Which came first: Easter or the eggs?

Which came first: Easter or the eggs?


Two boys enjoy an Easter-egg hunt at Calvary United Methodist Church, Holly, Mich. A web-only photo courtesy of Calvary United Methodist Church.Two boys enjoy an Easter-egg hunt at Calvary United Methodist Church, Holly, Mich.  A web-only photo courtesy of Calvary United Methodist Church.

For most Christians, Easter is the most important day of the year. However, when it comes to traditions such as decorated eggs, lilies and Peter Cottontail, even the most seasoned Easter celebrants may have questions.

How do decorated eggs relate to Easter?

According to Eastern Orthodox tradition, Mary Magdalene visited the Emperor Tiberius and showed him an egg as a way to talk about the Resurrection of Jesus.

“One version of this story,” says the Rev. Taylor W. Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, “is that the egg was white to start with, that the emperor scoffed that resurrection was as likely as the white egg turning red, and then it did turn red. Another version is that the egg was red to begin with, as a sign of the blood of Christ.”

Orthodox icons often portray Mary Magdalene holding a red egg or a flask of myrrh. Burton-Edwards notes, “Iconography means ‘icon writing,’ not ‘icon painting,’ and that the images ‘written’ here were intended to convey ideas and theology more than factual stories.” The egg itself was already a sign of new life in Eastern cultures.

An icon of Mary Magdalene features her holding a red egg. A web-only photo courtesy of creative commons.An icon of Mary Magdalene features her holding a red egg. A web-only photo courtesy of creative commons.

“The flask of myrrh in her other hand, usually also in a reddish hue, was a sign of Mary’s presence at the tomb to anoint Christ’s body for burial,” he adds. “If (Mary) needed to be a sign of both death and resurrection, she might hold both items. If she needed to be a sign more of one than the other, she might hold only one.”

The origin of people coloring and decorating eggs is not certain. Some sources report the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Persians and Romans colored eggs for spring festivals. In medieval Europe, people offered beautifully decorated eggs as gifts. In Russia and Poland, writes Pamela Kennedy in “The Symbols of Easter,” people spent hours drawing intricate designs on Easter eggs. In early America, children colored eggs using dyes made from bark, berries and leaves.

As the story of Christ’s Resurrection spread, Kennedy adds, “people saw the egg as a symbol of the stone tomb from which Christ rose. They viewed the hatching birds and chicks as symbols of the new life Jesus promised his followers.”

What is the origin of the Easter-egg hunt?

In England, Germany and some other countries, children rolled eggs down hills on Easter morning to symbolize the rolling away of the stone from Jesus’ tomb. British settlers brought this custom to the New World. In 1814, Dolley Madison, the wife of President James Madison, introduced the most famous Easter egg roll, which still takes place annually on the White House south lawn.

How did the Easter Bunny become associated with this sacred Christian season?

Ancient Egyptians, according to Kennedy, believed the rabbit was responsible for the new life that abounded in the spring.

Cousins Lan Bui, 7, and Emily Mai, 8, meet the Easter Bunny. A UMNS web-only photo courtesy of Danny Mai.Cousins Lan Bui, 7, and Emily Mai, 8, meet the Easter Bunny. A UMNS web-only photo courtesy of Danny Mai.

“An old European legend says that the hare, a relative of the rabbit, never closed its eyes. Since it watched the other animals all night long, the hare became a symbol of the moon. The hare was soon connected with Easter because the holiday’s date depends upon the full moon.”

According to other sources, 18th-century German settlers introduced "Oschter Haws” (Easter Hare), the character many children know as the Easter Bunny, to America. Pennsylvania Dutch settlers prepared nests in the barn or garden for Oschter Haws. On Easter eve, the rabbit laid his colored eggs in the nests. (In Germany, Oschter Haws lays red eggs on Maundy Thursday.)

Why do some hold sunrise services in cemeteries?

Different groups may have different answers.

Some sources state that a Moravian congregation in Herrnhut, Saxony, had the first Easter sunrise service in 1732. After an all-night prayer vigil, the unmarried men went to the town graveyard to sing hymns of praise to the risen Lord. The next year, the entire congregation joined them. Moravian missionaries spread the tradition around the world.

Burton-Edwards cites an ancient tradition recorded in The Apostolic Constitutions in 380 in Syria. Early Christians held a vigil of prayer on Holy Saturday in cemeteries where Christians were buried.

“Keeping watch with these dead in Christ was in a way also keeping watch with Christ who was in the tomb on this day, awaiting resurrection. It appears to have been a way of identifying themselves with the ‘voices under the altar’ in Revelation, crying out, ‘How long?’” This was more than a memorial service or paying respects to the dead. Burton-Edwards terms it “a true vigil—a watch with the dead in Christ awaiting the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ and the return of Christ to raise and judge all the dead.”

The white Easter lily symbolizes purity and resurrection. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.The white Easter lily symbolizes purity and resurrection.  A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

The practice of the early Christians may have informed some traditions in the United States. Burton-Edwards, who grew up Southern Baptist, says, “We regularly did sunrise services in a large cemetery on Easter morning. For us, it was also a way of proclaiming the Resurrection of Christ and awaiting the resurrection of the dead.”

How did lilies come to be Easter lilies?

The Easter lily is a relatively new tradition — first brought to the United States in 1882 from Bermuda. The large, pure-white blossoms remind Christians of the pure, new life that comes through the Resurrection of Jesus.

According to legend, Kennedy writes, when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, the flowers bowed their heads in grief and pity. “But the proud lily would not bow its lovely white head.

“The next day, the lily discovered that Jesus was going to be crucified. The flower felt so miserable about how it had acted … that it bowed its head in shame. To honor the Lord Jesus and to show its sorrow, the lily has grown with a down-turned blossom ever since that first Good Friday.”

*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5489 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

This story was first published April 20, 2011.