Monday, April 25, 2011

The origins of the Easter egg: The Resurrection, St. Mary Magdalene, and the Lenten Fast

St. Mary Magdalene holding a red Easter egg

In the United States, it is common for children (and even adults) to partake in an Easter egg hunt as part of the Easter Sunday celebrations. In other parts of the world, the Easter egg tradition is incorporated not through games but through the blessing of eggs by the parish priest. Indeed, even in the secular world, the Easter egg could be the most prominent symbol used for the “holiday season”. But what is the origin of the Easter egg?
The egg as a symbol of the Resurrection
Probably the most well known explanation of the Easter egg today is the symbolic representation of the Resurrection. As the egg appears to be lifeless, yet holds much life within itself; so too, the tomb appeared to be utterly lifeless, but from it Christ arose. Of course, we mention here that there is a great difference in the way a chick comes forth from the egg and the way Christ came forth from the tomb – for our Savior walked through the walls of the sealed tomb.

St. Mary Magdalene and the Easter egg
There are numerous traditions which connect St. Mary Magdalene with the Easter egg. According to one account, the Magdalene had brought a basket of eggs with her to the tomb on that first Eastern morning. Upon reaching the tomb, at the angelic proclamation of the Resurrection, the eggs turned red. Another tradition connects the Easter egg with Mary Magdalene’s later preaching about the Resurrection.
The historical origins of the Easter egg traditions
Whatever we think of the symbolic nature of eggs and the traditions surrounding St. Mary Magdalene, the most likely origin for the modern tradition of the Easter egg is rooted in the ancient practice of the Lenten fast.
In times past (and still today in some places in the East), in addition to abstaining from meat, Christians abstained also from eggs and from all milk-foods (e.g. milk, cheese, etc.). Moreover, this fast was not only kept on every Friday, but was maintained on all days throughout the entire season of Lent. Thus, on Easter Sunday, the children (and, I am sure, the adults) were very happy to be able to eat meat and eggs again. This looking-forward to the end of the fast eventually developed into the tradition of the Easter egg.
Consider the following words from the Catholic Encyclopedia: “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.”
For more on why we fast from meat (and, in times past, also from eggs and milk-foods), consider our previous article.


Anonymous said...

Why did she bring eggs to Jesus' tomb? Is it a Jewish custom?

Brad said...

Nowadays hot cross buns are sold throughout Lent, alas. They include egg and butter, which are luxurious, fruit-of-the-animal ingredients that are meant to stop at Mardi Gras and resume with the Easter feast. But we live in a post-Christian age and the baker no longer knows or cares about his buns and Lent. He only hazily comprehends they are to appear in spring. And that's saying nothing about the cross that decorates them.

Therese Z said...

God bless the Eastern churches! They hold onto traditions so we can look to the past.

The Greeks bake a braided bread with red hard-boiled eggs pressed into the braids. There's your red eggs still in the celebration today!

See link at

Bernardus said...

Dear Fr. Reginaldus,
I cannot support the tradition of fasting and abstaining from eggs and dairy products during lent with hard supportive arguments for it. I can, though, remember that fasting in my family when I was growing up. Breakfast of toast with oleo (margarine) and jelly, lunch of plain tomato soup (or no lunch at all), and dinner of canned salmon with sliced onions and bread (We were (are) Eastern Europe dissent, Polish and Slovak but Roman Catholic). Then Easter morning after Easter Mass. My Polish grandfather blessing the table and food with a sprig of Pussy Willow drenched in Holy Water and tears welling in his eyes.
Thanks for stirring those memories.
You are in my prayers, please pray for me. A very Blessed Easter to you.

Trad Dad said...

God bless Brad ,the Easter buns used to have a sprinkle of bitter herbs , such as wormwood , through the cross on top . This bitterness was a reminder of Our Lord`s bitter passion , thus one of the preparations for the penitential season .

Anonymous said...

These traditions are very important and it is tragic when they fall into disuse. We need them to make spiritual truths manifest. We now have many traditions in the secular world that people adhere to "religiously" which are replacing the spiritual traditions. Does anyone know of the Black Fast on Good Friday? My mother would pour black coffee over Saltine crackers and eat that for breakfast on Good Friday. It always impressed me as a child.

Brad said...

Anon: my pastor emeritus recently told us that as a boy in Ireland his grandmother and her generation observed a black fast throughout Lent, which consisted of no food except dry toast and black coffee/tea. I believe he meant throughout the day and night, not just breakfast. Quite spiritually rigorous but nutritionally pretty reckless.

The Runcible Pen said...

A note on hot cross buns: they were originally intended for Good Friday. That's the day I bake them for my family (I'm English, living in a southern US city where nary a hot cross bun can be found).

Henry said...

Hot cross buns sold at my local grocery store in Indiana do not have butter, eggs or milk. I eat them on Good Friday with a cup of tea.


Marco da Vinha said...

In Portugal it is traditional to give sweet almonds for Easter, as well as a "folar" (a cake which has a hardboiled egg on top).

Anonymous said...

Re: "But we live in a post-Christian age"

We live in the Age of Christ and of the Church. This age will not end, not even when the Antichrist comes, but will last forever, in Our Lord.

Don't let your mind be swept away by trash talk like "post-modern" and "post-Vatican Council II" and "post-Christian" and other "post-" stuff.

Tribus Superbia said...

I had heard that St. Mary Magdalene was connected with the tradition of dying Easter Eggs, but the story as I heard it is that St. Mary Magdalene was in Rome and was taken before Caesar. Caesar told her that he would sooner believe that the eggs he was currently feasting upon could change colors than that Christ could be Risen from the dead. St. Mary prayed and the eggs turned a deep blood-red, confirming her faith before this non-believer.

I have no historical citation, as this was the story I heard in a sermon before the blessing of Easter Baskets of food, and I didn't ask the priest for his source material.

~Tribus Superbia

Magdalen Ross said...

While St. Mary Magdalen is sometimes depicted holding an egg, or contemplating a skull, she is traditionally shown holding an alabaster jar (from John 11:2, 12:3-8, Mark 14:3-9, and other passages in the Gospels). In this case, in the painting by Segna di Buonaventura, she is holding an ornate jar, clasping the base of it with her red cloak.

David Urbanski said...

I'm with Nick. If the Church has allowed change in the custom of our fasting, it's through wisdom, and in general it's no less Catholic, no less real, no less beneficial than when the fast was harder.

Besides falling prey to the notion of "post-Christian," we can also fall prey to the very human notion that more is better, harsher is better, least pleasurable is most beneficial. That sounds like Puritanical thinking to me.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

And yet, Pope Benedict XV lamented (in his day, when the fast was still much more than today) that there was such lack of zeal for penance and fasting during Lent.

I can't claim to love the poor and practice almsgiving, if I only give a penny (when I am a millionaire, say) ... neither then can I claim to love penance and practice fasting, if I don't make any significant sacrifice.

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