easter Bunny drops eggs on the field in between innings of a Cincinnati Reds game.
The Easter Bunny drops eggs on the field in between innings of a Cincinnati Reds game.
Joe Robbins, Getty Images

While most people enjoy dressing up for Halloween, celebrities can't seem to get enough of donning a big rabbit suit on Easter. Singers, actors, and sports stars such as Mariah Carey, Madonna, David Beckham, Miley Cyrus, Snoop Dogg, and Kanye West have all shared photos of themselves wearing Easter Bunny costumes, which range from a simple set of bunny ears to a full-body white, fluffy suit.

9. FORMER U.S. PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER WAS ONCE THE WHITE HOUSE EASTER BUNNY.

Then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer reads a book to children during the White House's annual Easter Egg Roll in 2017.
Then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer reads a book to children during the White House's annual Easter Egg Roll in 2017.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

The White House's annual Easter Egg Roll, which began in 1878, draws children and families to the President's home for egg hunting and musical performances. Traditionally, a member of the president's administration dresses up as the Easter Bunny to entertain kids and their families. When George W. Bush was president, then-assistant U.S. trade representative for media and public affairs Sean Spicer wore the bunny costume. In March 2016, Spicer poked fun at his old role, retweeting a photo of himself with the comment: "The good ole days—what I would give to hide in a bunny costume again."

10. CHOCOLATE BUNNIES ARE INSANELY POPULAR.

chocolate bunny
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Halloween and Easter are the two big holidays for candy sales, with Easter sometimes coming out on top (at least in dollar sales). This year, Americans are expected to spend $18.2 billion on the holiday, and 89 percent of celebrants planned to buy Easter candy like chocolate bunnies, marshmallow bunnies and eggs, and jelly beans. About 90 million chocolate bunnies are produced every Easter, which makes for a ton of mouthwatering chocolate rabbits in kids' (and adults') Easter baskets.

A version of this story originally ran in 2017.

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The Origins of 11 Easter Traditions
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Come Sunday, many people will find themselves scouring their yards for plastic eggs and gnawing the ears off of chocolate rabbits. What possesses us to do such strange things? Pagan rituals and old superstitions, mostly. Here are the reasons behind 11 of our favorite Easter traditions.

1. DYEING EASTER EGGS

The tradition of decorating eggs of all kinds—even ostrich eggs—may go all the way back to the ancient pagans. It’s easy to see why eggs represent rebirth and life, so associating them with spring and new growth isn’t much of a stretch. To celebrate the new season, it’s said that people colored eggs and gave them to friends and family as gifts.

When Christians came along, they likely incorporated the tradition into their celebrations. According to some legends, Mary or Mary Magdalene could be responsible for our annual trek to the store to buy vinegar and dye tablets. As the story goes, Mary brought eggs with her to Jesus’ crucifixion, and blood from his wounds fell on the eggs, coloring them red. Another tells us that Mary Magdalene brought a basket of cooked eggs to share with other women at Jesus’ tomb three days after his death. When they rolled back the stone and found the tomb empty, the eggs turned red.

2. THE EASTER BUNNY

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine what a giant rabbit has to do with any type of religious holiday. But according to Time, the tradition again dates back to the pagans. They celebrated a goddess of fertility named Eostre—and you may recall that fertility is exactly the trait rabbits are most famous for. It’s thought that German immigrants brought their tradition of an egg-laying hare called "Osterhase" to the U.S. in the 1700s.

3. HOLLOW CHOCOLATE BUNNIES

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Now that we know why Easter is associated with rabbits, little chocolate leporidae actually make sense. But why are so many of them hollow inside? As it turns out, it’s not just to get kids used to disappointment at a young age. According to the R.M. Palmer company, one of the oldest makers of chocolate bunnies in the U.S., the empty insides are really just in consideration of your teeth. "If you had a larger-size bunny and it was solid chocolate, it would be like a brick; you’d be breaking teeth," Mark Schlott, executive vice-president of operations, told Smithsonian.

