On Gods and Chickens

Reader Cynthia writes in to ask a very cool question: why are eggs and chicks associated with Easter? They have no strict religious significance (i.e. they don’t occur in the Bible anywhere) so…what gives?

The reason I like that question is because just about everywhere you see it asked, the response is the same thin gruel of warmed-over paganism. The goddess Eostre etc., etc., symbols of fertility yadda yadda, cycle of renewal blabbity blabbity. It’s all so much thoughtless gibberish.

The reason we moderns have no idea why eggs and chicks have become synonymous with Easter is because we have no concept of life before industrially-raised chickens (and eggs). Much before World War II most eggs were produced on small farms via traditional methods, which pretty much meant leaving chickens to their own devices.

When you do that you don’t get eggs in the winter, as the hens stop laying from about November through to about March. Prior to the age of egg farms, when hens started laying again it was cause for celebration, sort of akin to raspberries coming into season. Easter is an early spring holiday, so it’s natural that Easter and egg-eating (and chick hatching) would all sort of meld together.

It’s sort of like the way us northern-hemisphere Christians celebrate Christmas with oranges. We don’t do it because the Great Mystical Minute Maid once told our pagan ancestors to do it, it’s because we’ve missed the taste of fresh citrus for months and suddenly they’re available. That is all.

14 thoughts on “On Gods and Chickens”

  1. W-e-e-l-l-l…

    While I agree all manner of New Age “history” has stuck itself onto this subject, I don’t think one has to think very hard to see a connection between an event of rebirth and a primitive symbol of birth. But some (as in this Wikipedia article) say more prosaically that eggs had to be used up before Lent:

    The Catholic Church (in case their opinion matters) says something similar:
    “Because the use of eggs was forbidden during Lent, they were brought to the table on Easter Day, coloured red to symbolize the Easter joy. This custom is found not only in the Latin but also in the Oriental Churches. The symbolic meaning of a new creation of mankind by Jesus risen from the dead was probably an invention of later times. The custom may have its origin in paganism, for a great many pagan customs, celebrating the return of spring, gravitated to Easter. The egg is the emblem of the germinating life of early spring.”

    But this nineteenth century French work says that people were coloring eggs at least since the Egyptians:
    ” L’usage des œufs de Pâque, dorés et colorés, semble être d’origine mazdéenne; mais il était aussi très répandu en Egypte, avant de s’être généralisé en Grèce et en Italie; cette généralisation de l’œuf de Pàque en Europe est de beaucoup antérieure au christianisme. – Voir Sbpp, Geschkhte des Heidenthums.”

    Somewhere (I have to go back and find this reference) I read that Easter eggs were already being made in France in Charlemagne’s time (which is also when you begin to see substantial evidence of communion wafers being made).

    1. Yo Jimbo!

      See above, what I wrote to Bronwyn earlier. I’m disputing none of this, not a bit of it. What I’m saying is that there’s a simple natural event that occurs each year (egg laying and hatching), one that chicken-observing humans all around the world recognize/use/dress up in different ways. Northern European pagans are just one of them. That being the case, the bright line that some people want to draw between the goddess Eoster and my peeps simply doesn’t exist.

      Additionally I’m pointing out that it’s our collective ignorance about the natural biology of chickens and eggs that makes us susceptible to intellectually lazy arguments like the one mentioned above: that a particular group of pagans (who happened to contribute a name to a significant Christian holiday) somehow were the first to perceive it and somehow own the symbolism of spring egg hatching. Ignorance on subjects like this make us susceptible to just about any “gee whiz” story that a columnist or blogger might feel like throwing at us…because we have no frame of reference.

      – Joe

  2. Also: some forms of Lenten fasting require abstaining from eggs, which means a *lot* of stored-up eggs at Easter.

    In general, if something exists, some theologian somewhere has probably made an analogy with it (like pastry: for basically all foods, someone somewhere has put it under pie crust?), and eggs are no exception (shell, yolk, and white representing the trinity, etc.). There is a reference to poultry in Matthew 23:37, but it’s not really an Easter-themed reference. “New life” physical/spiritual metaphors are all over the place, though, and eggs/chicks seem like they would be a very temporally convenient (spring!) example of new life. But who knows how things actually got connected?

