I Want Candy! And the Origins of Easter

By Hayley White

Reading time: 12 minutes

Walking through the supermarkets in February, I could see the beginnings of Easter. Little marshmallow eggs and chocolates peppering the display shelves in a foreshadowing of what April will bring. The rush of parents trying to get their hands on the biggest chocolate egg they can find, and the resulting sugar rush when their kids are eating chocolate for the next week straight. For many, Easter is all about children, and chocolate.

However, Easter was and still is a holiday steeped in religion. It’s also a holiday surrounded by a frenzy of chocolate. How did this happen?

By Hayley White

Reading time: 12 minutes

Walking through the supermarkets in February, I could see the beginnings of Easter. Little marshmallow eggs and chocolates peppering the display shelves in a foreshadowing of what April will bring. The rush of parents trying to get their hands on the biggest chocolate egg they can find, and the resulting sugar rush when their kids are eating chocolate for the next week straight. For many, Easter is all about children, and chocolate.

However, Easter was and still is a holiday steeped in religion. It’s also a holiday surrounded by a frenzy of chocolate. How did this happen?

According to The Encyclopaedia Britannica, the name Easter came from the Christian name for the Easter week In Albis, the plural form of alba meaning dawn. “In albis” – “at the dawn” (of new life, new beginnings, new hope) developed into Old High German eostarum (Wales, 2017). The Latin word pascha, and Ancient Greek páskha are the origins of Pasen in Dutch, and Pâques, the French word for Easter.

Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Kinnaird Resurrection) by Raphael, 1502 (Resurrection of Christ, oil on wood panel by Raphael, 1499–1502)

We know that the origins of Easter go all the way back to the Christian celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection on the third day after his crucifixion in first century Judea, most likely at the age of 33. According to the canonical gospels – ancient texts that spread the words and deeds of Jesus until his death – Jesus was stripped of his clothing and hung on a cross between two thieves.

In Mark 15:25, he was crucified around the third hour, around 9am, and was dead by the ninth hour of the day, roughly 3pm. However, in John 19:14, he was still alive by the ninth hour. During this time, the soldiers put a sign on the top of the cross that said, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. According to the Gospel of John, the sign was written in three languages: Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.

Three days later, Jesus was resurrected by God, stating that he was Christ and Lord. According to the New Testament writings, he was firstborn from the dead, ushering in the new Kingdom of God. After his resurrection, he appeared to his disciples and called his apostles to the Great Commission, an order to spread the word of the gospel of eternal salvation, and then ascended to Heaven. The death and resurrection of Christ form the foundation of the Christian faith.

The earliest recorded observance of an Easter celebration comes from the second century. As both Gregorian and Julian calendars were in use, the date of Easter triggered major controversies in early Christianity from both the West and East, called the Paschal Controversies, which were not resolved until the 8th century.

In Asia Minor, or modern day Turkey, Christians marked the day of the crucifixion on the same day the Hebrews celebrated the Passover offering, the holiday commemorating the Hebrew liberation from slavery in Egypt. This was always celebrated on the 14th day after the first full moon of spring, which the Jewish calendar called the 14th of Nisan (the day of Preparation – the date of the Last Supper, or Passover meal). This meant the resurrection was observed on the 16th of Nisan two days later, regardless of the day of the week.

In the West, the resurrection of Jesus was celebrated on a Sunday, the first day of the week when Jesus rose from the dead, and Easter was celebrated on the first Sunday after the 14th of Nisan. The council of the Christian Church (the First Council of Nicaea) decreed in 325 that Easter should be observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal (spring) equinox on March the 21st, and that its date must be calculated according to the date of Passover. Ever since then, Easter has fallen on any Sunday between March 22nd and April 25th.

The Christian celebrations of Easter are lengthy but very important to the religion. In the Christian calendar, Easter follows Lent – the 40 days leading up to Easter where people fast and offer penance. The week before Easter is known as Holy Week and is observed with sombreness as a period of devotion to Jesus Christ. Holy Week includes Maundy Thursday, the remembrance of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples; Good Friday, the day of his crucifixion; and Holy Saturday, the transition between his crucifixion and resurrection.