Of course, there’s also the "wow" factor—confectioners can make a larger, more impressive-looking bunny for a reasonable price if there’s nothing inside of it.

4. EASTER BASKETS

If you squint at an Easter basket, especially one stuffed with faux shredded grass, you can totally see its origins as a nest. Remember the German Osterhase tradition? Well, there was more to it—to encourage this mythical bunny to stop by their houses, children would fashion nests for it to come and lay its colored eggs. Over time (and maybe to contain the mess), the nests evolved into baskets.

5. HOT CROSS BUNS

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Like the bunny and the eggs, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when people started making hot cross buns—sweet rolls studded with raisins or currants and marked with a cross on top—during the week leading up to Easter Sunday. It’s said the tradition started in the 12th century with a monk who was inspired to mark his rolls to celebrate Good Friday.

The first written record we have of them dates back to an issue of Poor Robin’s Almanac from the 1730s: "Good Friday comes this Month, the old woman runs, With one or two a Penny, hot cross Bunns [sic]."

6. EASTER FASHION PARADES

There’s an old superstition that wearing new clothes on Easter means good luck for the rest of the year. You could say it has something to do with rebirth and renewal, but mostly, it sounds like an excuse to go shopping. Either way, fancy new finery deserves to be seen for more than 60 minutes during Easter services, so in the mid-1800s, parishioners in New York arranged themselves into a little post-church fashion show as they left their Fifth Avenue churches. The tradition continues today, though the term "finery" seems to be a bit broader now.

7. SUNRISE SERVICES

As the story goes, Mary opened Jesus’s tomb at dawn on Easter morning to find it empty. In honor of the occasion, many churches hold services at sunrise so parishioners can experience the event similar to how it happened. The first one on record was held in 1732 in Saxony, Germany, by a group of young men. The next year, the entire congregation attended the early-morning ceremony, and soon, the sunrise service had caught on across the country. By 1773, sunrise services had spread to the U.S.—the first was held in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

8. EASTER HAM

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Believe it or not, even that juicy ham on your dining room table dates back to pagan rituals honoring spring and the goddess Eostre. The tradition goes back to at least 6th-century Germany, according to Bruce Kraig, the founder of the Culinary Historians of Chicago. Hunters often slaughtered hogs in the forest in the fall, then left them to cure all winter. By spring, pork was one of the only meats ready to go for spring celebrations. As with other pagan rituals, Christianity adapted the tradition for their own needs as the religion spread.

9. GOOD FRIDAY KITES

If you happen to find yourself in Bermuda on Good Friday, you may be surprised to see legions of kites dotting the sky. According to local legend, a teacher once used a kite to give her students a visual of how Jesus ascended into heaven. The analogy quickly caught on, and today, flying a simple kite made of tissue paper and sticks is still a colorful pastime.

10. EGG KNOCKING

Also known as egg tapping or egg jarping, egg knocking is a sport where two competitors tap the pointed ends of their eggs against each other to see which one cracks and which one "survives." The game apparently goes back to medieval Europe, but when it comes to modern-day egg knocking, Marksville, Louisiana, is uncrackable. Since 1956, local families have gathered at the courthouse square on Easter Sunday to battle their eggs. Some families even prepare months in advance, giving their chickens special feed in hopes of producing stronger eggs.

11. OSTERBRUNNEN

Immanuel Giel, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The German tradition of Osterbrunnen—decorating public wells and fountains with elaborate greenery and Easter egg décor—only began about a century ago. It’s said that German villagers wanted to honor both Easter and the gift of water, which also represents life and renewal. Neighboring villages began to compete to see which of them could create the most fanciful fountains, and by 1980, approximately 200 villages were participating in the event. It’s even spread stateside—the town of Frankenmuth, a Bavarian-style village in Michigan, has adopted the Osterbrunnen tradition in the month surrounding Easter.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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