Easter is a religious holiday celebrating Christ's rising, but some of the Easter customs, such as the Easter egg, are most likely derived from pagan traditions. While for Christians the egg is symbolic of the resurrection of Jesus Christ representing his emergence from the tomb, the egg has been a symbol since before Christians even began celebrating Jesus' resurrection.
The Egg as a Symbol in History
The ancient Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians, and Hindus all believed the world began with an enormous egg, thus the egg as a symbol of new life has been around for eons. The particulars may vary, but most cultures around the world use the egg as a symbol of new life and rebirth.
Since Easter is in the spring, the holiday is also a celebration of this annual time of renewal when the earth re-establishes itself after a long, cold winter. The word Easter comes to us from the Norsemen's Eostur, Eastar, Ostara and Ostar, and the pagan goddess Eostre, all of which involve the season of the growing sun and new birth. The egg has become synonymous with Spring's arrival.
The Egg as a Symbol of Easter
From a Christian perspective, the egg represents the resurrection of Jesus. The first book to mention Easter eggs by name was written 500 years ago. Yet, a North African tribe that had become Christian much earlier had a custom of coloring eggs at Easter. Long hard winters often meant little food, and a fresh egg for Easter was quite a prize. A notation in the household accounts of Edward I of England showed an expenditure of eighteen pence for 450 eggs to be gold-leafed and colored for Easter gifts.
Another reason eggs became a symbol of Easter is that early on, Christians abstained from not only eating meat but also eliminated eggs during the Lenten season prior to Easter. Therefore, Easter was the first chance to enjoy eggs and meat after the long abstinence.
It is interesting to note, however, that eggs play almost no part in the Easter celebrations of Mexico, South America, and Native American Indian cultures.
The Tradition of Decorating Eggs
The practice of painting eggs goes back to ancient times when decorated shells were part of the rituals of spring. Instead of chicken eggs, however, ostrich eggs were used. The first Christians to adopt this tradition were from Mesopotamia, and they colored their eggs red, in memory of the blood of Christ. Methods include using onion skins and placing flowers or leaves onto the shells before dyeing to create patterns. Eastern European countries use wax resistant batik to create designs by writing with beeswax. Today, food coloring is most common.
Decorating small bare tree branches to be "Easter egg trees" has become a popular custom in the United States since the 1990s.
The Egg Used in Games
We are all familiar with the quintessential Easter egg hunt, but other countries have different traditions using the Easter egg. Some European children go from house to house begging for Easter eggs, much like Halloween trick-or-treaters. Called pace-egging, it comes from the old word for Easter, Pasch.
Another game is the Easter egg roll, which the White House holds every year. The egg rolling is a symbolic re-enactment of the rolling away of the stone from Christ's tomb. Different countries have their own rules of the game--on the White House lawn, for example, children push their eggs with a wooden spoon, whereas in Germany children roll their eggs down a track made of sticks.
Other Easter Symbols
Besides eggs, Easter is filled with images of bunnies, baby chicks, and lily flowers because they are all symbols of rebirth. The Easter Bunny, for example, arose originally as a symbol of fertility, due to the rapid reproduction habits of the hare and rabbit. It is also part of German Lutheran folklore where the "Easter Hare" judged children's behavior at the beginning of the Eastertide season.