Holy Saturday is regarded as the day of the Great Vigil, also known as the Easter Vigil or the Paschal Vigil. The vigil was observed sometime between sunset of Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Sunday. By the 4th century, the Easter Vigil was well established and was typically a time for the joyful anticipation of the resurrection – and because many thought Jesus’ second coming would happen at Easter (the return of Jesus). The Paschal candle is lit during this service as a symbol of Christ risen as the Light of the World, ridding us of the darkness of our sins.

As time went on, the vigil was held later and later until the Roman Catholic Church finally decided it would be at 10pm so that the Easter mass could be celebrated after midnight. Traditionally, Orthodox religions view the vigil as extremely important, Protestant churches commonly do not, or if they do, they are few and far between.

A lot of our modern Easter celebrations do not come from the Christian religion, but mostly stem from a variety of pagan celebrations across Europe. Some believe that Easter is derived from the Anglo-Saxon Ēostre, the goddess of dawn, spring, fertility, and rebirth.

Hot cross buns are actually a pagan tradition based around the sacrifice of an ox. Because the ox is the symbol of the season, people would bake bread with ox horns carved into the surface. The word bun itself is derived from the Saxon word boun meaning “sacred ox”. It is believed that another pagan tradition, that of lighting big bonfires representing the rebirth of the sun god, were phased out in favour of the Easter Vigil.

Ostara (1884) by Johannes Gehrts

The Easter bunny and Easter eggs were also originally pagan, though these ones stem from the Norse goddess Ostara whose symbol was the hare and the egg, both representing fertility. The symbol for Ēostre was also the rabbit which symbolised new life.

The all-famous, all-popular Easter eggs have been around for centuries, though the first official record of a decorated Easter egg was around the 13th century. They have always been the symbol for fertility and rebirth, and eggs were painted with bright colours to celebrate springtime well before Christianity took up the tradition. People were not allowed to eat eggs during Holy Week and eggs laid by hens during this time became known as Holy Week eggs. Eggs themselves became a symbol of resurrection and were decorated as such. In the Orthodox traditions, eggs are painted red to symbolise the blood Jesus shed on the cross, whereas in Eastern Europe and Russia, they are silver and gold.

Between 1885 and 1917, fifty-two Imperial eggs were created out of platinum, gold, silver, or other metals, ivory, porcelain, or precious stones, usually inlaid with jewels, and with a golden egg cocooned inside. Under the supervision of Peter Carl Fabergé, these eggs were made expressly for Russian Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II as Easter gifts for their wives and mothers.

Eggs were also passed around in King Edward I’s household in 1307. An account says he paid 18 pence for 450 eggs to be boiled and dyed or covered with gold leaf and given to everyone throughout the royal household. By the 19th century, people were making cardboard eggs covered with silk, lace, or velvet and fastened with ribbon. To this day, Easter eggs remain very important in European Easter traditions.

The first chocolate Easter eggs were made in the early 19th century in France and Germany. Around that time, edible chocolate had been invented but it could not be moulded, and some of the earliest chocolate eggs were solid. Early Easter eggs made by John Cadbury circa 1875 were made of dark chocolate, ornately decorated with marzipan flowers and chocolate piping.

When Cadbury launched their Dairy Milk Chocolate in 1905, it gave a massive boost to the Easter egg market, skyrocketing its popularity around the world. They were such great sellers that Easter eggs were sold every year with varying decorations on the egg and were, in modern times, wrapped in tin foil.

There is little doubt in my mind that the early origins of Easter eggs have boosted the popular holiday to such heights. What is really interesting is how such a religious event became one of the biggest commercial holidays of the year. In 2019, Kiwis spent 30.5 million NZD on Easter confectionary and the UK a massive £902 million on Easter chocolate. Americans spent a whopping 21.6 billion USD in 2021.

If you were to try and take away the chocolate from Easter, you would definitely have a whole host of children nipping at your heels. It is a time of happiness, joy, and religious observance, tied in so strongly with the chocolate craze that it will surely continue for generations to come.

Sources: 1. Easter, Ishtar and Eostarum, qohel.com 2. Easter, britannica.com 3. History of chocolate easter eggs, chocolatetradingco.com

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