This weekend, families across the country and around the world will celebrate Easter with leg of lamb dinners, egg hunts and lots of chocolate bunnies. But how did lamb, eggs and chocolate become iconic aspects of the Easter tradition, much like turkey and cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving?
The tradition of eating lamb on Easter has its roots in early Passover observances before the birth of Christianity. According to the biblical Exodus story, the people of Egypt suffered a series of terrible plagues, including the death of all firstborn sons. Jews painted their doorposts with sacrificed lamb’s blood so that God would “pass over” their homes while carrying out the punishment. Accustomed to eating roast lamb on Passover, Jews who converted to Christianity continued the tradition at Easter. Additionally, Christians refer to Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” so it makes sense that the food shows up at the Easter table. On a less symbolic note, lamb would have been one of the first fresh meats available after a long winter with no livestock to slaughter.
Eggs have been a symbol of rebirth since ancient times, but it was Mesopotamian Christians who first adopted them as an Easter food. They were also the first to dye eggs, turning them bright red to represent Christ’s blood. Eastern Europeans took egg decorating to an art form, creating delicate wax relief designs in the shells to give to friends and family members. In the United States and Britain, eggs are dyed and used for hunts and rolls. (America’s most famous egg roll, which takes place on the White House lawn, began in 1878 as a pet project of first lady Lucy Hayes.) As egg decorating grew more popular, dishes like deviled eggs and hardboiled eggs became associated with Easter as a way to avoid wasting valuable food.
The custom of giving candy and chocolate for Easter, meanwhile, first appeared in the Victorian age. New technology, developed by the famous Cadbury factory in England, allowed manufacturers to create hollow sculptures made of chocolate, instead of painstakingly applying layer after layer of chocolate to individual molds as they had before. These new processes meant that higher-quality candies were available for a cheaper price, and the market quickly boomed: by 1893 the Cadbury company alone offered a whopping 19 different product lines for the Easter market.