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The Smashing Story Behind Easter Eggs

Annabel Mulliner cracks open the complicated history behind our beloved chocolate eggs.

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Image Credit: Annie Spratt

While I have certainly scoffed at least one Easter egg a year since the age of three, I’ll wholeheartedly admit that I have never been to an Easter church service. This seems to be a common practise now, and why not? It can’t be denied that chocolate is inexplicably tastier when it’s been molded into the shape of a hollow egg. It is all too easy to separate this product from its supposedly ‘religious’ roots. I attended a Church of England primary school, where Easter eggs were never deplored as being too secular or consumerist, and yet their religious relevance was never fully explained to us either.

You may have been told as a child that Easter eggs are hollow because they represent Jesus’ empty tomb, but the egg’s symbolic value of new beginnings actually has its roots in Paganism. For Pagans, the rabbit is the most prominent symbol of fertility, while eggs are believed to be somewhat magical. Easter falls close to the Spring Equinox on 21 March, which is celebrated by many Pagans as a time of birth and renewal. To this day, many Pagans partake in spring traditions, like egg hunts and races.

Some say that early Christians adopted Pagan influences to avoid the prosecution of converts, by making their celebrations more acceptable. However, the adoption of egg dec-orating was and still is for many Christians, an important part of Lent. The tradition dates to the 13th century when church leaders forbade the consumption of eggs during Holy Week, the final week of Lent. Any eggs laid that week were collected and given as gifts to children. They would be decorated and subsequently eaten on Easter Sunday. This tradition was popular across the continent, with nations developing their own variations. For example, in Greece, eggs were painted crimson.

As time went on, methods of decoration became more indulgent. The Victorians opted for lavish, satin-covered cardboard eggs filled with Easter gifts. The move to chocolate eggs is where we break away from the practicality of religious observance, into sheer indulgence.

Chocolate eggs didn’t emerge until cocoa imports became common-place in Europe in the 19th century. The first eggs, made in France and Germany, were solid and rather bitter. Chocolate manufacturing techniques were rather primitive at this point. Each individual egg had to be painstakingly handmade, by individually lining molds with chocolate paste. As time went on, a method of flowing chocolate into the molds was developed, making mass production far easier. But the taste was still an issue.

In 1828, Dutch inventor Coenraad Van Houten invented a hydraulic press that separated cocoa butter from the cocoa bean. Cocoa butter was a new and exciting substance, which chocolate makers found made their final product a lot creamier. Cadbury was the first British manufacturer to take a gamble and adopt Van Houten’spress. The payoff was, as you can imagine, enormous, and set Cadbury on their path to becoming one of the UK’s most beloved chocolate companies. In 1905, the launch of Dairy Milk escalated the popularity of Easter eggs with sales soaring. So, our much-loved Easter egg was on its way to becoming the cultural symbol that it remains to this day.

Gazing across the huge variety of Easter eggs that are available on our supermarket shelves today, it’s hard not to feel as if the Easter egg has strayed too far from its religious origins. As I began by saying, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a product simply because it’s tasty. But there are ways that we can enjoy the Easter egg while respecting its religious significance. After all, Jesus’ arrest (according to at least three of four gospels) was provoked by his public anger at the commercialization of sacred spaces.

The original spirit of the egg was that it should be gifted, so why not treat your friend or colleague this Easter, to let them know that you appreciate them? Not to mention that some chocolate companies are a lot kinder than others. Unless you live under a rock, you’ll be aware that Nestle has come under fire for its problematic marketing and practices across the globe. Rather than opting for a mass-produced egg in an excess of non-recyclable plastic packaging, you could look out for more ethical alternatives.

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