Thursday, 18 April 2019

Ever wondered why we give chocolate eggs at Easter?

Easter comes around every year, and treats us to a lovely long weekend full of chocolate eggs, hot cross buns and hopefully sunshine – but have you ever stopped to wonder where these traditions come from?

We caught up with Dr Ceri Houlbrook, Programme Leader for MA Folklore Studies and Researcher in Folklore in History to see where these seasonal staples come from, and when they date back to.

Why chocolate eggs?

For most of those who celebrate Easter, let’s admit it; food plays a big role! This is likely largely due to the culture of fasting or abstinence around Lent, which leads up to Easter.

In the UK, Easter is synonymous with Easter eggs, but these weren’t always chocolate-based. In the past, they took the form of hard-boiled eggs that had been decorated, painted or dyed. They would be given as gifts as symbols of new life and resurrection after the 40-day period of Lent. 

Those who were wealthier purchased artificial eggs containing gifts, and by the late 19th century, chocolate eggs had begun to appear, originating in France and Germany. The first English chocolate egg was sold by Fry’s in 1873, with Cadbury’s following up two years later. Fast forward to today and the UK market sells over £220 million worth of Easter eggs a year. That’s a lot of chocolate!

The practice of hiding and hunting for Easter eggs possibly dates as far back as the 16th century in Germany, when men would hide eggs for women and children to find as part of the Easter festivities. Over in Britain, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert popularised the custom by hiding painted eggs for their children to find on Maundy Thursday.

What about hot cross buns?

Easter saccharine feasting isn’t limited to eggs. Hot cross buns are another staple treat, deriving from the Christian tradition of placing a consecrated wafer together with a crucifix in the sepulchre of a church on Good Friday as the embodiment of Christ. During the 18th and 19th centuries, many people in England adapted this custom by baking bread or biscuits marked with a cross – and thus the hot cross bun was born.
However, the hot cross bun was not just for eating. Because of the cross it bore, it was believed to have magical powers. These sweet, slightly spiced treats were said to never go mouldy, to have medicinal qualities, and to prevent shipwreck if taken to sea. They were also believed to protect a house from evil and fire, which is why people hung them in their homes or doorways. There’s evidence of people leaving their protective hot cross buns hanging all year round, to be replaced every Easter by a new one.

So next time you walk down the seasonal aisle of a supermarket, crack open an Easter egg, or slather butter on a toasted hot cross bun, do so smug in the knowledge that you have a good few years of history and folklore behind you!

If you’d like to find out more about the course Ceri teaches on, MA Folklore, check out this link:

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