    Any idea when chocolate bunnies surfaced?

    1. Chocolate bunnies…I’ll look into that, M! Thanks for the great comment!

      – Joe

  3. I think two different things are being addressed in this ongoing conversation.

    You’re right that the pagans did not invent the season of egg laying or the other natural things that happen at this time of year. Spring events will happen with or without religious involvement. So nature is exactly why eggs and bunnies are associated with this season. Your excellent point stands.

    Now, the warmed over paganism gruel you referred to only arises when speaking of the traditions surrounding this festival. I don’t think anyone is saying that the pagans literally invented bunnies. Of course not. But our modern day celebrations are derived from that ancient festival, at least in some of the traditions and even in name. Unless someone can explain to me how the word “Easter” has Christian, non-pagan roots.

    1. Hey Mike!

      Yes, check out what I wrote in reply to Brownyn just now (before I got your comment). But I’m not saying there aren’t pagan influences in Christianity. There obviously are. However I think it’s clear that there’s a whole lot more going on Christianity than merely the pagan frills. But the history sure is interesting!

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

  4. Well, also Christians used to fast from animal products like eggs and dairy during Lent So even without the hens laying for some of Lent, the eggs would rather accumulate. That’s why all the fancy ethnic Easter foods are loaded with eggs, cream, and fresh cheese.

    1. Very true, GL! There are all sorts of springtime egg and chick traditions, from cultures all around the world…which is exactly my point!

      – Joe

  5. The symbols of fertility etc explanation is really exactly the same as your explanation. The pagans celebrated fertility and renewal in Spring because that’s when all the baby chickens and bunnies and every other baby thing was being born.

    1. Yes but the way it’s commonly presented in the media puts the cart before the horse. It’s commonly asserted — or at least strongly implied — that we use chicks and eggs for Easter decorations precisely BECAUSE they’re pagan symbols. Pagans may have indeed used chicks and eggs as fertility symbols, but that fact is immaterial since the laying of eggs by hens in spring is a ubiquitous occurrence, like the rising of the sun in the morning. All sorts of peoples use and/or have used chicks and eggs as representation of springtime: pagans, Christians, probably Zoroastrians, Zen Buddhists and others. But you need not be religious at all to notice that early spring is when eggs and chicks appear again after winter. Any human being living anywhere would notice the correlation. Therefore to assert that Northern European pagans have some special claim to their use as a decorative motif is silly. It’s a sign, in my opinion, of the all-too-common intellectual laziness of the media.

      – Joe

      1. I have to say that I have never seen it claimed that we use eggs etc because they were pagan. I HAVE seen it claimed that the Christians appropriated the preexisting pagan spring festival as the date for Easter though. It makes a certain amount of sense that they would, but who can tell after this amount of time? Ditto Christmas and midwinter for that matter. Setting aside the question of religion, how likely is it that birth dates etc were accurately recorded for carpenters’ kids 2000+ years ago? And when you need a date for a festival, you may as well hijack something that people are already celebrating. Even the way Easter is calculated has much more to do with spring than it does the actual date of an event.

        1. I think you’re very right about that. There’s no doubt that the Catholic Church appropriated elements of different pagan traditions over time. However I certainly have seen it claimed that we use eggs as a decorative motif at Easter as a result of those pagan influences. It’s a common meme here, at least in the States. That’s really what I was getting lathered up about! 😉

          – Joe

  6. Concerning chocolate bunnies:

    Whitman’s Chocolates produced chocolate bunnies as a take on the German tradition of bunny-shaped pastries in the mid 1800s [1842, to be exact]. In 1890, Robert Strohecker was the first American shop owner to use a five-foot-tall chocolate bunny as an Easter promotion in his drug store. In 1916, Bortz chocolate factory began mass-producing the creamy confection. Around the 1930s, manufacturers started creating hollow chocolate Easter bunnies–supposedly because it was easier to bite into them than solid ones, and could be made by machine using less chocolate. [Rationing of cocoa and sugar during the Depression and WWII made that popular, apparently.]

    Now, who got the idea to coat matzah with chocolate, I wonder? Was it a concession to the Jewish kids who were deprived of the joys of nibbling on hollow chocolate bunny ears?

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