It’s been a long road from the glory of Jesus Christ’s death resurrection – the central miracle of the Christian faith – to gorging on chocolate. And it’s a road that those of a philosophical bent might liken to the descent of Western civilisation into gluttonous consumerism. But leaving such considerations aside, how did it happen?
Let’s start with the word itself, Easter. We have it on the word of the Venerable Bede, writing in the very early 8th century, that “Eostre” is derived from “Eostre-monath”, the month in which pagan Saxons celebrated the festival of the goddess Eostre. It’s a simple explanation, and one with which with which scholars of philology have had endless fun ever since – some even denying that there ever was a goddess Eostre and that Bede (uncharacteristically) made the whole thing up. But “eostre” is cognate with “öster”, the German for east, and is therefore associated with sunrise and hence spring, so Bede’s explanation at least has context on its side. Indeed the feast is only called “Easter” in Germanic countries: in France it’s called “Pâques”, a variation on the Jewish spring festival Pesach, and other Latin countries use names of the same derivation.
Fascinating stuff, but it doesn’t get us much closer to the chocolate. And the answer is eggs. Eggs have been associated with spring since… well, since birds started laying them in spring. There are Persian wall-paintings of eggs being given as gifts from 2,500 years ago; the tradition survived the country’s conversion to Islam and persists to this day. In Egypt, another Islamic country, there is a seasonal tradition of egg decorating of unknown antiquity; in eastern Orthodox countries they paint eggs red (for Christ’s blood) and green (for returning spring); in England and North-Western Europe there is a tradition of rolling coloured eggs down hills at Eastertime, echoing the rolling away of the stone from the Holy Sepulchre; in America the White House puts on an annual display of decorated eggs from every state of the union, and favoured children (how are they selected?) are invited to a spot of egg-rolling on the White House lawn.
Egg decoration seems to have evolved into making eggs out of solid chocolate in France or Germany in the early 19th century, and the first Easter egg in England came from Cadbury’s in 1842. These eggs can hardly have been for the mass market since the chocolate of the time was very expensive and also very bitter. Finer, less harsh, and less expensive chocolate was made possible by more sophisticated processing equipment in the later 19th century, and Cadbury’s produced its first hollow egg (filled with sweets) in 1875. The first milk chocolate Easter egg followed exactly 30 years later and… well, what more do we need to know? Except that Easter eggs sell for a far higher price per gram than the slab chocolate of which they’re made, and as they’ll keep almost indefinitely any left unsold can simply go into cold store until next year – at which time next year’s prices can be charged for last year’s stock. As I said, it’s all a very long way from the Mount of Olives!
Well, that’s just about it for Easter – except that I forgot Easter bunnies. Well, springtime, fertility, rabbits, breeding, etcetera… need I say more? Oh, and Easter bonnets.