Easter isn’t Easter without Easter candy. In fact, according to the National Confectioners Association, the only holiday that garners more candy sales in the United States is, unsurprisingly, Halloween. For many people, Easter morning revolves around an Easter basket full of pastel-colored jelly beans and marshmallow treats, often surrounding a giant chocolate bunny. But why bunnies and eggs and beans? Why puffed sugar and fondant? And when and why did candy become such a staple of the holiday in the first place? Read on to learn more about the origins of some of the most popular Easter confections, including Cadbury Creme Eggs, chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, and those little marshmallow Peeps — which, by the way, are the best-selling non-chocolate Easter candy in the country.
Although Halloween is the biggest holiday for overall candy sales, Easter is the biggest holiday for seasonal candy sales. In fact, the National Confectioners Association reports that 87% of people who celebrate Easter enjoy Easter-themed chocolates and other sweets. One reason for this may be the fact that Easter marks the end of Lent, a six-week period when many Christians honor and reflect on Jesus' 40-day fast in the wilderness by giving up certain luxuries or indulgences. At the end of this period, people often celebrate with a big feast, or by treating themselves to the things they gave up for Lent.
There are secular reasons for our candy obsession, too, mostly related to the legend of the Easter Bunny, who was said to deliver baskets of eggs, a symbol of rebirth for spring, to good children. Over time, these baskets began to include chocolate eggs, and then other candies and even toys.
Long before rabbits became associated with Easter and we celebrated the holiday with jauntily wrapped chocolate bunnies, the cute, long-eared critters merely symbolized the coming of spring. In fact, there is no religious link between rabbits and Easter — rather, rabbits symbolized renewal and rebirth and are believe to have ties to ancient pagan rituals celebrating the spring equinox in what is now modern Germany. Many years later, in the 18th century, German settlers brought the legend of the Easter Bunny with them to the United States. Children were encouraged to build nests and leave out carrots for a magical rabbit that would lay colorful eggs while they slept.
Chocolate bunnies gained popularity in the 1890s, after a shopkeeper named Robert L. Strohecker featured a five-foot chocolate bunny made by a chocolatier named William H. Luden (yes, of Luden’s cough drops) in the window of his drugstore in Reading, Pennsylvania. Sales of smaller versions of the chocolate sculpture quickly took off, and Ben Strohecker — Robert’s grandson — eventually founded a candy factory that would launch the famous Robert L. Strohecker Assorted Rabbit Collection. Reading became a hot spot for the seasonal sweets: Another manufacturer there, the Bortz Chocolate Company, introduced “personality” rabbits in the 1930s. These rabbits had hobbies; they came with chocolate props like skis and musical instruments. Today, you can find chocolate bunnies of all shapes and sizes — around 90 million are produced for Easter each year.
Chewy, colorful jelly beans are believed to be a cross between Jordan almonds and Turkish delight. The former involves enveloping almonds in a many-layered sugar syrup coating — a process called panning. Early versions of the treat existed in ancient Rome, when the nuts would’ve been coated with honey, but the hard, shiny coatings on modern Jordan almonds originated in the 15th century, when sugar became more widely available in Europe. Turkish delight, meanwhile, is popularly attributed to an 18th-century Turkish confectioner who came up with a jellied rosewater-flavored candy sprinkled with a dusting of powder sugar. Jelly beans combine the two sweets — a crispy candy coating and a squishy center.
It's unclear exactly who created them or when, but jelly beans have been around since at least the middle of the 19th century. Popular myth says a Boston candymaker named William Schrafft promoted them as a treat to send to Union troops during the Civil War. In any case, jelly beans were a popular penny candy by the late 1800s. At the time, however, they were more of a Christmas candy. It wasn't until later — the 1930s, according to History.com — that they became associated with Easter, thanks in part to their eggy shape and bright colors. Today, more than 16 billion jelly beans are produced domestically for Easter every year, making them the third most popular American Easter candy. You don't have to wait for spring to get your fill, though — jelly beans are available year-round, with standard cherry and licorice flavors now accompanied by everything from buttered popcorn to draft beer and beyond.
The Cadbury story begins in 1824, when John Cadbury opened a shop selling coffee, tea, and chocolate in Birmingham, England. A few years later, the shopkeeper and his brother launched a cocoa factory, which eventually competed with another British chocolate producer called J.S. Fry & Sons on a series of molded chocolate treats. The rivalry inspired several sweet innovations on both sides, including Dairy Milk, a chocolate bar with more milk than any other product on the market, and the first Cadbury Easter egg in 1875. A precursor to the modern creme egg, this seasonal confection consisted of a dark chocolate shell filled with sugar-coated chocolate drops and decorated with piping or marzipan.
Cadbury and J.S. Fry & Sons eventually merged into the British Cocoa and Chocolate Company, which began producing a version of a creme egg by the 1920s. The Cadbury Creme Egg as we know it today, however, didn't hit the market until 1963. Known at the time as Fry's Creme Eggs — the named changed to Cadbury in 1971 — these candies featured a milk chocolate shell encasing rich white fondant with a yolk-colored yellow center. (You might assume that the filling is piped into the chocolate eggs, but in fact, two halves are molded, filled, and then sandwiched together before being wrapped in festive purple foil.)
The Cadbury Creme Egg is one of the more polarizing Easter candies out there — some people love them and some people won’t touch them. It hasn’t helped, either, that a series of corporate mergers, formula changes, and regional adjustments to the classic recipe have alienated some former Cadbury die-hards. That said, they’re still wildly popular — £200 million worth of the eggs are consumed each year in the United Kingdom. Not bad for a candy you can only buy from January 1 to Easter Sunday.
Just Born, the company behind Peeps marshmallows, is a family-owned candy manufacturer in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It was launched by Sam Born, a Russian immigrant, in 1923. That year, Born opened his first little shop in Brooklyn, New York, where he hung a “Just Born” sign promoting its ultra-fresh, house-made confections. The shop was a success, and in 1932, Born and his brothers-in-law expanded operations and moved to Pennsylvania. The company continued to grow over the next two decades, thanks in part to new products like Mike and Ike and Hot Tamales, and in 1953, Just Born bought out a candy company called Rodda. Rodda specialized in both jelly beans and puffy marshmallow chicks — known as Peeps. The chicks were difficult and time-consuming to produce, but Born's son figured out a way to mechanize the process and blow out production. Today, approximately 1.5 million Peeps are enjoyed each year.
Peeps — which come rolled in brightly colored sugar — traditionally take the form of yellow baby chicks, complete with edible wax eyes, which made them perfect for Easter and other springtime celebrations. Over the last several decades, however, Just Born has created Peeps in different colors, shapes, and flavors for year-round enjoyment. Look for bright blue, hot pink, and soft purple Peeps; Easter bunnies, Valentine’s Day hearts, and Halloween pumpkins; and seasonal flavors such as lemon, mint, and gingerbread. (Classic Peepss are simply sugar-flavored.) You can even find Peeps-flavored Pepsi and coffee creamer, as well as Peeps-inspired toys, makeup, and apparel.