During the Easter season, there are few things more satisfying than watching the shell of a hard-boiled egg change color after dropping it into a cup of fizzy, colored water. Dyeing eggs has become an integral part of the Easter celebration for many families; Paas, the leading manufacturer of Easter egg dye, began selling dye packs in 1881 and now sells more than 16 million kits annually.
Egg coloring kits have been around for more than 100 years, but the tradition itself is even older. There are several theories as to why we dye eggs for Easter, some of which trace the origins to pre-Christian times.
Egg Dyeing Has Ties to Christian Legends and Celebrations
There are theological connections to why we dye eggs for Easter. One Christian legend says that Mary Magdalene, a devoted follower of Jesus Christ, brought a basket of eggs to Christ's tomb. When Jesus rose from the tomb, the eggs she was carrying changed color. In one version of the story, they turned red; in the other, the eggs took on a variety of different hues.
In another Christian legend, after Mary Magdalene saw that Jesus had risen from his tomb, she shared the news while holding an egg. When the emperor heard her, he said, "Christ has no more risen than that egg is red." At these words, the egg in her hand became red. The color red also represents the blood shed by Jesus Christ as he was crucified.
Dyed red eggs have become an essential part of Easter in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. For example, Orthodox Greeks have their red eggs blessed by a priest before they are exchanged with other people. Another Orthodox Christian tradition is for people to knock dyed red eggs together; the winner is the one whose egg doesn't crack.
In the medieval era, strict fasting rules for Lent — the 40-day period of abstention before the Easter celebration — dictated that Christians not eat eggs or any other animal product. Instead, the eggs were decorated. After the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, Catholics in Germany still abstained from eggs during Lent, though German Protestants did not. The eggs put aside by Catholics could be blessed in the church, with the consecrated eggs colored to distinguish them from unblessed ones.
Egg Dyeing for Easter Draws on a History of Egg Decoration
Traditions of egg decoration have also existed in other cultures and religions for millennia. Eggs are painted and colored for Nowruz, the Persian New Year celebration that has roots in Zoroastrianism and has been celebrated for more than 3,000 years. Nowruz takes place on the spring equinox; though the date for Easter varies, Nowruz is always close to the beginning of spring.
Ukrainian egg decoration, known as pysanky, is another long-standing practice that is thought to predate Christianity. It involves adding beautiful symbols to eggs with wax and dye. Early pysanky eggs could be kept, offered as presents, or buried for luck. As Christianity spread, this type of egg decoration became incorporated into the religion.
In England, eggs were decorated as part of the Easter season at every level of society, from royalty to the lower rungs. In 1290, King Edward I's household acquired 450 eggs to be decorated for Easter. The 16th and 17th centuries saw villagers coloring eggs before presenting them as gifts around Easter. Villagers often colored eggs red to signify joy.
Before commercial dyes were available, eggs could be colored by being boiled with onion skins, or wrapped in flowers or leaves before boiling to give them attractive patterns.
The Story of the Easter Hare Popularized Egg Dyeing
In the 17th century, a tale about the "Osterhase,” or "Oschter Haws," a hare that hatched and hid colored eggs for well-behaved children at Easter, became popular in western Germany. The tale continue to spread and made its way to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, when many German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania.
The story has been linked to a Germanic goddess of spring, Ostara. It was said she once transformed a bird into a hare, and because the hare had once been a bird, it was able to lay colorful eggs that were presented at Ostara's festival. While the original tale of the Easter Hare began two centuries prior, the addition of Ostara in the 19th century seems to have been invented to help explain the existing head-scratching story.