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Easter Eggs: Pagan or Not?

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Easter Eggs: Pagan or Not?

Decorated eggs are found in the spring celebrations of many cultures.

Image © Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images 2007

A Symbol of New Life:

In many cultures, the egg is viewed as the symbol of new life. It is, after all, the perfect example of fertility and the cycle of rebirth. In early Christian cultures, consumption of the Easter egg may have marked the end of Lent. In Greek Orthodox Christianity, there is a legend that after Christ's death on the cross, Mary Magdalene went to the emperor of Rome, and told him of Jesus' resurrection. The emperor's response was along the lines of "Oh, yeah, right, and those eggs over there are red, too." Suddenly, the bowl of eggs turned red, and Mary Magdalene joyfully began preaching Christianity to the emperor.

Pre-Christian Eggs:

Mary Magdalene and the red eggs aren't the earliest examples of eggs as a spring symbol. In Persia, eggs have been painted for thousands of years as part of the spring celebration of No Ruz, which is the Zoroastrian new year. In Iran, the colored eggs are placed on the dinner table at No Ruz, and a mother eats one cooked egg for each child she has. The festival of No Ruz predates the reign of Cyrus the Great, whose rule (580-529 b.c.e.)markes the beginning of Persian history.

Bunnies, Hares, and Ostara:

There are some claims that the original Easter eggs are Pagan symbols from Europe, but there's little evidence to support this. Instead, it seems to be a more middle eastern tradition. However, in Europe there may have been a goddess called Eostre, whose name gives us both Ostara and Easter. The Venerable Bede describes Eostre as a goddess with fertility associations, which loosely connects her to both rabbits and eggs. Author Jacob Grimm (of Grimm's fairy tales) suggested that eggs were a symbol of early European Paganism.

In some early cultures, the nocturnal hare was actually considered a symbol of the moon. In addition to feeding at night, the hare's gestation period is approximately 28 days -- the same as a full lunar cycle. In European folklore, the rabbit connection to eggs is one based on confusion. In the wild, hares nest in what is known as a form -- basically, a nest for bunnies. When the hares abandoned a form, it was sometimes taken over by plovers, who would then lay their eggs in it. The locals would then find eggs in the hare's form.

The character of the "Easter bunny" first appeared in 16th-century German writings, which said that if well-behaved children built a nest out of their caps or bonnets, they would be rewarded with colored eggs. This legend became part of American folklore in the 18th century, when German immigrants settled in the eastern U.S.

Today, the Easter business is a huge commercial venture - Americans spend nearly $1.2 billion a year on Easter candy, and another $500 million on Easter decorations each year.

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